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Deep sense of grief for treasured friend and colleague

Tom O'Ryan: had the respect of everyone from lads and lasses to the richest owners
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Even grown men cry. I admit I welled up when I heard the devastating news on Tuesday evening that Tom O'Ryan had passed away. He had been a friend and a colleague for more than 30 years.

Hundreds of others would have been feeling the same sense of grief for someone who was one of the most liked people on the racecourse. He lifted the image of the racing press to a new level, not just because he knew the game from both sides of the rails, but because he was a person of great integrity who had the respect of everyone, from the lads and lasses looking after the horses right through to the richest owners in the sport. There was no edge to him, he treated everyone in the same way.

It is a pity life didn't treat him in a similar way, for it has been a tough few years for him and his wife Wendy. Just over three years ago he suffered that horrendous accident when he was hit in the back by a flying fencing stake when cropping his paddock at home. 

Few of us will ever forget the moment when one of his many friends from Malton came into the Beverley press room that Wednesday night and said: "Have you heard about Tom?"

We hadn't, but gradually during the evening the full horror of the story began to unfold. We will never know the full extent of his suffering and rebuilding from that freak accident, but he never complained – he might have grunted an odd time as he moved to get more comfortable, but he rarely dwelt on his misfortune.

Tom was a man for the future. Even though he eventually had to bow to the inevitable that he should (not could) no longer ride out, he was always an integral part of Richard Fahey's team and was always savouring what was to come.

His tractor accident came just four years after another major crossroads in his life when his protege apprentice Jamie Kyne lost his life in the Malton fire.

In the young rider's funeral oration Tom described Kyne as "the son I never had".

Surprise win

My first recollection of Tom was when I saw an apprentice by the name of T O'Ryan (7) ride a two-year-old winner at Haydock Park back in the 1970s. If my memory serves me correctly, it was a wet, midweek, sparsely attended April meeting that would have been deleted fairly swiftly from the consciousness but for the fact that the winner was a 33-1 shot trained by the legend that is Peter Easterby, who also had the well-backed favourite in the race.

I can't remember where the other horse finished, but it was quite clear that Tom's horse was not expected to win.

He told the tale himself that as a glum-faced teenager he entered the winner's enclosure having got it wrong, and all Easterby said to him was: "For goodness sake, smile."

Tom, who was always so proud of his Irish roots, was a fair Flat jockey but he was probably a better journalist.

After increasing weight forced him to quit the saddle, Tom moved seamlessly into the writing side, beginning as a race-reader for Raceform. There was never a hint of ego, or a suggestion of "move over, I'm a former jockey" – he was quiet and efficient and, apart from the inevitable cigarette, you hardly knew he was around.

Some might have preferred it the other way, for he usually kept his cards close to his chest, although every now and then he revealed an ace up his sleeve.

One such occasion was in the press room one September week when he said quietly: "This could fall over and still win."

It didn't fall over, it won, and the name was appropriate – Utmost Respect. He started at 11-4 in the 26-runner Ayr Silver Cup and went on to win the Group 2 Duke of York Stakes.

Natural with words

Tom's first venture into full-blown journalism was as a feature writer and, in the days before emails, he would occasionally ring up and read over the opening couple of paragraphs to check it was sound. It was like the blind leading the sighted, Tom was a natural with words.

For a few years he covered the Breeders' Cup, penning fine portraits of some of the top people involved in the scene over there, but on one occasion it wasn't the most comfortable of experiences for him as he was sharing a room with Alan Amies.

Although a gentleman in daily life, ace race-reader Amies was a Group 1 performer in the snoring stakes. Being a light sleeper, Tom was forced to decamp to the bath until a pair of earplugs helped alleviate the problem.

Of all his many jobs and talents, Tom seemed happiest when he was in front of the camera. He seemed a natural, and worked both as a presenter and pundit. In a way he was too nice for punditry as he would never say a horse was a yak and had no chance. That wasn't his way, he always had something positive to say.

Tom was also a qualified jockey coach and there are numerous youngsters, and several not-so youngsters, who benefited from his tuition, although when he made a return to the saddle in the Doncaster legends race of 2011, things didn't go to plan as his mount took control. The close-up read: led and clear after 2f, headed over 2f out, soon lost place and behind. He finished a tailed-off last of 16 and when he went back into the changing room the jockeys had placed a clock on his peg.

Another of his talents was public speaking – one year he was a guest speaker at the Gimcrack dinner. The last time I heard him was last January when he gave the oration at the funeral of his former boss, the much-loved but somewhat eccentric Pat Rohan.

Tom got him spot on. It is rare that your hear spontaneous applause in a church, but we did that day.

Who could have foreseen that less than nine months later many of us will be back in that historic church that sits atop the crossroads in Malton paying our last respects to the very person who kept us spellbound for those 20 minutes.

It all seems so unfair.

Problem of small fields in novice chases

One of the major headaches in British racing are novice or beginners' chases. How do we increase field sizes and make them more attractive to punters and those who have horses able to run in them?

Nowadays only the top horses go down the novice chase route, the remainder run either in low-grade or novice handicaps.

Previously horses had to run in three novice chases in order to qualify for a handicap mark over fences; now they don't, they can go chasing on their hurdles mark.

So it is no wonder that novice chases have declined. If you have, say, a 120-rated hurdler there is no way you want to take on a 150-rated horse in a novice chase. You would have little chance of beating it and, if you did, you might come out rated 152, a rise of 32lb for winning just one race.

A few seasons ago there was a rule that in order to run in a handicap chase a horse had to run in a weight-for-age chase. That caused problems with young, green horses making their first appearance over fences against some potentially smart prospects. They had no chance of winning and so were sent out with the objective being to complete the course, but in several cases connections were hauled over the coals for not trying.

The idea was abandoned and now more novice and beginners' chases have been converted into novice handicap chases, so there are now fewer and fewer novice or beginners' chases, and with ratings ceilings on novice handicaps it makes it harder and harder to find races for the better horses.

My suggestion would be that horses who run in novice or beginners' chases can do so with the guarantee that the handicapper cannot raise them by more than, say, 10lb if they win, 5lb if they are placed, and not at all if out of the first three.

This would make them competitive events, for there would be no fear of a huge rise in the ratings if a 132-rated potential chaser jumps far too well and beats a 150-rated hurdler who is going chasing simply because it can't win over hurdles. It might be worth a try.

In a way he was too nice for punditry as he would never say a horse was a yak and had no chance. That wasn't his way, he always had something positive to say
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