Racing: Culloty finds new direction without Best Mate

Four months after the death of the triple Gold Cup winner, his jockey tells Richard Edmondson of his fresh look at life
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It might all seem a little inglorious for Jim Culloty at the fast-approaching Cheltenham Festival, where the triple Gold Cup-winning jockey will dart between hospitality units, delivering bon mots and tips for the day.

But worry not for Jim, for he worries not for himself. His christian name fits easily with lucky, and that is how Culloty thinks of himself, as a fulfilled former rider, a happy young family man and now a trainer embarking on a fresh challenge.

True, the pressure and physical peril will still be there. Corporate audiences can turn nasty when the winners dry up before the drinks. However, Culloty is looking forward to returning to the acres where he and Best Mate achieved the heights which normally require an oxygen cylinder.

"I'm going to do a couple of boxes, which should pay the expenses for the week," he says. "I'm hoping the nice people in racing succeed. I'll be shouting for certain horses and not others. Like last year, when Mattie Batchelor had his first Festival winner [on King Harald] after he'd lost his mother and was in trouble with the Jockey Club. The stands might not have been shouting for the horse, but you should have heard the racket inside the weighing room."

Culloty's riding career was close to nonsense verse, as the man who never intended to be a jockey became half of the most celebrated racing partnership of the modern era and threw in a Grand National win on Bindaree for good measure.

Yet it was almost exactly a year ago that the life of a jockey started to unravel for Culloty. The Irishman was schooling horses for Henrietta Knight when Best Mate burst a blood vessel. "I was tacking up when Terry [Biddlecombe] came back and told me," he says.

Four months later Culloty was also damaged goods. After Impek had finished second at Market Rasen that was it. "I'd just had two falls for Edward O'Grady at Killarney on good horses which should have won. I got hung up on one with my foot stuck in the stirrup when the horse got up off the ground," he says. "I thought I was going to get dragged. When I got up I just thought: 'I'd rather be doing anything but this'. It was the final straw. I'd just lost the hunger. It went.

"I didn't want to go to Plumpton on a Monday, even if it was for a winner. I just had no interest. It sounds cocky, but I was bored with the job. I'd had plenty of injury and I was getting more concussions. I didn't want to end up brain-damaged. With a family you start thinking a little differently."

Culloty is married to Suzie, whose father, David Samworth, is chairman of the family's Melton Mowbray firm which specialises in pork pies and pasties and is worth around £200m. The couple have a one-year-old son, Art, for whom a sibling is expected in the summer.

When Mrs Culloty goes into the front room with the tea tray at the Mount Corbitt stables at Churchtown, Cork, she never finds her husband riding the arm of the sofa in front of the television. He has done all that. "I swear to God I have absolutely no regrets," Culloty says. "I look back thinking I had a great innings and was lucky enough to ride great horses for great people. I still love going racing and I still have craic with the lads. But I don't miss it.

"Before I was a jockey I was more interested in being a trainer. In the process of learning about horses I ended up riding in a few point-to-points. Then I ended up as a jockey, which I never dreamed I'd be. I was never a good enough rider."

It is the design of the accidental jockey to build up a stable of 30 horses, though Culloty knows he will never get one as good as the gelding he settled down to watch at Exeter on 1 November.

"I was looking forward to seeing the race, even though everybody was saying Best Mate was a three-miler running over two miles, two furlongs," he says. "If I was a betting man I'd certainly have backed him at 12-1.

"But when he started to struggle after a mile I could see there was something amiss. I thought he'd burst again. A friend sent me a text saying Best Mate was down by the last and they thought he'd broken a leg. That surprised me, because he was so perfectly made he wouldn't break a leg. Then someone phoned and said Best Mate's dead. He'd deserved a long, happy retirement."

Culloty recognises that the ride on Best Mate was like being carried along on a Persian carpet - swift, stellar and almost surreal.

"I rode him through his career, so, by the end, I probably did get on better with him than anybody," he says. "Above all, I consider I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.

"He was so aptly named because he was a best mate to a lot of people. He had what you'd look for in a best mate. He was dependable and honest. He deserved to be up where he was because he had the physique, the character and the honesty.

"He was a great horse, but I don't think I was a great jockey - just lucky enough to be the fella riding him."