Toast of New York's incredible journey back to the races after a three-year break has drawn a lot of attention. The 7-year-old is now in Louisville being primed for the Breeders' Cup, begging the question: “Do we believe in fairytales?”
Jimmy McCarthy, the man who has been “Toast's” transatlantic traveling companion throughout his career, suggested it's an achievement for the horse to even have made it to Kentucky.
“It's a fair credit to him as an individual,” said McCarthy, his lilting Irish brogue a warm sound on the relatively cool morning at Churchill Downs. “He's got a great story to him.”
Then McCarthy looked down, doing his best to hide a cheeky smile.
“Then again, we wouldn't be here if we didn't think he belonged,” the ex-jockey said, more than a hint of pride in his voice. “I've ridden enough to know that horses like him don't come around that often.”
The same could be said of McCarthy: riders like him don't come around very often. His fiery red hair has grayed a bit now, and he's so quiet you might just walk right past him in the shed row. However, its fair to say that 28 years of experience in the saddle have lent him a unique, invaluable perspective into the minds of the racehorses he cares for.
McCarthy grew up on a dairy farm in rural Ireland, where his father gave him every possible chance to learn about horses. He started out riding in Pony Club, then graduated to “flappin',” or pony racing. The races aren't officially recognized, but they are extremely common events most often held across people's fields in the countryside.
From there, McCarthy applied to the local jockey school but came up just short of earning a spot in the apprenticeship program. Rather than allow his son to give up, McCarthy's father made a call to one of the leading trainers of his time, Liam Browne; the veteran was also well-known for developing young riders into jockeys.
Browne offered McCarthy a month-long trial period in his yard at the Curragh, and McCarthy ended up serving the entire three years of his apprenticeship under Browne's tutelage.
“He was a hard man to work for; hard, but fair,” McCarthy recalled. “If you'd served your three or four years with Browne, you could work anywhere for anyone.”
McCarthy spent three more years as a jockey for a smaller trainer in the UK but started to get “itchy feet” and decided he either needed to find new work or start traveling around the world in search of his “big horse.”
He landed in Lambourn, England with Oliver Sherwood, a trainer primarily focused on jumps racing.
“I didn't really intend to be a jumps jockey,” McCarthy said, laughing. “Most things that have happened to me have happened to me by accident.”
It was in Sherwood's barn that McCarthy first met Jamie Osborne. Osborne was riding first call for the trainer during the time that McCarthy was serving his jumps jockey apprenticeship – his “conditional” license. The two became fast friends.
Osborne retired from the saddle in the early 90's at the relatively young age of 30 and transitioned into a training career. McCarthy kept on riding.
Asked about his jumps jockey career, McCarthy brushes off the subject with self-deprecating humor: “I put one leg on either side pretty well, I suppose… I survived it.” He's being modest.
During a 23-year career in the saddle, McCarthy won nearly 500 races, including a Grade 1 in 2009 at the age of 39. He finally decided to retire in 2013 following a win with the horse who'd given him that G1 victory, Ogee. Throughout his career, McCarthy never suffered any serious injuries; his longest stint away from the races was just three weeks.
“I don't know if that was from good judgement, dumb luck, or just because I was a chicken,” he laughed.
(Spoiler alert: any person riding Thoroughbreds at speed over obstacles had better not have a scared bone in their body, or else they don't last very long.)
Over the last few years of McCarthy's career, Osborne was “constantly pestering” him about retirement. McCarthy spent the summers riding for Osborne in the mornings, and the trainer knew what an asset it would be to have his old friend in the barn. Eventually Osborne convinced McCarthy to “fill in” part-time as his assistant trainer/foreman, and it wasn't more than 18 months later that McCarthy took up the position full time.
“I've learned to be patient,” said McCarthy. “I'm quite laid-back, even though a lot of people probably wouldn't believe that. The hard part is managing the people, just like anywhere else. At the end of the day, I'm employed to do a job… But I haven't actually sacked anyone, so I must not be that bad!”
It helped that McCarthy had just become the father to twin boys; Thomas and James were six months old at the time of his official retirement. McCarthy said he doesn't miss race-riding because he got out on his own terms and he knew he “had more riding in front of me than behind me.”
Don't tell Toast of New York that. McCarthy has been his regular work rider nearly every day since his 2-year-old season. He has traveled with the horse everywhere, from the races in Europe to Dubai, where Toast won the UAE Derby, and to New York, California, Florida and now Kentucky.
As a 3-year-old, Toast of New York ran a good second in both the Pacific Classic and the Breeders' Cup Classic, on two different surfaces (synthetic and dirt, respectively). A tendon injury then forced his retirement to stud duty in Qatar, but he only covered a handful of mares. In 2017, Al Shaqab made the unconventional decision to send Toast back to the races.
Despite a three-year hiatus from the track, Toast of New York won his first start back, an allowance race at Lingfield. The horse was then enticed to Gulfstream for the 2018 Pegasus World Cup. It was a bit much to ask with just one race under his belt, and Toast wrapped up after six furlongs to coast home behind the field.
Near the end of April, Toast of New York was gelded, and he shipped across the Atlantic again to get a race over the track at Churchill Downs before the Breeders' Cup. He ran a legitimate second to multiple G1 winner Mind Your Biscuits in the Lukas Classic last weekend, and after the race Osborne indicated that Toast would stay in Louisville to train toward the Breeders' Cup. A specific race has not yet been identified.
McCarthy has been with him all the way and will stay with Toast for the next four and a half weeks in Kentucky. He takes care of the gelding from start to finish every day by himself, including feeding, grooming, walking and exercise-riding.
“I guess you'd say he's my favorite,” said McCarthy, grinning. “He's been a great friend to everybody these past few years.”
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