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Dedication and loyalty testament to a man with many a tale to tell; Julian Muscat meets Reg Hollinshead stable staff member Frank McMahon, whose 65 years in the game were recognised at the recent HWPA Derby awards.

PMercer as a fascinating experience. The beleaguered BHA chairman sat back while the retired jockey spun him yarn after yarn with his trademark charm.

Should Roy care to repeat the experience he should sit with Frank McMahon, winner of the D'Avigdor-Goldsmid Trophy for stable staff at the recent Horserace Writers & Photographers Association 'Derby' awards.

Like Mercer, McMahon is a racing veteran with an encyclopaedic memory. Yet while Mercer is entitled to dwell fondly on a career that saw him crowned champion jockey in 1979, McMahon reflects with equal affection on a life lower down the food chain.

For the last 39 years McMahon has worked at Reg Hollinshead's Staffordshire stables. In the majority of them he has helped out where he can - in particular by encouraging the stream of apprentices for which the stable is renowned. He considers himself fortunate to have learned from some of the sport's true gentleman and wants to repay in kind.

"I've always loved working with the kids more than anything else," McMahon says. "I'd do anything on God's earth to see them get on, and the good ones don't forget it. They always stop for a chat when I see them at the races" The kids to which McMahon refers are now anything but. "People like Walter Swinburn and Kevin Darley, who were here together as young boys. And one who always says hello is Jonjo [O'Neill]. He used to ride a horse I looked after called Out Of The Gloom. Didn't do a bad job either."

McMahon, 78, knows a thing or two about riding success himself. A leading apprentice, he partnered more than 100 winners in Britain and Ireland where, aged 12, he started riding out before he went on to school. When class was dismissed in mid-afternoon he would return for evening stables.

He got further than most who aspire to become jockeys, yet when asked to reflect on 65 years in the game he dwells exclusively on his formative years when senior riders dispensed lessons on how he should carry himself through life. It was almost more important than success in the saddle.

It's a difficult era to envisage now. It was certainly feudal: trainers treated apprentices as Charles Dickens depicted his street urchins in Oliver Twist. Young wannabes were literally kicked into shape, and were ultimately grateful for it.

"I worked for some tough people," McMahon says, "but I learned a lot. "When I worked for Ginger Wellesley in Kildalkey [County Meath] we lived in a dormitory with no electricity, just candles. We drew our water from a hand pump in the side of the wall."

This was in the 1950s, only a decade before Neil Armstrong would take his first steps on the moon. Yet life in rural Ireland at the time is best portrayed by a tale McMahon recounts of his favourite horse, The Bug, who escaped from his box and ran loose around the lanes of Kildalkey.

"A policeman brought him back," McMahon recalls. "The horse had no tack on him, so the man unfastened his bootlaces and made a headcollar out of them to lead him home."

McMahon arrived in Kildalkey with a rudimentary knowledge of riding. One of nine children raised in Dublin by non-racing parents, he became fascinated by the sport from sitting on the wall surrounding now-defunct Phoenix Park racecourse and watching the action unfold.

HE'D already had one rude awakening when he persuaded a local trainer that he could ride when he could do nothing of the sort, and was inevitably carted. However, it wasn't long before he started catching the eye.

"One time, in the days of starting tapes, Wellesley put me up on a dirty devil of a horse he fancied called Entree," McMahon reflects. "He was being difficult at the start but I knew that if I gave him a slap he would drop me to the floor.

"Of course, I got left," McMahon continues, "and when I came in Wellesley hit me across the back of the neck with the saddle. I was distraught, so I got a lift to Dublin on the back of a hay lorry and stopped at home with my mother."

A few days later he was mortified to see the trainer's Jaguar draw alongside the house. The Honourable Gerald "Ginger" Wellesley, a relative of the Duke of Wellington, had a booming voice, and in no time McMahon was strapped into the front seat bound for Tramore, where Wellesley had declared Entree for another race.

"I was trembling all the way there, wondering how I would get the horse to jump off with the rest of them," McMahon says. "The starter's assistant said he would give the horse a whack with his Long Tom but no sooner did he raise it than the horse bolted. I was eight lengths in front after a furlong and out of control, but we trotted up."

McMahon's sense of recall is so vivid that his voice can barely keep up. He addresses you directly with piercing blue eyes as he tells of 12 years in Staffordshire with Bob Ward - who was eventually warned off for life - before joining Hollinshead in 1972.

His respect for Hollinshead knows no bounds. He refers to all his other employers as "the boss", whereas Hollinshead is "the guv'nor". He describes the genial 87-year-old as "the gentlest man in racing, the most respected, and one I used to ride against all those years ago. I've had 39 very beautiful years here and will hopefully work here until I go to the grave."

Today, McMahon is out in all weathers, checking over horses who have run the previous day despite a run-in with cancer and the impost of two tumors lodged in his bowel. They sometimes force him into hospital when the pain becomes too intense, although he still has plenty to live for.

There's his wife Beryl, with whom he recently celebrated 50 years of marriage. There are his two daughters, Mandy and Melanie, and the latter's two daughters, Niamh and Imogen, for this devout family man to dote on.

It was, he maintains, an honour to receive the stable staff award at the Derby lunch from Henry Cecil. And he reflects wistfully on the opportunity he spurned ("out of cowardice; I felt secure with Wellesley") to join Vincent O'Brien when the Ballydoyle stable was in its infancy.

That might have taken McMahon's life down an entirely different path. Yet he harbours no regrets, thinks only of how fortunate he is to have joined up with Hollinshead, a man whose values mirror the standards McMahon has always set for himself.

One thing that shone through when McMahon spoke at the Derby awards was his complete integrity. So there is reason to raise a glass when he says he couldn't be any happier. A finer ambassador for the best things in racing would be hard to find.


Frank McMahon at Reg Hollinshead's Staffordshire stables; (below) with the veteran and evergreen trainer
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Dec 16, 2011
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