Farm Ireland

Monday 11 December 2017

A head start in the race to the top

A record number of girls have signed up with the RACE course for aspiring professional jockeys

Davy Russell giving the trainees some pointers on the simulator during a recent visit to RACE. The Corkman also conducted a training session over hurdles.
Davy Russell giving the trainees some pointers on the simulator during a recent visit to RACE. The Corkman also conducted a training session over hurdles.
Race trainees on the gallops in Kildare
Chief riding instructor Barry Walsh with students at RACE.
Erica Byrne.
Nessa O'Brien.
Theodore Nugent
Jordan Cummins.

In the past decade top female jockeys such as Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh have set a remarkably high benchmark for aspiring young women hoping to make it big on the National Hunt scene.

Last autumn a record 14 females signed up to the Racing Academy and Centre of Education 10-month course in Kildare town. Never before had RACE seen such an upsurge in interest from young women, many of whom have already chosen this same career path and so will be watching their female idols with great interest at the upcoming Cheltenham Festival in the hope of one day following in those same footsteps.

Admittedly both Ms Carberry and Ms Walsh have had an easier route to the business than most coming from racing families. However, more and more youngsters with non-racing backgrounds are now also finding themselves immersed in the world of racing thanks to the unique training facility that is RACE.

"This year we had a record number of girls apply for the course and interestingly a number of them are planning to go down the National Hunt route," says RACE director Keith Rowe.

Though still a minority in the sport, the success of other female jockeys such as flat riders Sammy Jo Bell and Melbourne Cup winner Michelle Payne has given many of these young women some hope of success in a world so clearly dominated by men.

"The world has moved on and the racing industry has changed so much but it is still very tough for many of the girls out there and indeed for a lot of the apprentices as the opportunities are not as plentiful as they would have been years ago," Mr Rowe continued.

When RACE first opened its doors in the 1970s trainees were aged 15, less than five feet tall and six stone or less. Today's children are that bit heavier and so for a lot of teenagers, pursuing a career in jump racing seems the better option.

"Our weight limit now is nine stone, but some kids struggle to even make that."

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Since its establishment in 1973 RACE has introduced close to 1,000 young men and women into the world of racing through the jockey scheme, with many graduates going on to secure other positions within the industry later in life.

Daryl Jacob, Johnny Murtagh, David Casey and John Egan are just some of those graduates who pursued a successful career on the track, while female graduates include Cathy Gannon and Helen Keohane.

Though now retired from race riding, during an interview for Unblinkered Vision, a book which celebrated 40 years of RACE in 2013, Ms Keohane admitted that towards the end of her relatively short career she struggled to make ends' meet.

"Towards the finish it was hard to get rides, they were only coming here and there in a trickle and it was difficult to continue. It's tough for women, we aren't as strong as men and that does matter."

Indeed the demands of the job were clearly outlined in a recent visit to RACE by top professional Davy Russell. He openly admitted that in the early days he saw himself as 'invincible' but it still took him three years to secure his first ever win. "And that was only by accident as the original jockey failed to show up!" he added.

Without doubt the trainee jockey course at RACE has become one of the most successful over the years, so much so it now regularly attracts overseas applicants each year.

"It is one of the longest courses of its kind, at 42 weeks, and trainees definitely benefit from a longer programme," Mr Rowe outlined. "During that time we not only teach trainees the basics in terms of horsemanship, but also practical and life skills and personal development for when they get out into the world.

"At the end of the day they are still young teenagers and will need to take the good and the bad. We endeavour to prepare them the best we can for a life in racing," continued Mr Rowe.

"Our trainees graduate as potential jockeys, but naturally not everyone makes it.

"There's no doubt that life is tough for an apprentice and I feel there are not enough opportunities for them out there. Even if they go through their claim successfully they can then find themselves without rides."


It is mainly for this reason that so many young jockeys leave these shores to gain work in Britain and further afield, with dozens of others who are unable to make a living on the track returning to life as work riders and stable hands.

"In my opinion there is not enough of a support and development system in place for young jockeys in Ireland and I really would like to see that changed. Thankfully Horse Racing Ireland is now supporting the development of a 'Jockey Pathway' system similar to other professional sports which would be great for both our graduates and other youngsters out there.

"They all need guidance at some time or another and could do with being supported better so that we can retain them within the industry," Mr Rowe concluded.

Hands-on approach to physical and mental fitness

Up to 800 people pass through the doors of the Racing Academy and Centre of Education each year on completion of a wide range of training programmes for trainers, jockeys, and other industry personnel seeking further education.

The core activity of RACE, however, is to nurture and educate trainee jockeys through its annual 10-month course.

Restricted to a maximum of 32 trainees each year, the course covers a large range of subjects in addition to horse management and riding skills, and is particularly focused on preparing young jockeys for the world of racing.

“Fitness is also a large component of the course and for this we have a resident fitness instructor,” commented RACE director Keith Rowe.

The course is divided into three phases, with the first 12 weeks spent on foundation training at RACE. The centre is fully-equipped with thoroughbreds, mostly retired racehorses loaned to RACE, sand gallops, an indoor arena, and classroom and gym facilities.

Here they study practical riding and stable management, in addition to several classroom subjects such as communications, IT and business.

During the second phase trainees are placed with local racehorse trainers on the Curragh and spend mornings riding out before returning to RACE for afternoon classroom studies.

The third and final phase sees trainees working full-time with their assigned trainers, a large percentage of whom retain the trainees as staff on completion of the programme.

The programme is delivered through the Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board and successful participants are awarded the QQI Level 4 Major Award  in Racehorse Care and Riding on the National  Framework of Qualifications.

“The basic requirements are that trainees are between 16 and 18 years, are under nine stone and generally have completed their Junior Certificate.

“During the week-long trials each June we assess up to 70 applicants for their riding aptitude and physical suitability, as well as their work attitude and character, and selections are based on all of this.”

A series of open days for the trainee jockey course will take place in the coming months — March 22 and 29, April 5 and 19 and May 3, 17 and 31.

RACE also conducts a number of international exchange programmes and this past week a number of students from Slovakia arrived in Ireland to take part in an EU-funded Erasmus Plus programme.

These programmes are designed to promote co-operation and mobility between member countries and the group will receive instruction in riding and stable management while improving their English language skills and learning more about Ireland and the Irish racing industry.

In the coming weeks Australian jump jockeys Dara O’Meachair and Adam Roustoby will take up their places with Willie Mullins as part of the Racing Victoria International Jumps Jockey Scholarship run in conjunction with RACE.

Victoria and South Australia are the only states to still allow jump racing in the country.

Over the coming months RACE will run a series of training days for up-and-coming jump jockeys. These will focus on technique and safety on the track and will be conducted by champion point-to-point rider Derek O’Connor.

For information on all courses see

Aiming high: trainee profiles

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Erica Byrne.

Erica Byrne (17)

Ratoath, Co Meath

Learned to ride at Broadmeadow Equestrian Centre in Ashbourne, Co Meath. Hopes to become a National Hunt jockey like AP McCoy but is finding the early mornings tough going

Work placement: Dermot Weld

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Nessa O'Brien.

Nessa O’Byrne (16)

Terryglass, Co Tipperary

Learned to ride at Birr Equestrian Centre and did some hunting and Pony Club. Also rode out at Jim Finn’s yard. Hopes to become a National Hunt jockey and  as good as Nina Carberry

Work placement : Conor O’Dwyer

Theodore Nugent

Theodore Nugent (17)

Warrnambool, Australia

Theo has spent some time riding out jump horses for his Irish-born father John. His Australian-born mother Kerry is a flat jockey and Theo also hopes to go down the same route

Work placement: Michael Halford

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Jordan Cummins.

Jordan Cummins (17)

Ballyfermot, Dublin

Did the FETAC course at Cherry Orchard and applied for RACE on the advice of course co-ordinator Emma Keogh. Aspires to be a top flat jockey like Silvestre De Sousa.

Work placement : Michael Grassick

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