Jason Foley – “I owe a lot to Ger O’Neill and Martin Egan for the opportunities I have had so far, they really have been an incredible support”
- 24 April 2020, 10:38
Not many riders can claim to have won World Championship Gold, European Championship individual Gold and European Championship team Bronze. Fewer still have completed this remarkable feat before their 19th birthday.
The last two years have been the stuff of dreams for Carlow’s Jason Foley, who this week spoke to Horse Sport Ireland about his career so far which started with the support of his parents Ger and Sorcha, followed by an amazing opportunity given to him by Ger O’Neill and the team at Castlefield Sport Horses in Kilkenny.
Having grown up in Ballyloughan, Bagenalstown in Co Carlow, Jason Foley told us that like many young Irish riders, his equestrian career began by going hunting.
“We started off mainly at Hunter Trials and Hunting locally and then we decided we would do a couple of the local gymkhana’s in Inistioge and Tinahely. It progressed from there to competitions like the Glencarrig Lady League and then on to RDS qualifiers and we did that all the way from 12.2 ponies up to 14.2.
“I was lucky to have some very good 12.2 ponies and qualified for Dublin every year since I was nine. Actually this will be the first year I will have missed the show at the RDS since I was nine. It took a few years to get into the run of things and get good ponies. When we got them it was then easier to keep going and luckily the good ponies seemed to keep coming. We were probably not that big into lessons at the start, just learning our way along with my parents and then Ger O’Neill started to help us out when I was in 12.2’s. He was never too far away and it was always great to get help from him. Jason Higgins was also a huge help to me and put a huge amount of work and dedication into me during my 14.2 years.”
Jason emphasized the importance of having someone experienced to help his career to develop.
“You have to be able to seek help somewhere – you won’t get all the way yourself because it’s impossible when you don’t know exactly what you are doing. As things change you need to be able to adapt. Even the change from 12.2 to 13.2 and on to 14.2 is completely different. Towards the end of my last year in 14.2’s I started to get more involved with Ger. I worked for him for that full winter and stayed on after that doing shows with Ger.”
2018 would tun out to be an incredible year for Jason Foley. At the Longines FEI European Youth Championships in France, he was crowned European Under 18 (Junior) Show Jumping Champion – bridging a gap of 42 years since Ireland had last won European Under 18 Gold. The result came just a few days after he was part of the GAIN Irish Under 18 team that won the European Championship Bronze medal under manager James Kernan. Riding the Martin Egan-owned Irish Sport Horse Castlefield Vegas, Foley jumped an amazing four clear rounds on the way to the individual gold medal.
“I was with Ger at the Sunshine Tour in Spain at the start of 2018 and then my first international as part of an Irish team was at Fontainebleu in France in 2018 riding Castlefield Vegas in the Junior competitions. After that the next international was the European Championships that year. Ger always said to me that he would give me the opportunity to ride the best horses in the yard if I worked hard enough and looked ready enough to do it. When I came to Ger I had set the European Championships as my goal and Ger and Martin Egan who owns Castlefield Vegas were incredible support to me with that. Ger had jumped Castlefield Vegas in some of the three-star classes and a 1m50 at the Sunshine Tour and had really good results. We didn’t know if he was going to be sold or not after that but he stayed with us and I was able to do the Europeans on him which was brilliant.”
Just a year after winning U18 Gold at the Europeans, Jason Foley would soon be mixing it with the world’s best senior riders at the World Championships for Young Horses in Lanaken, Belgium. Riding The Irish Sport Horse Rockwell RC, bred by Ronan Byrne and owned by Sean Cubitt, Jason Foley struck Gold in the final for 5-year-old horses. The result was even more remarkable considering the Irish teenager had dislocated his shoulder in a fall just three weeks before the competition.
“From the minute I started with Ger there was always a lot of young horses in the yard at Castlefield Sport Horses. The business here is producing and selling young horses and to maybe keep six or seven of the older ones. Ger always got me very involved in how to work a young horse to a certain level and knowing when to go the ring with it. The first year I wasn’t so successful with the young horses, I got a little bit lost but last year – my second year with the young horses, I had a brilliant year with John Kearney’s Dawson Flex and obviously with Rockwell RC (ISH) that won the gold medal in Lanaken.
“I had a very good Dublin Horse Show last year at the RDS with Madorada DW who was one of our 8-year-olds and was placed in Dublin every day – I had a very good year in general last year.
“I knew a bit about Lanaken before we went. Ger had brought me with him the year before and he told me that I would be back here the next year and that I would win a medal. It was definitely a huge boost having someone like Ger there – himself having won a gold medal at Lanaken before. He is a great all-round trainer to be honest and has got me up to the level I am at. He always seems to have plenty of faith in me even when I might think I might not be able to do something, he would always give you the drive on to do it anyway.”
Jason Foley had begun this year in impressive fashion, scoring a number of international wins before Coronavirus brought competition to a halt. One special result came in Spain with Castlefield Cass (ISH).
“He [Castlefield Cass] won the 1m50 ranking class the second week in Vejer and then after that we took him down a level and he was placed in a lot of the 1m40 and 1m45 classes. He was bred by Ger’s father Jim O’Neill and Jim was a proud man that day. Jim is a great character and has a great love for the sport and breeding. He is always working flat out and never stops – always at shows and training all the kids which he is very good at.
“I had varied this year between using Castlefield Cass and Castlefield Vegas. Madorada DW was also one of my best horses at the Sunshine tour, she won a ranking class towards the end of the tour and is owned by Matteo Delmglio and she looks to be a very exciting horse for the future.”
Looking ahead, Jason Foley is hoping to become one of the latest young riders to get a call up to senior Nations Cup competition by Irish team manager Michael Blake.
“Yes hopefully, it would be great to maybe do some of the three-star Nations Cups. We always seem to have plenty of horses at Castlefield. Matteo Delmglio for example has over 150 horses with Ger and there are a lot of horses coming through the system. We have a great team of staff here including all of the grooms and Ger runs everything very well. This is a great place for horses to be produced with the HSI Irish Sport Horse classes and all the other competitions that go on around us. It’s important for us to use these competitions before you start travelling abroad so you now exactly what you have.
“I owe a lot to all the team at Castlefield Sport Horses and Martin Egan the owner of Castlefield Vegas for the opportunities I have had so far, they really have been an incredible support. Of course I never would have had this chance without the support of my parents. I still live at home but don’t have my driving licence yet and they are incredible, driving me to work every day and always being there to help.”
Jason is eager to start travelling to shows again as soon as competition resumes.
“Absolutely. Even if it was just somewhere local, behind closed doors, just some kind of competition. All these young horses are ready now to go somewhere. If it was a normal year you would be in the middle of RDS qualifiers and HSI classes now so it’s a setback for everyone but there is not much we can do about it except wait and see.”