Wednesday 20 March 2019

Fergus McDonnell: 'National Hunt's highs and lows don't discriminate'

Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry
Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry

Fergus McDonnell

You could say they got lucky, the lads from Touchline Media, to present a film about women in jump racing in the season that Rachael Blackmore is a realistic challenger for the champion jockey title and to have been filming it when both Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry announced they were hanging up their riding boots.

But as the old golf saying goes - the more you practise, the luckier you get. Touchline were responsible for Jump Boys in 2012, and Jump Girls, to be shown on TG4 in two parts beginning on Thursday, is a natural sequel.

So what's the difference between men and women in this beautiful but at times brutal sport? There probably isn't any, although Ted Walsh announces early in the film that, "Women are stronger people than men mentally. Men arse lick a little bit, women don't. The real strong women say 'go fuck yourself'."

So the tone is set. Historically, there has been a lot of lip service paid to women's sport in this country and the 20x20 initiative to increase media coverage, participation and attendance at events faces an uphill battle.

Recently, a senior inter-county camogie match ended in a 45-point defeat for Wexford after they were only able to field 13 players, while on the plus side, Padraig Harrington recently predicted in these pages that a woman, competing in the same field as men, will win a professional golf tournament in his lifetime.

There tends to be a lot of noise when a woman or a women's team emerges from the shadows, mostly from people who don't really care about sport and who quickly fall silent again once the limelight shifts somewhere else. But there are people who 'get it', people who appreciate successful female sports people because they're successful sports people, not because they're female.

Shark Hanlon, the trainer who convinced Blackmore to switch from riding in point-to-points to become a conditional jockey because he was afraid she'd get killed after he saw her take two bad falls off "awful horses", did so because he knew she was a good jockey and believed she could get better.

Racing is the one sport where women compete against men on an equal footing and this film celebrates that fact in a thoughtful and aesthetic way that means you don't have to understand horse racing, you can just enjoy the cinematography and appreciate the stories.

We get to share in the joy of Jessica Harrington, whose training yard is run with the assistance of her two daughters, Emma and Kate, as her Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Sizing John takes another prize at Punchestown, but we also see the flip side of that coin.

In the season that Sizing John won three Gold Cups - at Leopardstown, Cheltenham and Punchestown - Harrington's Our Duke captured the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse.

Sadly, Our Duke died after suffering a heart attack last April. The fondness for the horse and the sadness at his passing are evident in the way Kate Harrington and Tracy Piggott, who rode Our Duke in his work, recall the nature of his passing and the character he was.

We also get up close and personal as Lisa O'Neill's parents watch in horror as she is thrown off Mossback in the National Hunt Chase at last year's Cheltenham Festival, a race she had won the previous year on Tiger Roll. Thankfully she emerged unscathed and shrugged it off in that even-handed manner racing people have of accepting victory and defeat.

We see Katie O'Farrell feel the frustration as she battles back from a broken leg, only to break it again at Galway, although she did go nine days and nine rides with the new break before, as she says, "I couldn't walk any more."

The physical strength and mental fortitude she showed to keep going when giving in to the thoughts of retirement would have been so much easier, are nothing short of extraordinary.

And then there's Katie Walsh who, by her own admission, will cry at anything, shedding tears in the Cheltenham winners' enclosure after victory aboard Relegate was tainted by concern for her brother Ruby who had broken his leg in a fall earlier that day.

It's a tough old game - no matter your gender - probably best summed up by Lisa O'Neill. "One week you can be really good and the next week you can be sitting on your arse."

  • Jump Girls will be broadcast in two parts on TG4 on Thursday and Thursday, February 28 at 9.30. 

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