By Henry Baines

Martin Dwyer secured status of becoming a “world class jockey” by achieving one feat – winning the Epsom Derby on a special summer day in 2006.

Legendary Liverpool jockey Dwyer relived his memorable day to Merseysportlive

“It’s the biggest race in the world, to win it was extremely surreal,” he reflects.

Now one of the best jockeys around, Dwyer was born and raised in Fazakerley, Liverpool, in the shadow of Aintree racecourse.

Dwyer had that passion for horses from a young age.

“I used to play football in Whiston on a field,” he recalled.

“My mate’s sister had a pony on the farm around the back of the football pitch.

“Every now and then when we saw her drive off, we used to go over and drag the pony out.

“I remember falling off the pony in my football boots!”

His love of horses grew from there.

Dwyer remembers a day in school when he revealed to the careers teacher his work experience plans.

“People were standing up saying I want to do this, be a footballer, join the army.

“I stood up and said I wanted to be a jockey, and they were all laughing.”

After being told to pursue something more realistic, Dwyer became more determined to prove everyone wrong.

And he had his dad to thank for his start.

“My dad wrote a letter to a trainer in the South of England in Newbury, asking if he would take me on as an apprentice, so that’s where it all started.”

The boy from the local council estate in Liverpool, to an eventual derby winner – his journey was just beginning.

“When I was 16 I moved down to a place called Kingsclear, Ian Balding was the trainer who trained for big owners.

“My dad just drove me down, left me there and that was it.

“The Balding family was very good for me and I’ve ridden for them my whole career.”

Fifteen years later and now a vastly experienced professional jockey, Dwyer’s life was about to change forever.

Sitting in the starting stalls on board horse Sir Percy, at a 6-1 price, the Epsom downs towered over Dwyer.

It was go time.

However, it wasn’t exactly a smooth ride for the Scouse jockey to that point, describing the 24 hours either side of the race as “full of highs and lows”.

The drama started the previous night.

“I went to Bath on the evening of Oaks Day to ride for Andrew Balding.

“I flew down in a helicopter.

“I took a bad fall in the paddock and cracked a couple of ribs.

“So, I’m thinking now, I’m probably not going to be able to ride the next day in the derby.”

Knowing how good of a ride he had the following day, Dwyer was determined not to let this once in a lifetime opportunity pass.

“I remember being in the doctor’s room at Epsom on Derby Day.

“They had Richard Hughes on standby to ride him if I didn’t pass the doctor, and the doctor made me do press-ups.

“Doing those five press-ups was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life!”

Dwyer pulled through and made the race.

But the problems kept mounting as the horse refused to enter the stalls, needing the use of the blindfold for the first time.

“He finally went in, and I thought, right here we go.

“It was a full field and a rough race, but I managed to get that gap on the inside when I needed it, and the rest is history!”

Two furlongs to go, seventh place and easily five lengths to find.

“They went very fast so I knew the horses at the front would be tiring,” he said.

“But it was such a big field so when I got to the final two furlongs, I knew I had a chance of winning.”

As the whole field was beginning to tire, Sir Percy came alive picking off each rival with every yard.

With a furlong to run and still lengths to find, Dwyer gambled and flew up the inside of Jonny Murtagh on board, Dylan Thomas for Aiden O’Brien.

“I had one small gap, I thought you don’t really want to go up Jonny Murtagh’s inside because he’ll flatten you, but I knew he had no petrol left because he’d gone quick in front.

“So, I took the chance and creeped up his inside and just got there when it mattered.”

In a pulsating finish which needed a photo, Sir Percy just made it despite the immediate reaction from the rest of the jockeys.

“I heard Frankie say, Darrell Holland had won, everyone was saying well done and he was delighted.

“I’d obviously thought we’d got beat but when we cantered back and turned the corner and I looked on the big screen and saw I’d won I thought, oh my god.

“I just couldn’t believe I’d won the Derby.”

Two minutes 35 seconds and one mile four furlongs later, Dwyer was a winner.

“If you wrote the script, it was something out of a movie.”

From entering the sport as a 16-year-old boy who had to move across the country for opportunities, crossing that winning line on June 3 2006, Dwyer realised it was all worth it.

“I didn’t learn to ride until I was 14, 15.

“Everything was hard. I had to do it myself, some of the Irish jockeys learnt to ride before they can walk.

“When I first came into the sport, I thought, I hope I can make it and get rides.

“I started to get rides and thought oh my god I can’t believe this.”

Years later, Dwyer won’t let his rivals forget that famous day.

“I was talking to Darrell a few weeks back and for him to have thought he’d won and then have it taken away from him, it crushed him.

“But that’s racing.”

And the celebrations?

“We had more than one party,” jokes Dwyer.

Above: Dwyer and Sir Percy win the 2006 Epsom Derby in a gripping finish

The challenge of conquering the Epsom downs is unique, with the vast descent around ‘Tattenham Corner’ as they swing for home, incredibly difficult.

Dwyer became somewhat of an expert of the downs.

He is one of the very few to have won all three Epsom classics.

“I’ve always loved Epsom, done very well there but it is a very unique and challenging track.”

In 2021 Dwyer won the Coronation Cup aboard Pyledriver, adding to his Oaks and Derby win, completing the set.

(Featured image, top, courtesy of Steve Barowik – Flickr)