Danny Boy

There have been injuries along the way but winning the Galway Plate among a slew of top prizes in a matter of months as a 17-year-old suggest that with a bit of luck, this is a jockey destined for the top

Words: John O’Riordan • Photos: Caroline Norris

Prior to the 2022 Galway Festival, Danny Gilligan saw his apprentice claim on the flat reduced to 7lb, having just ridden his third career winner a fortnight earlier. Still in the early stages of his chosen profession, the Athenry teenager could scarcely have envisaged that 12 months on, he would partner the winner of the most high-profile race of the week, the Tote Galway Plate. Such has been the meteoric rise of the young man since switching codes that, aside from guiding Ash Tree Meadow to Ballybrit glory, he now finds himself sixth in the jump jockeys’ championship and thanks to Coko Beach, has just added the Bar One Racing Troytown Chase to a list of top prizes won in the last few months that also includes the McHale Mayo National on Tullybeg and the Liam Healy Memorial Lartigue Hurdle at Listowel on Samui, with all the aforementioned horses trained by Gordon Elliott.

National hunt racing is in Gilligan’s blood, with his father, Paul famously training a Cheltenham Festival winner in 2010. Although only in primary school at the time, it was a success that resonated with young Danny. “I can remember Berties Dream coming home after the race,” he recalls. “A good few people called to the yard to see him.” Despite all the euphoria, aspirations of one day gracing the hallowed turf of Prestbury Park in his own right, didn’t figure.

“At that time, I just wanted to be a jockey. Thoughts of riding in Gold Cups or Grand Nationals never came into my head.” At the time, Paul had a strong team of quality horses that also included One Cool Tornado and Grade 1 Power Gold Cup winner Jadanli. Given their upbringing, it was perhaps only natural that his sons Liam, Jack and Danny, would decide to forge their own careers within racing. Following the tried and trusted route taken by his elder brothers, Danny received his initial education on the pony racing circuit.

“I spent five or six seasons pony racing. Plenty of different people supported me and I rode a nice few winners. It was a great experience.” A season riding as an apprentice on the flat followed, something that Danny considered to be more of a bonus than anything else. It wasn’t that he had real difficulty with his weight, more a preference for the winter game. “Dad had national hunt horses at home, so I grew up riding those. It was great to get the time on the flat but jumping was always the plan.”

A first winner under Rules came at Leopardstown in June 2022, aboard Plunkett for trainer Paul Flynn. Gilligan is keen to acknowledge the support of the latter, a man who has continued to use him on his national hunt horses. However, while only marking time on the level, Danny made the switch at the earliest opportunity.

“As soon as I turned 17, I got the jumps licence, as my weight was starting to creep up. Plenty of people had said to me that if I was going jumping, I should go to Gordon Elliott. My older brother, Liam is someone I really look up to, so when he also advised it, I knew it was the right decision.”

Having finished his only full campaign on the flat with five winners, Gilligan added a further four in his opening season over jumps. For most young conditional jockeys starting out it can be a bit of a slow burn but that wasn’t to be the case for Danny. His success of the 2022/23 season soon pales into insignificance when compared with what the Galway man has already achieved this term to date. Circumstances dictated that with Elliott’s first- and second-, indeed third-choice jockeys (Jack Kennedy, Jordan Gainford and Sam Ewing) all unavailable through injury, his young protégé was thrust into the spotlight in the early months of the new season.

“While it was unfortunate for the lads who were out, I was lucky in that I fell in for those rides and it really got me going. I am very thankful to Gordon for giving me the opportunities despite my lack of experience.”

At a stage where he could easily have decided to use the best available, it is testament to the trainer’s faith in his own rider that he backed him. A win in the Listed Mayo National on Tullybeg towards the end of May in Ballinrobe was a first really significant success.

“It was a great day in the Mayo National. Aside from the big race itself, I also rode a double, just the second of my career (having recorded the first in Kilbeggan).” On a real high with his career on the up, the reality of being a national hunt jockey was soon brought home to him.

Leading from pillar to post, Gilligan and Ash Tree Meadow forced their chasing rivals into errors and recorded a memorable victory in the Tote Galway Plate

“I got a fall in Punchestown during the festival. A few weeks later the shoulder still hadn’t healed; it turned out I had a fracture”. Not long back from that particular lay-off, a broken collarbone in a subsequent fall put his appearance at the upcoming Galway Festival in some doubt. Being a local lad, who had grown up attending as a spectator over the years, that was the one he had really been looking forward to all year. Missing out was never an option, at least not in Gilligan’s mind.

“There was definitely an added incentive to get back. I pushed hard and was nearly begging the medical team to pass me fit.” Fortunately, all the hard work paid off, as not only did he make it back in time for the festival, Gilligan enjoyed his biggest success to date. A ride on the flat the Friday before eased concerns regarding his readiness, while a winner on the opening evening of the festival confirmed his recovery. The Elliott-trained Ash Tree Meadow went into the Galway Plate with solid claims, so Gilligan was anxious to partner the gelding.

“I was delighted to see my name on the race card next to him on the morning of declarations. I did kind of fancy our chances. He had a nice weight and had run well on his first run back after a break.”

Making all aboard the Alymer Stud-owned 13/2 chance, Gilligan kept enough under his sleeve as his partner stayed on strongly to win by two and a half lengths from Authorized Art. Winning the feature race at his home track was something that meant a lot to him.

“It was a really special day. Most of my family, friends and neighbours were in attendance. It’s nice to have it ticked off so early in my career.”

Another sharp dose of reality was to hit a week later however, with a fall at Downpatrick resulting in a cracked shoulder blade. Following a further spell on the sidelines Gilligan was back in action days before the Listowel Harvest Festival. He promptly rode race favourite Samui to win the Listed Lartigue Handicap Hurdle for Elliott.

With Kennedy, Gainford and Ewing all returning to the fold in recent months, Gilligan is well aware that he will now need to be patient, biding his time for the opportunities that come his way. However, with Elliott having been such a huge influence on his development over the past year, he has no doubt whatsoever that he made the right decision in going to Cullentra House. “Gordon has been a massive support to me from the very start. For a big trainer like him to put me up on his horses just fills me with confidence. Riding out in the yard is an education in itself, given the high calibre of jockey I get to work and school alongside.”

Apart from Elliott, he also singles out his parents Paul and Natalie, brother Liam and agent Garry Cribbin for their support. All those that used him pony racing, during his time on the flat and since going jumping are also thanked. In the short term, the conditional jockeys’ championship would be the main target this season, although, at the same time, he is conscious of not burning through his claim too quickly.

“Garry looks after me in that sense, as does Gordon. I’d say I won’t ride too many. It will be a case more of quality over quantity.”

With Elliott prone to claiming off classier horses in the bigger handicaps, there are certain to be plenty of chances for Gilligan over the coming months.