It’s January 22nd 2019 and County Kildare man Robbie Downey is sitting alongside fellow Jockey and friend Leigh Roche in the departure lounge of Mumbai Airport. The pair are waiting to board a flight to Kolkata and as they do so Robbie thankfully takes the time out to return a WhatsApp call I made earlier in the day.
Downey arrived in India two months previously in November for their winter season, not knowing what to expect and leaving the safety net of his family and friends many thousands of miles behind him. And though there was always going to be a certain amount of fear and trepidation, he took the jump, feeling he had nothing to lose; “Ahh yeah to be honest I felt the timing was right. Things had gone a bit stale at home and I had moved to England for a short period but this was something that I always felt I wanted to do so when the opportunity arose I grabbed it with both hands. I am grateful Leigh is over here as well as it could be a lonely place without a familiar face. ”
“I came here in November for their Winter Season. Coming over was a bit of a shock, one of my first thoughts were oh no what am I letting myself in for, this reaction hit as the plane began to descend into Mumbai. I could start to smell the river as it flows out to sea and the unbearable stench of the sewage coming from it. When we hit the city of Mumbai itself for the first time the first things I noticed were the people everywhere, the constant noise and the heat that just hit us when we got out of our taxi. Walking through the city I found there is so much pollution, mainly from the fumes of the exhausts and to be honest I found it hard to breathe at times. In fairness though we found out pretty quickly that the lifestyle is okay for jockeys over here. I found that the natives around Mumbai are either really rich or really really poor. It was a wake up call to see people starving to death on the side of the road. It woke me up and made me realise how lucky I actually am.
“I’m contracted to ride for three owners over here. Milan Luthriaho is a movie producer at Bollywood, Mokul who sells gold and another wealthy man who owns a hotel. My trainer Imatiaz. A. Sait has trained over 2,000 winners in India. He’s an elderly man with about forty five horses”Downey went on to explain how his weeks can get pretty hectic; “Ah yeah the weeks are busy. For example on Sunday there I had a winner on ‘Free Gold’ and had track work at 5:45 the next morning. We start at 5.45am and finish around 9am and we ride out twelve horses each morning for track work. Basically I work everyday unless I’m away riding in different cities. Then as you can imagine most of your time is taken up with travelling, given the size of the country”
It’s not all work for the pair though as his mood relaxed a little when he spoke of his down time; “We are mainly based in Mumbai. When I say we I mean myself and Leigh. We live together in a five star hotel called the Imperial Club. It’s an unbelievable place. The hotel is massive, I’d say they are the two tallest buildings in Mumbai. We don’t get up to a whole lot in our spare time. The temperatures are in the early 30s at the moment so going out in it during the day is almost unbearable. We sit around most of the time and spend a lot of time in the leisure centre just resting up”
Hydration, Food and Weight
“It’s starting to get hotter here now. Towards the end of February and early March it will push on towards the late 30s and we’ll be riding in that so we will have to be drinking a lot of water daily to stay hydrated.Regarding food, my aul stomach hasn’t fully adjusted yet. Luckily in our hotel there are a lot of continental dishes so we usually just avail of what’s going there. We haven’t really braved the local cuisine yet. It’s not even the fact that we don’t like it, I think it’s more so the fear of having a dodgy tummy after it. The weights are that light over here that we wouldn’t really eat that much anyway and you wouldn’t have much of an appetite in the heat. It would be more about keeping the fluids onboard.Keeping the weight down is harder for me than it is for Leigh. He’s a small lad, a lot smaller than me. The weights are still light for him but he can do them a lot easier. I have to starve myself a little more. It just helps that it’s hot over here. Like you could lose 2lb easy going out for walk or you could lose say 1lb riding out in the morning. So you would have no bother taking off say 5lb on race day but yeah it can be tough alright”
Kolkata and Beyond
In the background of our call I can hear the announcer beginning to invite the passengers to begin boarding the flight to Kolkata but it seems the Irish pair are pretty laid back and will be letting everyone else rush up first. It gives me more time to get some information from Downey as he explains why they are heading for the city fomerly known as Calcutta; “Another trainer asked us to go to Kolkata. We will be put up in a five star hotel and we will be riding some of the best horses in India. I’ll actually be flying back tomorrow after racing, which includes the Group 1 Indian Champion Cup.The travelling is really picking up pace now. On Thursday there will be racing again in Mumbai, then on Friday morning I’ll be going back to the airport early to get a flight to Bangelore. I am riding there on Friday & Saturday, which will include a ride in the Bangelore Derby for Arjun Mangolakhar on Saturday. After the Derby I will get a direct flight on Sunday to another city called Hyderabad and ride in the derby there too. This time of year all the big cities have there big races so there’s lots happening. It’s really warming up now. But the main derby with the most prize money is in Mumbai on the 2nd of February I’m not sure yet what I’m riding in it”
“We will be staying here until the 5th of March, when myself and Leigh will be flying back home. As I said the racing is starting to pick up here now so hopefully we will pick up a few more winners. I will head home (Kilcock) for a few weeks to see the family and friends but then my plan is to head back to England, where I will hopefully get in with one of the big yards”And with that our conversation comes to an end as the friends and daily rivals head for the plane and onto Kolkata.
*At the time of talking to Downey (January 22nd), he had ridden eight winners in India and been placed 2nd in the Indian Oaks and 4th in the Kolkata Derby.