PJ McDonald continues his inexorable rise through the ranks, with another impressive campaign in the saddle.
He completed a stunning double at York’s Ebor meeting last Friday, including a thrilling success in the Group Two Lonsdale Cup aboard relatively unfancied Montaly. Andrew Balding’s six-year-old is known to be a tricky customer, and PJ was seen at his talented best to nail the favourite Dartmouth on the line in a thrilling finish.
High times indeed for McDonald, who switched codes a decade ago, having won the Scottish National as a 5lb claimer on-board the Ferdy Murphy-trained Hot Weld. Murphy’s Yorkshire base was at West Witton, in the heart of the Middleham racing scene, and a mere furlong or two from PJ’s home at Leyburn. As one of the top local conditional jocks, he was the ideal choice when the ride came up for grabs. He certainly made the most of the opportunity.
Still at home in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales with wife Amelia and the kids, the last 10 years has been a period of gradual progression, supported by many of the Dales finest trainers, including Ann Duffield and Micky Hammond. However, it’s over the last few years that PJ has started to land the big rides, and with them a few prestigious pots. He’s becoming something of a supersub, should a stable jockey be unavailable.
Peter Niven was more than happy to put his trust in the Leyburn lad, and at York in 2016 it certainly paid-off when Clever Cookie landed the Group Two Yorkshire Cup. It was a huge moment for McDonald, and has undoubtedly brought further opportunities, with high-profile northern trainers such as Karl Burke and Mark Johnston regularly calling on his services.
Teaming up with Burke has provided the opportunity of riding one of the leading juveniles in Havana Grey. Winner of the Group Three Molecomb Stakes at Goodwood, McDonald was again aboard at Deauville when the young horse ran another cracker in finishing runner-up in the Group One Prix Morny. It’s possible the six-furlong trip stretched him a little that day, but under PJ’s urgings he battled on bravely to hold on to second spot from the Royal Ascot winner Different League.
This latest day to remember at York, will again go some way to promote PJ’s ability in the saddle, and likely result in further high-profile bookings. Currently standing eighth in the jockeys’ championship, McDonald has smashed the 50 winners’ barrier, and fast approaches 60. With a 15% strike-rate he is one of the few leading jocks with a level-stake profit. Indeed, he and fellow northern jockey Daniel Tudhope, are a pair worth following from a punting prospective.
PJ drew a blank at Ripon yesterday, but will be confident of better fortunes today at Catterick, with a full book of rides including Mambo Dancer for Mark Johnston. The three-year-old has twice finished second this term and looks to have a great opportunity of going one better today. McDonald also has rides for Rebecca Menzies, and though his 11% strike-rate for the trainer this year is nothing to shout about, he does have a decent level-stake profit for the Durham handler.
PJ looks sure to set a personal best for winners in a single season, and there’s no doubting that his appeal among trainers is growing. Expect more of the same for the remainder of the campaign, with the likelihood of further high-profile victories at major tracks.