'It's not a job to me, it's more like a lifestyle'
It's taken jockey Lisa O'Neill years of hard work to become an overnight success
For someone not used to counting her chickens until well after they have hatched, Lisa O'Neill wasn't sure how she was supposed to feel coming up the hill at Cheltenham last March in her first ever ride at the Festival.
Having hit the front on Tiger Roll rounding the final bend in the chase named after JT McNamara, that lead was extended jumping the second last, and further again with a fine jump over the last. Only disaster between there and the finishing line could keep Tiger Roll and Lisa O'Neill from victory. Her spine tingled. This was the stuff of dreams.
Still, bearing down on the line clear of the chasing pack she wasn't quite sure what to think. "I never really look behind me in a race," says O'Neill. "I'm a bit of a pessimist so until I land over the last safely and cross the line without anyone in front of me or beside me, I never think any more of it. I never put myself in the position of getting ahead of myself. I never get too excited until I know for sure."
For the record, Tiger Roll's victory was by three lengths, with the second-placed Missed Approach having eaten into a larger lead in the final strides in a bid to hold off a fast-finishing Willie Mullins horse, Haymount. Tiger Roll was, as the Irish Independent reported the next day, "the clear winner".
"I just couldn't believe my luck to be honest. The horse is very economical over fences, he doesn't get too high. He made quite a few mistakes and he was quite keen with me on the day. But he's a bit of a character so you know when he's on his day, when he's going to run well, and I did think when we jumped off that he was in good form and the thought came, 'Today could be his day'."
The win completed an opening-day hat-trick for trainer Gordon Elliott following earlier victories for Labaik and Apple's Jade and the trainer was effusive in his praise for O'Neill: "She pre-trains our horses and does everything for us. She's an absolute star and I'm delighted for her."
Winning your first race as a jockey at the Festival is, she admits, "an overwhelming feeling", adding: "It was nice to be able to walk around and enjoy the congratulations and stuff like that. The winner on the first day lets you go out with a bit more confidence . . . and to hold your head high.
"My mam and dad would always say if the horse is good enough you're good enough. I did believe that myself, but sometimes it's hard. Horse racing doesn't always work out the way you plan so after Cheltenham it rejuvenated my confidence a little more - you feel as if you are more than capable of carrying it out and doing the job."
O'Neill prefers to stay clear of the limelight, and holding her head high is not a default setting for the 30-year-old. After a race, she looks forward to the sanctuary of her car so she can phone home for an honest assessment of her latest performance. Her father Tommy, a trainer himself, will always give it to her straight.
"I'll always ask him how I looked, what he thought and what I could have done better. I think he's brilliant because he'll tell me straight out. I'm a bit of a perfectionist as well, because I always think you can improve and do better. That's why I'd always ask him - I always think I could be better."
It was always going to be a life working with horses for O'Neill. Growing up on her father's yard in north Co Dublin, horses dominated her childhood. "I could probably ride before I could walk, some might say. We'd always horses at home. I tricked around with ponies and stuff like that before I got on to the racehorses and got bitten by the bug."
She wasn't sure exactly where her future lay, but a few months in the US working in Eddie Kenneally's yard, followed by a season with Jonjo O'Neill at Jackdaws Castle, cemented her ambition to spend her life working in the business. And by the time she arrived home, she was determined to pursue a career in the saddle.
Not that anything came easy. Nothing ever does in racing. It's all about hard work, and then more hard work. Her first winner was a long time in the making, and it came far from the bright lights, in Newton Abbot seven years ago. She admits there were times when she wondered if that elusive win would ever come, if she should think about finding another part of the horse racing business to work in. The thought would creep in every once in a while, 'Maybe it's just not my thing'.
"I suppose there was a point in time when I was thinking this isn't working out, and it's not for me, but when things don't come around so easy as they might for other people you'll always have a bit of doubt. When I did get over the line that day in Newton Abbot, it was just a different feeling altogether.
"My dad was always really big behind me, he knew I was more than capable of it, and he thought it just wasn't going my way. It was like waiting for a bus, once one came, a few came. It made it all the more worthwhile when a few [winners] came round. I did believe I was capable of it myself but you think maybe it's not for you when it's not working out. I suppose hard work always pays off and it did eventually for me."
That June day was a turning point for O'Neill. Another was when she approached Gordon Elliott for a chance to work with him. She had known him for years, through her father, and he happily gave her a chance. She remembers the first morning well. "I went in nervous as hell on the first day and I tried my best," she says. "I think I actually got a fall on the first day I was in there. Hardened me up a little bit."
Four years on and O'Neill has to pinch herself sometimes - in her mind, she's living the dream, her dream. "Being in Gordon's is great and for him to be behind me and have the confidence to put me up on a horse in big races is an opportunity people dream of. I'd be nowhere without him."
In September last year she became just the second female jockey to win the Kerry National (Katie Walsh was the first) on board Wrath Of Titans, by far the biggest success of her career to that point. Last month she repeated the feat on Potters Point. "I was actually in the car on the way into the races that day and we were stuck in traffic and I just remember thinking to myself, 'Well I had my day last year, we might have a chance but I'll go out and enjoy it'. I didn't think lightning would strike twice, considering last year was my year. So it was just unbelievable.
"I suppose it's a bonus because I ride out in Gordon's every morning, and it's a bonus for me going to the races getting on a horse that I know. I think it makes a difference. It's all down to Gordon. He's brilliant at his job, he's a master of his trade, and he knows exactly what he's doing. I'm lucky to be in a position that he's availing of the claim that I have as a rider.
"It's a great place to work. There's such a good team of staff there. It's very professional, everything is run so smoothly and they have everything down to a tee. There's a good atmosphere in the place, there's a bit of crack, as well as the serious stuff that has to be done. There's a massive team of people there and a massive team of horses ready to go to war with this year as well."
O'Neill's appetite for racing is bordering on unquenchable. She rides lots for Elliott every morning - she is the regular rider at home for stable stars such as Apple's Jade and Beckford - and three afternoons a week she also works in the trainer's office. In her 'spare' time, she'll help out at home, keep fit by running or going to the gym, or even getting in some practice on the simulator in the Racing Academy (RACE).
She is also a regular on the point-to-point circuit, and next Sunday features as part of an Irish team in a racing challenge against England, which is the main event at the Dowth Point-to-Point and Country Fair in Co Meath.
"Point-to-point is definitely the heart and soul of National Hunt racing," she says. "It's probably where most of the National Hunt horses start off. I'm a pure National Hunt fan. It's a great place, it's where I learnt a lot as well, and I still love to go point-to-pointing - you have the real true National Hunt folk at a point-to-point."
The venue, Dowth Hall, is located near Newgrange and overlooks the River Boyne. It is, she says, "a beautiful track with a fabulous setting".
"I suppose point-to-pointing should feel privileged to have a place like that to have racing. The history is there and everything. They do such a great job on the day - they have something for everyone. It attracts so many different people.
"We're going to have the Irish versus English ladies' and men's challenge. I competed in it last year when it was over in England. It's a brilliant spectacle for people to watch. There's four or five of us on the ladies' team, and four or five on the English team, and we compete against each other in a race and the same with the men. Some of the top English girls are coming over, they ride in point-to-points and on the track so it'll be great. And it's great to have it in Dowth as well. I think Dowth Point-to-Point resembles an English point-to-point in a way because they have a lot of stands and fairs, and they do put a lot into point-to-point so it's great to see that happen here. I think the English will feel more than at home."
For Lisa O'Neill, being an overnight success has taken years of hard work, putting in long hours, enduring the falls and the fallow spells, the injuries and the doubts. "I do think that's what makes it all the more worthwhile, when you know you've those cold and wet winter days, you live for the good days. You have to take the bad with the good and there's plenty of bad as well so it just makes the good days all the better.
"It's not a job, to me it's more like a lifestyle. A lot of my friends are involved in horses so you're hanging out in those kind of circles as well. It's a drug, it's hard to get away from. I could go home and sit down and watch At The Races all night. Often, if I happen to be in Dublin or somewhere like that, I might look at people and think, 'God they have a totally different life to what I lead', they are in a city or town like, and you'd wonder what a life like that would be like. But I love what I do . . . so that makes it easier."
Sunday Indo Sport