Jay Tabb has enjoyed a varied retirement from football, via golf, rugby and carpentry, and most recently a diversion into racing, studying at the Northern Racing College. Here the former Ireland U-21 midfielder speaks about how aged 35 he couldn’t wait to start the next chapter in his life.
I have to pinch myself
It’s probably the last six or seven years that I’ve really had that keen interest in racing. I always thought that when I hung the football boots up, it would be great to try and ride a horse and have something else to do. Whenever I was at the yards, it always looked so rewarding. Everyone seemed to really enjoy what they were doing – the stable lads and lasses work so hard. And I thought, ‘Why not try and give it a go?’ Coming to Northern Racing College was the best option so I started looking into the process. I came up and had a look around on the Open Day and then I sent in my application and got accepted for an interview.
Every day I look forward to time with the horses. They all have different personalities and different ways. I’m at a level now where I’m getting put on a few of the more difficult horses, which is good. I have to pinch myself, really. The day I started, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. But I’m picking it up and going about it quite well. You do have to love it because it is really hard work. You have to have a lot of patience too because horses have their own minds.
Plans don’t always work out
My interest in racing goes back to when I was at Coventry City and sharing hotel rooms with team-mate Ben Turner. He was an obsessive and would constantly watch races on TV, giving me a crash-course in the process. Within a few years, I had shares in a couple of horses. Finally, we bought our own – Mr Miyagi – and saw him race at key meetings in the UK and Ireland: Kempton, Punchestown, Aintree and even at Cheltenham.
I thought I’d retire from football at 35 but in December 2015 I hadn’t played for Ipswich in three months. Over Christmas, I made my mind up that I’d walk away at the end of the season – three years ahead of schedule. I felt I’d achieved what I was going to achieve and I just wanted to do something else with my life. I’d enjoyed football and was extremely grateful for what it had given me. But I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. My Mum passed away that year, too and it made me look at life differently.
Life is too short so I thought, so I decided to pack it in and see what was next. I was extremely lucky to do it for as long as I did, to play in the Premier League and do what most kids dream about. I’d never badmouth it at all but the next chapter of my life was always something I was looking forward to getting underway.
My body language and my expressions have changed hugely since I’ve been here. Just sitting on a horse on the gallops here is a big thrill but I can imagine that a race of any sort would be amazing and it could fill the void of finishing playing football. It would be a dream. The 12-week course gets you Level 1 qualification and then there’s a six-week placement at a yard, which we’re starting to talk about now. I’d like to carry on in racing and see where it takes me. I’d be lying if I said my competitive nature hasn’t come through so I would love to ride in an amateur race or a point-to-point. Or even a charity race. That would be an incredible thing to achieve. It’s a case of small steps because I’m only just starting out and there’s so much to learn. But a year or two down the line, who knows?
The intensive 12-week course – located at the Northern Racing College in Doncaster, is a three and a half hours drive north. The main reason for doing it was that I live in London and I wanted to get out and live a bit more in the countryside, wake up every morning and get to ride horses and be part of a racing yard and a team. The course primarily caters for teenagers who have left school prematurely and everyone attending lives on-site for three months. I was certainly a different kind of applicant at the age of 35.
A different kind of pre-season training
My first day at the college was 29 March but I was working hard well in advance of that. I had to greatly reduce my weight and the only time I’d ever sat on a horse was when I won a golf holiday to Mount Juliet and had a lesson in their equestrian centre.
As soon as I knew I was accepted to this course, I booked six one-hour lessons at my local stables. It was basically trotting around but I did get up to a canter by the end of it. I picked it up pretty quickly. I wouldn’t say cocky is the right word but I really wanted it. Over the six lessons, I’d get on the horse and almost pretend I was better than I was just to progress a bit quicker. When they’d ask if I wanted to do this or that I’d just say yes. I had no fear. And that helped me out a lot once I got here.
Each day I set my alarm for 5.20, I get up, go for a run around the gallops and by the time I get down there, run around a few times and come back up, it’s about 6km. Then it’s a quick shower and I’m down and ready to feed the horses by 6.30am. I come back up, get about a 10-minute break for a quick coffee and then we sign in at 7am and start mucking out. On the gallops we ride three lots before 1pm, then lunch. At 2pm, it’s back to the yard to groom and feed the horses and to skip out. Then there could be an afternoon session with that horse and some classroom sessions, too.
Sometimes there’s a bit of fitness as well. We’re done by 5.30pm so we feed the horses and have our dinner and then it’s the evening programme at about 6.30, which is another lesson and we’re usually done by 7.30 or 8pm. Then it’s time to shower up, catch up on Game of Thrones and go to bed.
The days literally roll into one. They’re full on. The weekends are a bit easier and there’s more time off because we don’t do the riding. But Monday to Friday, you sit down for five minutes, if you’re lucky. And I think I am.
Find out more about studying at the Northern Racing College here.