When Irish jockey Thomas Foley immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 at the age of 17 his dream was to become a professional jockey, but he soon found out the world of professional horse racing is no place for dreamers. Next month he’ll launch his autobiography and appear alongside screen legend John Malkovich in Disney’s big budget horse racing film Secretariat. He talks to CAHIR O’DOHERTY about his journey to the abyss and back.
Somehow, without meaning to, you can travel far from the life you thought you’d live and the person you thought you’d become. It can happen to anyone, but the trick is to notice when it does.
For Irish jockey Thomas Foley, 30, the day that changed his life came unexpectedly, when he ran his final professional race on a horse he knew wasn’t in great shape.
That day Foley, still young, good looking and in peak shape himself, got on Laurel, his horse at the Charles Town racetrack in West Virginia, for the seventh race of the day. It was a small track and the race was an unheralded claming one for a purse of $4,000, about as low as you can go at the professional level, and there was no need to think much more about it, he imagined.
But as the race unfolded and the horses were nearing the quarter pole, Foley heard the loud snap that all professional jockeys dread. It was, he said, like looking out your car window and seeing one of your tires flying by.
But instead of falling the tough old trooper Laurel stayed up, thanks to adrenaline and the medication pumping through his system, thereby protecting Foley from near certain death.
“His knee shattered, he was done,” Foley tells the Irish Voice, “But he didn’t want to take me with him.”
Later though, as he watched the state vet load Laurel onto the horse ambulance, something inside Foley that had slept for years awoke again. It only took a second, but it completely changed his life.
Foley knew what lay in store for the horse -- a quick van ride, an injection of pink juice, oblivion -- and he didn’t flinch. It wasn’t until he heard one of the nearby trainers say, “It isn’t so bad, we needed to make room for some better horses anyway,” that he wanted to beat the guy with his whip.
“I realized they would be talking about me like that too one day, maybe one day soon. Because there’s always some other lad who will show up in the morning,” says Foley.
He was so agitated by what he had seen that he needed a cold shower just to calm down. Laurel had been so brave, he had carried Foley safely to the finish line, and if Foley could see that why couldn’t the trainer?
The questions got even sharper then. How Foley had become a stranger to his own children, riding professionally every day for people who didn’t give a damn about horses or jockeys? How could had it have come to this, he wondered?
Originally from the village of Lorrha outside Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, Foley showed an early interest in horses and was lucky enough to get training from some of the best known riders and breeders in Ireland, including Ruby Walsh, the reigning Irish National Hunt champion jockey.
“Ruby told me a good summer in America would help me tighten up and learn a lot of things about horses. I eventually got a call from a guy here inviting me out to ride over jumps and I thought -- I was just 17 -- sure why not. So I arrived in Virginia and it was night and day compared to Tipperary.”
When he landed in the U.S. for the first time he was culture shocked. “When you don’t know about other people and other cultures you don’t have a clue. I might as well have landed in Mogadishu. I was 17 when I came and I turned 18 that summer. And I really wanted to get going as a jockey,” he says.
Foley couldn’t believe his luck to be offered good money to do a job he already loved. “When you’re young you don’t care what you’re riding as long as you get the chance,” he says.
“I told my parents I would go out for two weeks to America and then everything changed. When you’ve spent years dreaming of riding at professional level it’s a dream come true when you can.”
The weather was better and so were the women, Foley says.
“When you’re riding races no matter how bad or good you’re doing the women like you, and the more you win it seemed the more of them show up. You had to handle a lot more of them but I was up for an education,” he says.
Foley had gotten married at 22 and found the endless temptation off the racetrack hard to resist, particularly as he was travelling to so many different venues for each race and his young wife stayed home.
“I thought since I was making money and paying the bills she’d be grand with that. She wanted someone at home. By the time I realized that was not what was important it can be too late, and maybe in my case it was,” he says.
Soon Foley was the father of three young boys, and in his private moments he was worried about the future. After all, you can’t be a jockey forever.
At his peak he was racing 1,000 races a year. But his love for the sport was continually being eroded by the dodgy practices other professionals taught him.
First and foremost was the controversial practice of “flipping.” It’s something most professional jockeys do to keep their weight down to the optimum level -- they eat and then throw it up. And it often results in becoming bulimic in the process.
“The other jockeys showed me how to do it. They even showed me that there are special ‘flipping’ bowls in the dressingrooms of nearly every racetrack in the country because everyone’s at it,” he says.
“Everyone looks the other way too. But it really does mess your head up and it wrecks your system. In the end all you think about all day is when you’re going to eat and when you’re going to get rid of it. It took me so long to kick that destructive habit.”
Between seeing horses put down, losing his closeness to his three sons, seeing his marriage end in divorce and forgetting why he even wanted to be a jockey in the first place, Foley finally reached a crossroads.
“I remember meeting the three boys after not seeing for a long time and they’d shot up, and it was like, where the hell did you come from?” he recalls.
To vent and get things off his chest, Foley started writing about his life on Facebook. Around the same time last year he noticed an ad looking for jockeys for Disney’s upcoming movie Secretariat, which looks at the amazing journey of the super horse Secretariat as he won racing’s golden prize, the Triple Crown, in 1973.
It was a long shot but he thought why not and auditioned. Two days later he was stunned to find out he got the part.
Being cast in Secretariat meant having lunch with the film’s legendary star John Malkovich, who wanted to meet Foley prior to their scenes together. “He’s famous and wanted to make sure I wasn’t put off by that when we filmed together. But he was sound as a bell and couldn’t have been nicer,” says Foley.
Nights out involved karaoke with Kevin Connolly from HBO’s Entourage, and the fun was so great that Foley now has a taste for acting and its perks.
“On set you couldn’t have met sounder people. And now, along with my book The Simple Game: An Irish Jockey’s Memoir, I’m back in training -- I’m not riding again though -- and I’m co-writing a new TV series about the racing life with a friend. Hopefully we’ll pitch it for production and we’ll see.
“It’s been an interesting journey and I’m still only 30 so far. Hopefully there’ll be a lot more to it.”
The Simple Game: An Irish Jockey’s Memoir, is published by Caballo Press. Secretariat opens on October 8.
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