Life Style

Graham Watters Has His Sights on the Radnor Hunt Races

Graham Watters. Photos by Jim Graham

The Irish jockey hopes to ride to victory at this year’s Radnor Hunt Races, following a string of successes in the United States.

Graham Watters earns his living riding horses, guiding his mounts over turf, timbers and everything else on the racecourse, intent on crossing the finish line first. When he isn’t competing, you’ll find him in the saddle, foxhunting with his horse, Stanley, and taking in the fresh air. “It seems like everything I do has to do with horses,” he says.

Watters is speaking by phone as he and Stanley head back to the barn in Sparks, Maryland, where he and his wife, Rosie, live with a variety of horses. Some are actively racing. Others, like Stanley, have made the transition from competition to foxhunting and trail riding.

Graham Watters

As a 9-year-old in Ireland, Watters started riding ponies at an equestrian center. This unlikely jockey’s family didn’t have horses or an interest in racing. But Watters loved the animals—especially ones that ran fast. When ponies weren’t fast enough, he graduated to horse racing.

“As riders, we love when there are big crowds. When we’re galloping around, we can hear the roaring and shouting, people calling out for us. It’s a great atmosphere.”

Watters’ first major victory came aboard Milborough in the 2015 Eider Chase at Britain’s Newcastle Racecourse. “Four miles, 27 fences, my biggest win in the U.K.,” he recalls. “We also won some night races in England, which really helped me in my career as a young rider.”

Steeplechase racing is a way of life in Ireland and the United Kingdom, and Watters quickly became a fixture on the circuit. He moved to the U.K., where he worked 51 weeks a year for seven years, putting 70,000 miles on his Audi annually as he drove from course to course. “It’s a real grind and very difficult to make a living because you’re spending so much money on gas and travel expenses,” he says.

Coming to the United States five years ago, he was struck by the difference in the quality of life for riders. There’s more time off between events. The horse’s owner picks up travel expenses. Another plus is the abundance of green grass at his home in Sparks, which reminds him of the Emerald Isle. “I tell the jockeys back home how wonderful it is here,” he says. “Both Rosie and I fell in love with it. If you work hard in America, you get rewarded, which is not always the case in Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.”

Graham Watters in his element.

Watters made the trip back across the pond to get married at a hotel owned by his bride’s parents in her native Scotland after their original wedding date was delayed by COVID. From the get-go, their wish was to be part of the racing community in the United States.

These days, the horse bringing him the most fame is Snap Decision, trained by Hall of Famer Jack Fisher for owner Bruton Street-US. The 10-year-old Kentucky-bred bay gelding was sired by Hard Spun, who finished second in the 2007 Kentucky Derby. Last year, he broke $1 million in earnings as Watters rode him to victory at Saratoga in the Jonathan Sheppard Hurdle, named for the renowned British-born trainer who lived and worked in Chester County. The first time Watters took the reins, the horse had won nine races in a row. “I didn’t want to be the one who got him beat,” he says.

Watters is well aware of the dangers of the sport. His injuries include a broken wrist suffered during a race in the United Kingdom.

When Snap Decision crossed the finish line for his 10th consecutive win, Watters knew it was the beginning of a beautiful partnership. “He’s played such a big part in the making of my career,” he says. “He’s an absolute dream, with breeding and attitude. He’s good and he knows it. Such confidence—a superstar.”

At 32, with two NSA championships under his belt, Watters is approaching superstar status himself. He’s a disciplined professional, maintaining his weight at 142–145 pounds year-round. He keeps calories in check by abstaining from alcohol and exercising regularly. When he retires from riding, he plans to stay in the game, perhaps as a trainer. “I will always be working with horses,” he says.

He’s well aware of the dangers of the sport. His injuries include a broken wrist suffered during a race in the United Kingdom. In 2017, when five-time NSA champion jockey Paddy Young was badly hurt in a fall at Radnor Hunt, Young’s wife, trainer Leslie Young, tasked Watters with filling in for her husband. Watters quickly dressed and won both races.

When May rolls around, he looks forward to returning to the racecourse. “Radnor is a nice, sharp track that suits a frontrunner,” he says. “And I love the timbers.”

With throngs of cheering spectators lining the course, jockeys feel an extra surge of adrenalin. “As riders, we love when there are big crowds. When we’re galloping around, we can hear the roaring and shouting, people calling out for us. It’s a great atmosphere, a great thrill,” he says.

Related: Remembering Top Steeplechase Trainer Jonathan Sheppard: 1940-2023

Eileen Smith Dallabrida

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