Growing up in Dublin, Ireland, James Graham knew early on that horses were his passion. When he struggled in school, he jumped at the chance to go through an apprentice riding program. “It's been straightforward ever since,” said Graham.
The 35-year-old came to the U.S. in 2002 and rode his first winner a year later at River Downs in Cincinnati. Since then, he has won nearly 2,000 races and collected earnings close to $60 million. He has multiple graded stakes victories in addition to riding titles at Arlington International and Fair Grounds. This year, he ranks fifth among all jockeys in starts with 1,298, is winning at an 18% clip, and has earned more than $6.8 million. He tops the jockey standings at the current Fair Grounds meet in both wins and earnings.
I caught up with Graham (@James_D_Graham on Twitter) recently.
In your riding experience, what's the most important attribute a Thoroughbred can possess — the thing that maybe separates a good horse from a great one?
I would say the want to win. Even if things don't go their way, great horses will overcome that because they want to win.
When you're “in the zone” and riding well, what is usually going right for you that leads to success?
Well that's easy, everything!
Conversely, when you hit a slump, how do you try to get yourself out of it?
I just try to stop trying to make things happen. Sometimes it helps not to overthink things and just throw the reins at it.
Let's say you're riding an average horse in a field of equally average horses. What can you do as a rider to perhaps be the difference between winning and losing?
I just try to fill that horse with confidence. If you ride a horse with confidence they normally jump up and run big.
What approach do you take to using the whip?
It depends on the horse!
How do you prepare mentally and physically for racing? Do you have any superstitions?
I like to go over the form of a horse, watch replays and look at the other horses in the race. Physically, I go in the sauna to stretch and relax. As far as superstitions go I don't like to wear brand new silks, it's bad luck. If I get new silks on my locker I'll put them on the ground and stamp on them, then put them in the dryer for a few minutes!
What do you like to do on your off days?
I like to go fishing and take my kids to ride their pony.
What's your favorite sport/team that doesn't involve horses?
New Orleans Saints.
I know a jockey's got to watch his weight, but if you do get a chance to indulge, what meal do you like to order?
Steak (a big one) and fries.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
Hard work pays off.
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