Friday, May. 24, 2024

Ryan Has Chased Down A Record-Breaking Goal

This amateur reflects on trainers and horses who have helped him find his way to the top.

In a sport where most riders would be lucky to make it into their 30s, Colvin “Gregg” Ryan could be considered well past his prime.

Winning at the Middleburg Fall Races (Va.), Oct. 6-7, pushed the 47-year-old’s career victories to a whopping 144. Soon after that, he tied the record of 147 wins for an amateur after winning the allowance timber aboard Brigadoon Stables’ Erin Go Bragh at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, Nov. 4.
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This amateur reflects on trainers and horses who have helped him find his way to the top.

In a sport where most riders would be lucky to make it into their 30s, Colvin “Gregg” Ryan could be considered well past his prime.

Winning at the Middleburg Fall Races (Va.), Oct. 6-7, pushed the 47-year-old’s career victories to a whopping 144. Soon after that, he tied the record of 147 wins for an amateur after winning the allowance timber aboard Brigadoon Stables’ Erin Go Bragh at the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, Nov. 4.

The current record, set by the National Museum of Racing Hall of Famer Rigan McKinney, hadn’t been touched by other jockeys since Rigan’s racing career ended. An amateur jockey, McKinney raced from 1929 to 1939 and later became a trainer in Kentucky.

“I owe how long I’ve lasted in this sport to my tenacity, not talent,” said Ryan. “There have been times when I’ve questioned myself, wondering if it’s all worth it, but I want to keep going, keep
riding until I can’t.”

Raised in upstate New York, Ryan was introduced to the horse world by his father, John Ryan, an army cavalry officer during World War II. While Ryan enjoyed riding, he didn’t find himself committed to horses until he had a reality check while attending St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

“I was playing other sports, football and wrestling, and I just wasn’t really that good,” he said with a laugh. “I knew I needed to find something else, and I started riding steeplechase horses for people.”

Ryan’s racing career was given a boost when he was introduced to Jerry Fishback, of Camden, S.C., in 1980. Fishback, a leading steeplechase rider from the 1970s, began helping Ryan while he was still attending college, teaching him to ride hurdles and about horsemanship in general.

“I learned that you have to get a sense of rhythm, how to ride a finish and negotiating fences well gives a horse confidence,” Ryan said.

“He was very strategy-oriented, and many things he told me I still use today,” Ryan continued. “He taught me that the horse does 80 percent of the work, and if it’s not their day, you take care of the horse first. By taking care of your horses you protect yourself.”

Friend and trainer Mike Berryman said, “He really knows a sense of pace, when to make a horse go and when to hold it back, and that’s what makes him ride races so well.”

Ryan began racing his first horse, Close To Glory, in 1981 and enjoyed moderate success in his first six years, although he remembers it differently. “It took me six years to win 10 races alone!” he said with a laugh.

The early years provided him with ample opportunities to polish his riding, though. Lesser-known trainers sought out Ryan to ride their horses, and smaller meets gave him a chance to build his confidence.

“There were more race meets when I started, more opportunities for riders such as myself,” he explained. “I was just as delighted to win a $20,000 claiming race in Kentucky as any other kind elsewhere.”

Two Separate Jobs

He wasn’t spending all day riding horses either; Ryan worked straight out of college at a financial firm in Maryland.

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But the added stress only made him more driven to succeed. Between splitting his time at offices in Maryland and New York, Ryan made time to gallop horses before work.

“The riding gives me an escape from business stress; just because I have to work a little bit harder, that only makes me want to do it more,” he explained. “Besides, there are people depending on you to ride those horses, and even if there are days when I would not want to go, there are people that want me to do my job.”

Ryan’s dedication to the sport was evident in 1991, one of the best years of his career. He rode 15 winners to tie as second leading rider of that year, amateur or professional. The victories helped him score a spot to attend the International Jump Jockeys Championship in Australia, where he competed against seven other top jockeys from around the world.

“I had not really had a good spring before that, but going to Australia really helped. I won some races, and I learned so much from the other jockeys,” he said.

Ryan’s Horse Of A Lifetime

While particular wins may not stand out in Gregg Ryan’s mind, a specific horse does: Circuit Bar. Trained by Alicia Murphy, Circuit Bar was one of Ryan’s best partners from 1991 to 1997. A horse noted for his front running style and enormous jump, Circuit Bar and Ryan gathered 18 wins in their years together.

He was also a horse Ryan credited for bringing him back from a severe injury. In 1994, Ryan broke his back after a fall aboard Commanding Dance at the Marlborough Hunt Point-to-Point (Md.).

“I remember seeing a Christmas tree outside, after about two months of bed rest, and thinking it looked like a hurdle. I wondered if I would ever race again, let alone walk,” he said.

But Ryan’s perseverance had him back in the saddle and racing within five months of the fall. Returning to race on Circuit Bar, Ryan was utterly confident in the horse.

“He would only go for me that way; other people raced him, and he just wasn’t the same horse and wouldn’t win either,” recalled Ryan.

Ryan recognized the differences between jockeys in the United States and the international ones he met.

“They were older and more secure individuals; they had recovered from spills, won races, and they were just so good,” he said.

Returning home, Ryan took over his father’s financial firm, Lee and Mason, in 1993, but continued racing as much as possible, usually galloping at least seven horses before going to the office at 9 a.m. Not surprisingly, winning at Belmont Park (N.Y.) and Saratoga (N.Y.) are some of his fondest victories.

“I’ve always been lucky at certain places, like Foxfield [Va.], but winning at Belmont was great because I would gallop there as a kid,” he said.

Injuries are nothing new to a physically demanding sport such as steeplechasing, but Ryan’s ability to bounce back from broken ribs, collarbones and concussions is quite a feat to most in the racing community.

“I don’t know many people who would dedicate themselves to the sport the way Gregg does,” said fellow jockey Matt McCarron. “I remember in 1997, we were at Colonial Cup [S.C.] and Gregg took over a ride for Janet Elliot because Bitsy Patterson had been injured. He never sat on the horse before but went in and gave it a great ride and won the race.”

McCarron, in fact, was partly responsible for Ryan’s record-tying win. The day before the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, McCarron was injured. Trainer Doug Fout, of The Plains, Va., asked Ryan to ride Erin Go Bragh in the allowance timber. Even though he had fallen off in a race earlier that day on Hotspur, Ryan accepted the ride and remained unnerved. Jumping the last fence, Ryan pulled away for a finish by
2 lengths and win number 147.

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“I remember last year I had a spill at Colonial Downs [Va.], and I thought maybe going after the title was not meant to be, because I’ve felt like it’s been a struggle in the past few years,” Ryan remarked. “I was six races away, and I wasn’t sure if I could do it to my body with winning only one race a year.”

McCarron knew Ryan would achieve his goal though. “This is something Gregg has set his sights on for a while, and whatever he sets out to do, he accomplishes it,” he said.

While Ryan collected more wins as the season progressed, he had high praise for each horse’s ability. “I ride such great horses for people, but sometimes it’s like a Porsche and a Volkswagen; even if the Volkswagen is fast, it’s not going to beat a Porsche,” he said. “But I’ve been taught no matter what, you give a horse a good ride, and a good jockey knows how to make the best horse win.”

A New Focus

Ryan’s passion for horses carries over into foxhunting as well. Growing up, he foxhunted with his father, who was Master of the Greenville County Hounds (N.Y.). Ryan’s father was close to Gordon Wright, who took an interest in Ryan.

“I remember Gordon saying to me, ‘If you have two riders, and one is talented but not the hardest worker, and someone else is more driven, in the long run the driven person is going to win the race,’ ” said Ryan.
Ryan continued hunting throughout his life with the Tryon Hounds (N.C.), having earned his colors with Green Spring Valley Hounds (Md.) when he was 14. He has also been a member of the Piedmont Fox Hounds (Va.) for the past five years.

Currently Master of the Snickersville Hounds (Va.), Ryan spends his time hunting with his wife, Linden Wiesman, on Wednesdays and Sundays on Dorothy Smithwick’s land. “I pay attention to the hound work, because once they’re your own hounds, you realize how quickly they can get lost,” he said.

Ryan and Wiesman find new careers for their horses in the hunting field; Ryan can be found on one of his ex-race horses, and Wiesman whips-in on her former Rolex Kentucky mount, Primitive Gold. “He’s good about everything, but he still doesn’t like it when I crack the whip,” she said with a laugh.

Being married doesn’t slow down Ryan’s pursuit of breaking McKinney’s record, either. Wiesman, a bronze medalist in three-day eventing at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, encourages her husband. “It’s perfect that we’re married, because if I backed down she would say, ‘I married a steeplechase jockey!’ ”

While highly ambitious and driven to succeed, Ryan recognizes his passion as one that is competitive, but fun. “Not everybody is going to be as persistent as me, but no jockey has had as much fun in this sport
as I have,” he said. “Competing against
professionals all the time can make you want to bang your head against a wall, but you have to remember to just enjoy it.”
And while steeplechasing has given much to Ryan, he is happy to do everything he can to improve the sport even more. “He’s really involved with how things should be done, and he’s a huge advocate to improving safety,” McCarron noted.

Ryan wants to see more opportunities for amateur riders, much like he had when he began his career. “In order to ride in this country now, for any of the disciplines, you basically have to work full time for a trainer,” he said. “How many real amateurs are there? I want riders to have opportunities; that’s why I’m still racing at 47, because I had a chance to work and ride and take my time.”

Ryan’s devotion to steeplechasing has impacted many jockeys, McCarron included. “I learned a lot from him early in my career; he took me under his wing.

He would talk things out and was introspective as to how things should be done,” McCarron said.

There’s no doubt Ryan will be around to continue mentoring fellow jockeys. “It’s been an honor and pleasure to ride with him for so long,” McCarron said. “I don’t know if you’ll ever meet anybody like him in steeplechase races.”

Berryman added, “I’ve known Gregg for a long time, and to me he’s always been a horseman first. He will do anything to help a horse, during or outside of a race.”

But even with all the wins he has amassed and accolades he’s received, Ryan reflected, “They get a little more special as you get older. Racing makes you humble, because even if you win, there’s going to be a race right after you.”

Beth Johnson

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