The real Ladies' Day: the jockeys and trainers taking the reins at the first ever Ladies' Irish National
Four of Ireland's horse racing powerhouses prepare to face off for a women-only Irish National at Fairyhouse this week. Our reporter meets Sandra Hughes, Lisa O'Neill, Rachael Blackmore and Ellmarie Holden, all jockeying to be first
Ladies' Day is set to take on a whole new meaning at this year's Fairyhouse Easter Festival. The three-day horse racing spectacular kicks off at the world-famous Meath racecourse next Sunday. But one group of women will be donning helmets - not hats - as they bid to stand out from the crowd.
For the first time ever, Ireland's best female jockeys will saddle up for a women-only Irish National at the iconic festival.
Away from the track, the Today FM-backed chase will even help other women facing a hurdle of their own by raising funds for the Marie Keating Foundation.
Two years after the all-girl squad behind Thunder And Roses triumphed, meanwhile, the ladies are sure to be hoping to be first past the post at Easter Monday's BoyleSports Irish Grand National too, not least because of the bumper €500,000 prize fund.
Here, we meet four of the racing trailblazers leaving the lads in their dust.
In racing you are only as good as your last winner. The highs and lows are hard
SANDRA HUGHES, TRAINER
The daughter of legendary trainer and jockey Dessie Hughes, who died in 2014, Sandra Hughes (47) was destined to eventually crack the whip at Osborne Lodge, the family yard next to The Curragh in Co Kildare. But the mum-of-three - best known for training Acapella Bourgeois - admits she had big wellingtons to fill in a male-dominated field.
Growing up, we spent our whole life out in the yard. Every family occasion revolved around horses. We'd go from the First Holy Communion straight to the races afterwards. My own children are no different. My eldest son, David (17), is an apprentice jockey in England; my 14-year-old, Philip, rides out before he goes to school every morning, and my daughter, Alexandra, who's 11, is on her pony every spare minute of the day. After I pick them up from school, the school bag is thrown inside the door and that's it - they're out in the yard straight away and they're there all evening. Racing does that to you. It sort of consumes you, especially when it's a family business.
I came home from England eight years ago to work alongside my dad. I always knew I might take over the reigns at some stage, but I never thought it would happen so quickly because he died quite suddenly. They are huge shoes to fill, but I really feel he's guiding us from above.
In racing, you're only as good as your last winner. The highs and lows of it are hard. I would always have had a weight problem through comfort eating. I was very much reliant on food through bad times. I've lost a lot of weight over the last two years - 7st in total - so, for me, it's lovely to be able to dress up. As a trainer, you have to dress smart, but you have to be sensible as well. You're saddling horses, you're legging jockeys up - you can't be running around in a little dress and high heels! I always find a good coat and a trilby hat and you're dressed for any occasion.
Obviously, it is a very male-dominated sport. There are more male trainers, more male owners. You go racing - there's more men at the races. As a woman, I am very proud to have big winners and to be able to survive in a very competitive sport.
Since I've taken out my trainer's licence, there have been great days with great horses. My first winner after Dad passed away was very special. I have been lucky that I haven't lost a horse through injury yet. But we lost plenty when I was with my dad, and it's heartbreaking. We lost Our Conor at Cheltenham in 2014 and it was devastating because he was a real star of the future. The only thing you can actually say is, "Thank God it's not the jockey."
I have one horse for the Irish National called Art Of Payroll, but he does like the better ground, so I'll be hoping that it's a little bit drier for him.
Some trainers think they need a big strong man on a horse or don’t want to see a girl all broke up. But we’re just as good as the guys
LISA O'NEILL, JOCKEY
Hot on the heels of her Cheltenham success - where she rode Tiger Roll to victory in the JT McNamara National Hunt Chase - Lisa O'Neill (28) is just one of the jockeys hoping to make history at the inaugural Ladies' Irish National. From Garristown in Co Dublin, the daughter of former jockey Tommy O'Neill insists anything guys can do, girls can do better.
I've always sat down and watched Cheltenham at home, and I've been there once or twice before, so to ride a winner there was very surreal. It does kind of fire you into the spotlight a bit. To be honest, I still don't think it's sunk in.
There's such a good weigh room full of girls now at the moment. We'd all be behind each other, spurring each other on. Once we're all on the track, though, it's every woman for herself.
I've been riding since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. My mother does always try to tell me to get a proper job, but I think after Cheltenham it might keep her quiet for a while! She was mortified over the video of her and my dad reacting to my win that went viral. She gets worried about me riding over jumps and hates to see me take a fall. Over the years, I've broken my collarbone, dislocated my other collarbone and broken my finger, but it's minor compared to what some people go through. There are a lot of risks involved. I think it's the only sport that you'll find you're followed around by an ambulance. If you're going to be thinking about that kind of thing, there's no point in even putting the clothes on.
It's what I live for. It's what I love. Before a big race, I'd always walk the track, even if I'd ridden around it 10 or 20 times before. It's something my dad always drilled into me. The longer I've been at it, the less nervous I get.
Most of the time, I'd be in my riding-out breeches or waterproofs. Being at Cheltenham for the week, it was nice to be able to dress up and show that you can actually have a bit of style sometimes as well. There is a good social side to racing. Although I love having a bit of banter with the lads, I'd probably rule out dating a jockey. You have to draw the line somewhere!
Fairyhouse is actually my local track so I can't wait. It would be nice to have a ride in the ladies' race and maybe be in the shake-up. Some trainers think they need a big strong man on a horse, or don't want to see a girl all broke up. But we're just as good as the guys - and we can do it.
The secret to being a good trainer is knowing what you have. You can see when a horse is thriving on its work
ELLMARIE HOLDEN, TRAINER
Rookie trainer Ellmarie Holden (27) from Ballyhale in Co Kilkenny got her big break after guiding gelding Abolitionist - owned by her mother, Catherine, and ridden by Rachael Blackmore - to success at the Leinster National recently. And the rising star, who got her restricted trainer's licence last summer, believes it's important to give Ireland's female jockeys a leg-up in their careers too.
I was brought up with horses from day one. My dad, Paul, had a couple of horses in training with Eoin Doyle, Shark Hanlon and various people. So when he bought a farm a couple of years ago and built a new gallop on it, I was kind of like, "I'll do the licence if you give me all your horses!" I was always mad to do it; it was just to get the opportunity.
Since getting my licence last year, everyone has been so nice and welcoming. Everyone knows you're kind of new. It is more of a man's world, but that never bothered me. Being a trainer definitely isn't glamorous. You're up at six to the yard to feed your horses, do a bit of mucking out and ride out a couple of lots. When you're going racing three or four times a week, you tend to stick to jeans and wellies.
I have Abolitionist in the Grand National on Easter Monday. Between winning the Leinster National, going to Cheltenham with Ex Patriot the week after, and now the Irish National, it's just been a crazy couple of months. I didn't expect to even have a runner in the Leinster National, let alone a winner. I don't know how many horses Rachael Blackmore's (see page 13) after riding for me now, but she's been so lucky for me. She's always been first, second or third. The two of us are just working well together so far.
The secret to being a good trainer is knowing what you have. You can see when a horse is thriving on its work. When the horses are fit and happy and well, that's when you run them. All horses come and go. You would have your favourites - your little stable stars - but you can't get too attached. We only have a small number of horses in training at the moment. A couple of people have asked me to train a few horses, but because I don't have the full licence, I can't yet.
It's nice when you're getting going that it's just family. I've only got one person to give out to me!
I’ve broken my collarbone and both my wrists riding. If you’re dwelling on it, you’re probably in the wrong sport
RACHEL BLACKMORE, JOCKEY
With more than 20 wins at home so far this season, Rachael Blackmore (27) from Killenaule, in Co Tipperary, is one of the hottest names of either gender in horse racing right now. Despite the painful injuries and punishing hours, the country's only female professional jumps jockey says there's nothing she'd rather do.
Things definitely started going better for me since I turned professional two years ago. I'm riding a lot more. It is obviously a very full-on job. There are only about 10 days in the summer with no racing. In summer, you could be up at seven, riding out, and racing in Ballinrobe that evening, and you mightn't get home till midnight. It doesn't really feel like a job, to be honest, because it's something I love doing.
My biggest win to date was on a horse called Abolitionist for Ellmarie Holden at the Leinster National last month. He's hopefully going to run in the Irish National so that would be very exciting.
This sport is so psychologically challenging. One minute, you can be after riding a winner; the next minute, you could go out and get a fall at the first, and be in the back of an ambulance. When things are going well, it's great. If you're not riding winners, it's different.
To take yourself from one end of the spectrum to the other is a challenging thing. A lot of the time when you win, if you're on something that is kind of meant to win, you'd just be relieved. Obviously, if you're riding a horse who's well fancied in a race, you might feel a bit more pressure, but you'd be trying not to let the pressure get to you. I think you can get too wound up in all that kind of stuff. Essentially, your job is to go out and to ride the horse. It's a lot easier once you get up in the parade ring and head on out to do the job.
Getting injured is part and parcel of it. I've broken my collarbone and both my wrists riding. If you're dwelling on it too much, you're probably in the wrong sport.
When I'm not working, like every girl, I like to get dressed up and go places. Normally, you'd just be in your riding-out stuff.
My biggest advice for any young jockeys out there is to surround yourself with the right people. Having a yard behind you to support you is extremely valuable. To be honest, I don't really see any disadvantages in being female. I think Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh have proven that. They've done it all. There's no stigma there anymore. If anything, being female might help you stand out.
Photography: Kip Carroll, kipcarroll.com
Styling: Nikki Cummins Black Assisted by: Emily Callan
Hair: Dean Monks Make-up: Paula Callan at Callan & Co, 1 St Mary's Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, callanandco.ie Photographed on location at Palmerstown House Estate, Johnstown, Co Kildare. (045) 906 901, palmerstownhouse.ie
The Today FM Ladies' Irish National takes place at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival on Tuesday April 18. Tickets from mariekeating.ie and fairyhouse.ie