By Ciaran O’Donnell
Schooldays. It’s just gone 4.30 on Monday afternoon and Dylan Browne McMonagle is perched on the sofa at his home at Mountain Top in Letterkenny. He has one one eye on his dinner plate, and the other fixed firmly on the television in the corner. He’s watching the footage of the previous day’s racing at Porthall, Lifford, with local man, Collie O’Donnell on live commentary.
It made for nice viewing, as the 15-year-old Errigal College third year student landed five winners on what was the opening day of the North West Horse and Pony season. Five-timers don’t come around all that often. Then again, rising stars like young Dylan are a rare commodity, too.
He is a young man with the X-factor who’s destined for the bigger stage.
From September to March, Dylan devotes his time to boxing and earlier this year he secured the Boy 4 39 kg title at the National Stadium. In 2017, he was crowned North West Horse and Pony Champion Jockey after chalking up 37 wins. That tally also earned him The Irish Field National Champion Jockey 2017 for Horses Title.
Quietly spoken, yet chirpy and confident, Dylan says the boxing keeps him honest and focused during racing’s close season.
“Boxing helps me stay disciplined and helps keep the weight down as well which is really important,” he comments.
“I like boxing because of the fitness it gives me and I also enjoy the physical side of it. I like hard training. All these things help build up strength and it certainly gives me a wee edge over other riders, at least at the start of the season.”
Having blitzed the nine-race card along the banks of the Foyle on Sunday afternoon, Dylan is naturally upbeat about the new season.
His first mount was Let’s Dance and he was happy enough with third place. He then went on to take victory in five of the next eight races. His wins came aboard Barr Na Sraide (non-winners), Five Stone of Lead (148 cm), Four Stone of Lead (15 hands), Derry’s Pride (one-mile open) and Little Pocket Rocket (1 mile maiden).
“Barr Na Sraide,” he muses.
“I suppose she was a bit of a shock. We were hoping for a good run, but we weren’t expecting her to win like she did. There were a few good horses in that race,” he explains.
Last year’s day at the races in Porthall wasn’t just as memorable for the teenager. A tumble from one of his mounts after stringing a tidy hat-trick of wins resulted in a dislocated shoulder. He was also forced to look on from the other side of the rails for the subsequent five weeks.
Dylan has been riding since he was a toddler – his uncle, Adrian Browne, a brother of Dylan’s mother, Caroline, bought him his first pony, Barney, when he was aged just 2, as a Christmas present.
Dylan has been racing since the age of 9 and making headlines since with his natural ability in the saddle. His first ride was aboard Kipper, owned by Rachel Carton and he started his racing career with a win.
“It was a great day and I beat a 142 pony. I couldn’t believe I’d won. I just went into school as normal the next day and didn’t say a whole lot. But I really got the buzz from then.”
However, it was in August, 2015, when he propelled to national prominence after winning the prestigious Dingle Derby. As he recalls, the success came about more by accident than design over that fateful weekend at the famous Kerry racing festival.
“I had my first ride on an open class horse in Ballintra on the previous Bank Holiday Monday before we headed off for Dingle. The horse was Titanium and that was my first winner. That ride was for experience and I was just going to Dingle to enjoy myself and get the experience,” he says.
On the Friday night in Dingle, Dylan guided Let’s Go to victory in the Dingle Derby Trial. Let’s Go was a horse secured by Kilkenny jockey, Shane Foley. Dylan caused something of a sensation when he accompanied Let’s Go to first place in the Dingle Derby on the Sunday – and that was with carrying a significant penalty of 12 extra pounds. That day, Dylan weighed just 4 st. 12 lbs. These days, he weighs in a 6 st. 3 lbs.
“No one was expecting me to win that day and I suppose I shocked everyone. It’s coming three years, and it means more to me now, probably because I might never, ever win it again. At 12, I was the youngest ever winner. I was up against men of all ages. That is my best moment in the sport to date. One hundred per cent,” he declares.
Retaining his regional title and going one better at national level are Dylan’s main objectives as he continues to juggle horses with homework.
“I’m going to do my best to get a good apprenticeship and get signed on with a big yard. I want to pursue a career as a flat jockey.”
For now, the plan is to keep on winning. It’s a habit he’s got used to and a way of going he’s none too keen to give. He’s also keen to make it three successive Dingle champion jockey titles on the bounce, having won the crowns in 2016 with six wins and in 2017 with five wins, when he heads south during the latter part of the summer.
“I want to win as many races as I can and come home in the one piece every Sunday.”
So what does he put his winning knack down to?
“It’s all about the horse and the way the race pans out. It’s also about position and saving as much as you can to the last few furlongs. It’s knowing when to go and when to pace yourself. It’s about split second decisions,” he says.
Many people in the sport mentor, guide and support him as he continues raising the bar.
“I take advice from everyone and you’re always learning as you go along. You learn yourself during races. I look back on the DVDs of races and try to spot where I went wrong. If I left it too late on a horse, I will know for the next week that I need to go earlier.”
As the clock nears 5 pm at Mountain Top, it’s stable time. Dylan will travel to the stables at nearby Ballyare with his uncle, Adrian, who has just called to pick him up.
Ten horses will be collected and they’ll travel to Rathmullan Beach. On an average evening, Dylan will spend two and a half hours with the horses. This routine is repeated six days a week – the only day he doesn’t work the horses out on the sand is on racing day, usually a Sunday.
“I go to school for a rest,” he quips.
And yet, no one knows better than Dylan himself that every day’s a schoolday.
By Ciaran O’Donnell