If you needed any reminding of the precarious life of a National Hunt jockey then Ryan Mania can tell you a story that will knock your socks off. Two days, back to back, a Saturday and Sunday in April 2013.
On the Saturday, Mania becomes the first Scottish jockey to win the Grand National in 117 years when Auroras Encore triumphs at 66-1. Even now, he says, the victory was like an out of body experience, like it was somebody else riding Auroras that day, not him. Some of the greats – Peter Scudamore, John Francome – never won it. The greatest of all, Tony McCoy, won it at the 15th attempt. Mania did it in his first. “It’s almost like it didn’t happen, to be honest. I’ve watched it back a thousand times and it still doesn’t feel real.”
On the Sunday, he takes a fall in a handicap hurdle at Hexham and gets stood on by a trailing horse. Right in an unprotected part of his back. Direct hit. He doesn’t know what the pain of a gunshot wound is like, but he reckons it might be something akin to half a tonne of horse using you as a doormat.
He’s on the ground and can’t move a muscle. For a few moments he thinks he’s paralysed, then he starts to feel himself floating. Up he goes and now he’s looking down at himself on the grass, paramedics all around him, an air ambulance descending, a hospital put on alert. Incoming.
They bring him to Newcastle. It’s more or less 24 hours since he won the National at the age of 23 and now he’s lying in a bed. Mercifully, he’s recovering – and taking stock. From nowhere the images of two men jump into his mind’s eye. Peter Monteith is one. The trainer who gave him his big break in racing took his own life three years earlier. Campbell Gillies is the other. A jockey and close friend who died the year before while on holiday in Greece. “The one and only time I got emotional after winning the National was when somebody said that Campbell would have been proud of me,” he says.
A trippy time. When they checked him into the hospital they said he was a person of interest and gave him the name John Smith. That tickled him. A person of interest? Nobody bar a few supporters were interested in him before. Now he had TV crews outside the hospital and a newspaper journalist attempting to circumvent security to get to his room. “Madness,” he says in BBC Scotland’s This Sporting Life podcast.
‘Life got very tricky’
A couple of weeks ago, Mania rode Seeyouatmidnight to victory at Sandown. The day after, he won on Frimeur De Lancray at Catterick. Coming up for eight years after the greatest day of his life he’s riding better than ever and is happier in his own skin. There’s a gap, though, isn’t there? From the boy wonder of Aintree and the poor soul in that hospital room to what he is now, a happily married father of two, the eldest being a daughter, Aurora.
What happened after 2013? How did he become the person he is now? You might call this Act II. “Life just got very tricky, in my personal life and my racing life. It was all to do with my day-to-day struggle with my weight – it affects your mind, your mind is tired, you’re fatigued the whole time and it puts negative thoughts in your head and you just can’t cope with it.”
Mania was trying to make the weight at 10st 3lbs. That involved fighting a running battle with the scales. “You’re not eating, you’re in and out of saunas, you’re putting the body under so much strain. You’ve little energy and you’re expected to go out and handle this moving animal. The worst thing in the world for a jockey is to stand on the scales in the morning and be 7lbs heavier than you want to be. It’s like the world is ending, it’s horrible. And that was happening every day. It took its toll.
“I probably changed as a person. It made me miserable, grumpy. It’s like putting yourself in a bubble and you won’t let anybody in, you become very selfish. I didn’t like the person I was. Thankfully, it wasn’t for very long, I didn’t allow myself to behave like that for years, it was months, but had I continued the way I was going I’m not sure what type of person I would have ended up being.”
November 2014 was when he cracked, as he puts it. He weighed himself the night before a ride at Sedgefield. He was 11st, dead on. He needed to be 10st 7lbs by the next afternoon. “I went to bed and told myself that I’d be lighter when I woke up, but there was no change and that’s when I snapped, it’s when I realised I couldn’t do it any more. All the love of racing had been drained out of me. I needed to stop.”
This was a month before his 25th birthday. Looking back now he knows how naive he was, not just in the area of sports science but in bottling everything up.
Sports dietician key to comeback
Walking away gave him a chance to sort out his head and his life. He got married, had kids, ate normally and left the demons behind. His step father-in-law, the trainer Sandy Thomson, took him on as an assistant.
In the back of his mind was a question, though. ‘Will I regret it if I don’t go back?’ It nagged away at him more and more into 2017, 2018 and 2019. “I came to the view that I’m always going to ask myself the question, ‘What if?’ I felt that I would always look back and wonder if I could have done it again.”
He googled sports dieticians and up popped the name of Alex Neilan in Edinburgh. In one phone call he left Mania feeling like he could take on the world. He told him things about food that he never knew, he gave him a sustainable programme to follow, a pathway back to the saddle. Thomson offered him some rides and Sue Smith, trainer of Auroras Encore, backed him too.
In the autumn of 2019 he rode his first winner as a new man. Cavantara was no Auroras Encore and Kelso could never be mistaken for Aintree, but it was special. It told him that he could still do it and that he still wanted to do it. The buzz was the same. The rush? He can’t describe it.
Little Aurora arrived two-and-a-half years ago, a young lady with a cool story to tell about how she got her name. Once upon time there was a horse. That fairytale can’t be told to a finish just yet, of course. Her father, you sense, is only getting started. Still only 31, he’s completed a circuit and is heading out into the country again.