From Dingle to Ditcheat: Kelly O'Boyle's journey of a lifetime
With Cheltenham fever building, Dingle native Kelly O’Boyle spoke to Stephen Fernane about her job as Pupil Assistant to trainer Paul Nichols, and previously working with Nicky Henderson, Altior and Might Bite
It's a long way from Garfinny in Dingle to Ditcheat in Somerset for Kelly O'Boyle. But that's where you will find the Dingle native chasing her dream these days. The 'horse mad' Kelly started working as Pupil Assistant to Paul Nicholls in November 2018 and to say she loves horses is a bit like saying Tuesday comes after Monday, it's that obvious.
Fast forward to today and she finds herself in the eye of the storm as preparations for Cheltenham gather momentum at one of the UK's most successful yards.
"This is my first Cheltenham with Paul and the final few weeks and days is when it starts to get really tense," she says.
With over 40 staff in the Nicholls yard - and with Cheltenham the chief driving force - Kelly explains that it's an environment everyone involved in racing wants to be a part of. It's what makes the bad days seem worth it in a sport where 'due reward' is like a boomerang that doesn't always come back. All the hard work in the world won't guarantee you a winner in racing. It's all about the pressure, yet Kelly's no nonsense personality convinces me that pressure is only for tyres.
"This is very much a time when things can go wrong and you're running out of time to fix it. It's a pretty big year-round commitment by everyone in the yard for something that could easily fall short in the run up to the Festival. But it's neither work nor pressure when you do something you love."
Kelly sets her alarm every morning for 5:15am and is at the yard before the blackbird has even had a chance to open an eye. The day consists of numerous tasks from riding out, mucking out, equine medical inspections, going racing and dealing with owners. It's people like Kelly and her colleagues who are the backbone of the racing industry - they pamper the horses, know their quirks, ailments and talk to them on a level that most people outside the sport would find slightly bonkers.
"I basically could be doing anything on any given day. I could be up in the gallops one day shovelling in the sides, and the next day I'm away at the races or driving a horse box. It's great to see the other side and have the responsibility. There is a great atmosphere in Paul's place. I'm in the yard for about 6:15am every morning."
Such has been the growth of 'Team Nicholls' since those heavenly days when Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded and Big Bucks seemed to hopscotch around Cheltenham with ease, the Somerset handler has expanded his empire into two working yards, one of which Kelly is a key player.
"I'm working in the second yard where we currently have 46 horses and 10 staff members. It's all about keeping the yard running smoothly and keeping on top of everything. We have some nice horses there like Present Man, Warrior's Tale and Pacha Du Polder, who won the Foxhunter's Chase at Cheltenham last year. He is a lovely genuine horse."
Like all trainers, the multiple Gold Cup winning Nicholls is wise enough to know that success is down to the staff. Yet by the same token it's not everyone who can say they're learning the rudiments of their trade from someone of Paul Nicholls' calibre. Kelly certainly sounds like she's living the dream at the moment, listening and learning from all she sees and hears. But she knows too that in horse racing there are no shortcuts to success.
"Around 7:15am every morning I'll head up to the office to sit with the other assistants, Paul, Clifford (Baker) Harry (Derham) and Dave the head lad. Everyone has a little bit of an input into what's going on and what horse is running where. The first lot of horses is usually out by 8am. Paul is always on the gallops watching the horses and maybe once a week he'll come to our yard and check the horses. He is very involved. He's a great trainer and it's been great for the yard this year with horses like Clan De Obeaux and Frodon doing well."
Kelly's path to where she finds herself today is partially as a result of a nasty fall she got from a horse some years ago. She broke her tibia and fibula, which led to a metal bar being inserted in her leg. Sometimes bad luck has a habit of sticking around longer than is fair and only last summer a horse travelling at full throttle fell on Kelly's leg shattering the bone around the metal bar. Just for good measure she also broke her ankle, shoulder and tailbone in the fall. Her father, Garry wanted Kelly to take it easy on herself and to seek a better route to her dream. So, instead of heading to University, Kelly headed for England to work with some of the sport's top trainers.
Her first job was with Grand National winning trainer, Donald McCain. From here she went to David Simcock in Newmarket. Kelly also enjoyed a spell with former Godolphin chief, John Ferguson; she won a scholarship through the British Racing School and finished up in Australia working for leading Group 1 trainer, Chris Waller. Prior to taking up her position with Paul Nicholls, Kelly worked at Seven Barrows - yard of champion trainer Nicky Henderson. It's as impressive a Curriculum Vitae as you're likely to find.
It's very much the love of horses that motivates Kelly and she admits to having a soft spot for 'the naughty ones' that are not the game's big stars. Her favourite horse in the Nicholls' yard is a novice hurdler called Ashutor. But it was during her time at Hendersons one summer that Kelly got to handle some of racing's heavyweights before they became famous - Altior and Might Bite.
"Yeah, they were in my lot for the first two weeks I spent in Nicky's yard. I definitely can't complain about that. It was pretty cool," she says.
"Might Bite is text book for what you'd want from a horse. Even to ride out he is an absolute gentleman. He just tucks his head in and carries himself beautifully, he's very gentle about everything he does. I wouldn't describe Altior as a gentleman, he knows he is good. He is incredibly powerful, though, even when he is trotting round the yard the amount of power you feel is amazing. He's a bit of a play boy too in that he likes a bit of a buck and a bit of fun. Brain Power and Apple's Shikera are other horses I've worked with at Nicky's yard."
While it's clear that Kelly thoroughly enjoyed her time at Nicky Hendersons, you gain a sense from listening to her that even for all the pressure that comes with being a top trainer, and having to constantly produce the goods, Henderson - like Nicholls - appreciate good staff and know how integral they are to the whole process.
"Nicky was so good to me and he has given me every opportunity. Even when I got hurt he made sure I was well looked after. I would come into work and sit in the jeep in the mornings watching a couple of lots working, just to kill the time. He is a phenomenal man."
Home fires still burn brightest for Kelly as it's where her love affair with horses started. Her aunt Mary O'Leary owned a stud farm in County Kildare, a place that Kelly spent most of her days riding show jumping ponies.
Her father is well known in Irish pony racing. He owned 2011 Dingle Derby winner, Your Ma, and also Five Stone of Lead, who had a succcesful Dingle Festival in 2018.
Kelly never rode in the pony racing circuit but she did ride out her father's horses every morning before heading to school. She loves what she does and with Cheltenham now on the horizon at one of racing's premier yards, it's fair to say Kelly hasn't looked back since leaving Dingle in 2011.
"I think I was the weird one in school talking about horses all the time," she jokes.
"I was lucky too I suppose. But I'm also quite stubborn. Once I had it in my head it was happening, I was going, whether anyone agreed or not. It's a job I love but I'd be the first to say that you have more bad days than good."
Like many young people involved in the horse racing industry, maturity and responsibility are attributes Kelly said must be learned quickly if you want to succeed. She believes many of the young people involved in the sport today struggle to go the distance because of this.
"It is a borderline addiction. You definitely need a thick skin and you must be able to stand your ground. Personally, I would have an old school train of thought that way. I think a lot of young people these days get easily offended. You must be able to take an ear full, basically. It's a hard sport."
Kelly concludes: "To be honest, training horses is my dream; it's what I would love to do. Whether or not it becomes a reality is another story. But I would struggle to get a grounding better than the one I currently have anywhere else."