By Joe Bianca
We hear the term “bug boy” and maybe we know where it originates. Maybe we don’t and have just accepted it as horse racing vernacular. But we definitely know what it signifies. The quirky phrase calls to mind the hustling young apprentice rider, fresh-faced and often young enough to still be in high school, forgoing that regular, carefree teenage life to fulfill the unique and specific dream of becoming a professional jockey. We know that, but we don’t necessarily know the depth of the sacrifices made, the meaning of the wins and losses of daily battle or the precariousness of the apprentice’s very existence.
Patrick Gilligan, the father of now-22-year-old journeyman Jack Gilligan, provides that knowledge with a compelling, thorough retelling of the first year of Jack’s riding career in Around Kentucky With the Bug!, where he uses levity as well as vulnerable sincerity to elucidate the level of dedication required to break into American Thoroughbred racing.
The Gilligans’ story is unique in many ways. For starters, Patrick Gilligan was born in the United States, but moved to Great Britain when he was five years old, where he grew up to to briefly become a jockey and then, for much longer, a trainer. He started with two yearlings he bought for a combined 2,000 pounds, one of which became a group stakes winner, but his career never took off the way he envisioned. That’s why, in 2014, with Jack starting out as a jockey and also unable to find his footing in a crowded British apprentice colony, the whole family–Patrick, his wife Vicky, Jack and a cat named Geri–picked up and moved to America to go all-in on Jack’s dream.
“I had seen how it is for most horsemen there–stable staff, trainers, and jockeys. Most of them work hard every day, yet struggle to pay their bills,” Gilligan writes. “Royal Ascot is lovely; the big days are wonderful. But most days aren’t big days. Most days are going to Wolverhampton for one. Hours on the road, traffic, and if the horse wins, the rider’s and trainer’s percentages are next to nothing. Only a few trainers and jockeys make a good living from horse racing in the UK.”
Of course, there was plenty of struggle to be found in America too. And driving. Lots and lots of driving. Getting on an airplane in late summer, the Gilligans settled in Lexington and bounced around to Indiana Grand, Belterra Park and even Mountaineer, driving rental cars thousands of miles in pursuit of mounts, any mounts, in those first few months. Gathering a bit of momentum, the family had high hopes going into the Keeneland Fall meet, but Jack managed just one fourth-place finish through the entire stand. Business picked back up during the Turfway winter meet, but slowed again in the spring as the bug got blanked again at Keeneland.
Gilligan is funny in a way that comes from deep honesty, rooted in both traditional education and blue-collar wisdom, and he bares all in this book. He vacillates with every run past the post about whether or not he made the right decision in uprooting his family to return to a country he had all but forgotten. He also illuminates the experience of getting reacquainted with that country in a refreshing observational style, comparing the peculiarities and nuances between American racing and the sport in the UK. Gilligan is also well-versed in racing history, going back to the very beginning of Thoroughbred racing centuries ago, and does a good job of connecting much of that knowledge to the stories he tells from the sport’s present.
After a successful summer that included an opportunity to ride at Del Mar as well as a 60-1 victory at Kentucky Downs to cap off an apprentice year that included over $1 million in purse earnings, the Gilligans feel relatively confident that they made the right decision to come to America. Now, they return home. But this time, it’s to their new home, in Lexington, Iooking for that elusive win at Keeneland.
As far as criticism, there’s a bit of a tangential few chapters about American Pharoah’s Triple Crown that interrupts Jack’s story in a way that didn’t seem wholly necessary. Also, the title is inaccurate! This is truly a tale about getting around America with the bug.
These are nitpicks. Overall, this is a captivating, page-turning insight into the life of an apprentice jockey that incorporates an array of other fascinating twists, told by a smart, relatable horseman and loving father in an easy to digest narrative. In authorship, Patrick Gilligan may have found his permanent career, just like he made sure Jack did.