No regrets for Phelan despite Grand National result

By Dennis Ryan

1 Sep 2022

No regrets for Phelan despite Grand National resultThe Cossack has led the way in Shaun Phelan’s standout year.

An Australian Grand National Steeplechase victory on The Cossack last weekend would have been the ultimate for champion jumps jockey Shaun Phelan, but he has no regrets about his not quite perfect past year.
Phelan’s standout 2021-22 season began at Riccarton last August with a Koral-Grand National Steeplechase double on the outstanding Wanganui jumper Tallyho Twinkletoe bracketing his Grand National Hurdle win on The Cossack. Before the jumps season went into summer recess he added a second consecutive Great Northern Hurdle on the new star of jumping ranks.
Into the opening weeks of this winter, the Paul Nelson/Corrina McDougal-trained gelding continued his onslaught with victory in the K S Browne Hurdle, then in his absence Phelan switched to the Harvey Wilson-trained Dr Hank for victory in the Waikato Hurdle and was back on board when The Cossack added the Hawke’s Bay Hurdle to his tally. On the final day of feature jumps racing for 2021-22, Phelan combined with Nedwin, another member of the potent Nelson/McDougal jumps string, to add the Wellington Hurdles.
To get some understanding of the dominant hand played by Phelan last season, consider these statistics: 20 jumps wins from 47 rides and nine of the season’s 13 Prestige Jumps Races, equal to his combined PJR tally from the previous four seasons.
“It was unbelievable the way everything fell into place,” Phelan told RaceForm ahead of getting his hands on the Jumps Jockey trophy at Sunday’s New Zealand Thoroughbred Horse of the Year Awards. “Being a jumps jockey you never get ahead of yourself, you take each day as it comes, but it really has been amazing.
“I’ve had good seasons before but nothing like this – I always found myself chasing Aaron (Kuru) or Shaun (Fannin) – but this time it was my turn. Getting first call on Paul and Corrina’s team and riding for other good jumps trainers, plus being lucky enough to get on horses like The Cossack and Tallyho Twinkletoe, that’s the difference.”
At a height of 180cm – just three centimetres short of six feet – Phelan stands head and, in most cases, shoulders above others in the jockeys’ room. His lanky frame takes managing to make raceday weights and one of the secrets to his flush of success has been riding no lighter than 66 kilograms. As the holder of a dual licence, commitments to his Cambridge stable also mean a busy routine, and crucially he has been injury-free.
“I’ve had my share of injuries over the years,” he says. “A broken shoulder, broken ribs, a couple of punctured lungs and I’ve broken my jaw a couple of times too.”
Phelan grew up racing as the son of Rotorua trainer Craig Phelan and by his mid-teens he had gravitated in that direction. Even by then his height dictated that he could never be a flat jockey, so he opted for an amateur rider’s licence as a starting point and had his first raceday ride in that role at age 15.
It didn’t take long for him to want to try his luck over jumps, but since he was under 18, he had to sign up as an apprentice with his father. From single wins in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, his success rate steadily grew to his first double-figure tally in 2012-13.
Five years later he added a trainer’s licence, going into partnership with his father and relocating the main stable from Rotorua to Cambridge. Craig’s 84 wins include 38 in New Zealand in partnership with his son as well as the 2018 Pakenham Cup and 2020 Moe Cup in provincial Victoria with the star of the Phelan stable, the hardy middle-distance galloper Big Mike.
In 58 starts from four to nine years, the Don Eduardo gelding won 16 races and more than $620,000. The last of those wins was in his very last start in June, when he carried 59.5 kilos to score by more than five lengths in an open handicap at Hastings.
“Being such a favourite with all of us, we decided he had nothing left to prove,” said Phelan, who has taken sole charge of the stable following his father’s decision to step back. “He’s been retired and is having some time out at his owners’ place before he learns all about life as a sport-horse.”
Big Mike was ridden in that last race by junior stable apprentice Kelsey Hannan, while her more senior colleague Elen Nicholas had also put her claim to good use in two earlier wins. At age 26 Nicholas has now ridden 49 winners, including 25 last season, while 19 year-old Hannan rode 10 winners in what was her debut season and has got off to a flying start with another six, including a double at Te Rapa last Saturday.
“Elen’s claim is down to two kilos, so she wants to have a crack at the apprentice title this season, but so does Kelsey,” says Phelan. “That should be interesting.”
Reflecting on his close second in last Sunday’s A$350,000 Australian Grand National Steeplechase at Ballarat, Phelan is full of praise for The Cossack while disappointed they didn’t come away with victory.
“It was a funny race the way it worked out. The plan wasn’t to lead but he flew the lids and landed himself there. Then when they picked up the tempo I was trying to get him going and it was only when I got him out in the better ground that he picked up again.
“I thought I’d got the lunge in and won it, so I was gutted when the result went the other way. I’m not complaining though, I’d love to head back to Aussie next year and go one better on him.”