Sunday 20 October 2019

Sinead Kissane: They're not female professional jockeys - just professional jockeys

Rachael Blackmore, in the winner's enclosure after guiding Mr Goodenough to victory at Leopardstown, is hoping to make it to Cheltenham in March Photo: Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE
Rachael Blackmore, in the winner's enclosure after guiding Mr Goodenough to victory at Leopardstown, is hoping to make it to Cheltenham in March Photo: Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Katie O'Farrell was still the relatively new kid in town when she lined up for the beginners' chase in Kilbeggan three months ago after becoming a professional jockey in November 2015.

For this race, O'Farrell took over the riding duties from the horse's usual jockey, Ruby Walsh, who had never recorded a win on the Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old gelding.

So how did O'Farrell perform? She won the race by 19 lengths - her first winner over fences as a pro. The name of the horse? New Kid In Town.

"Katie has ridden winners now for Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins. She's as good a value for 7lb as anyone in the country," said Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father.

"Hopefully she can follow in the path of Rachael Blackmore and ride many more winners."

O'Farrell must have given New Kid In Town a nose for winning because the following month in Cork, Ruby finally got his first win on him.

O'Farrell described New Kid In Town as the kind of horse "that fights you if you fight him, so it's best to let him go along in front and trust him". No wonder they partnered up well, as there seems to be that same kind of single-mindedness in O'Farrell.

She decided to turn pro at the age of 25 - before telling her parents - and is now one of two, along with Rachael Blackmore, professional female National Hunt jockeys in Ireland - Katie Walsh and Nina Carberry are both amateur.

"In a lot of sports you have your professionals who would be better than your amateurs, but in horse racing that's not the case," Blackmore says. "A lot of lads stay amateur because they wouldn't be able to ride a lot of weights that are on the track."

O'Farrell's first year as a pro jockey came with some challenges, which she has overcome. In the nandicap hurdle in Wexford last month, she was thrown off Hurry Kitty after jumping the ninth fence. It wasn't the fall itself which did damage but an oncoming horse which kicked her in the head and broke her helmet.

O'Farrell can't remember anything about the fall, and only came around in the ambulance before she was driven to hospital. She didn't sustain any broken bones, only a cut under her eye. But she suffered a concussion. After doing a concussion test seven days later, she was stood down for a month.

Her concussion initially got worse the week after the fall before she started to feel better.

"You just get very tired, you might be very cranky and your emotions would be all over the place. You couldn't concentrate on any one thing for too long," O'Farrell admits.

"Everything becomes a bit more difficult to understand, like you're in a fog for a couple of weeks."

Was she affected by mood swings? "Majorly. I'm not a moody, emotional person but in the last few weeks I have not been like me. I've been angry and then upset. It's very frustrating but I feel a lot better now."

Risk and reward co-exist when it comes to jumping. The risk of the jockey becoming unseated and the reward when it all clicks and you're in a rhythm with the horse jumping, which is Blackmore's favourite part of a race.

Blackmore, who turned pro in March 2015 and has enjoyed 20 winners this season, including three in England, doesn't allow herself to think about any possible dangers.

"If you get too caught up in that side of it, you're probably not in the right game. You wouldn't be thinking about what could go wrong. If you did, it might be time to hang up your boots," she says.

A new movie, with a working title of Ride Like a Girl is being made in Australia about jockey Michelle Payne's historic win on Prince Of Penzance in the Melbourne Cup last year.

After that race, Payne called out horse-racing by claiming "it's such a chauvinistic sport . . . everyone else can get stuffed (who) think women aren't good enough."

O'Farrell and Blackmore don't see themselves as female jockeys. Just jockeys.

"I don't see myself as a female, I think there's no difference anymore. Nina and Katie got rid of any kind of stigma with their achievements," Blackmore adds.

It was like what Serena Williams said in her open letter published this week about what she feels is holding women back.

"One of those barriers is the way we are constantly reminded we are not men, as if it is a flaw. People call me one of the 'world's greatest female athletes'. Do they say LeBron is one of the world's best male athletes?" she wrote.

What O'Farrell and Blackmore are focusing on is chasing rides and winners. Blackmore hopes to compete in the Cheltenham Festival. O'Farrell is desperate to get on a roll to try and reduce her 7lb claim to five, which she needs 11 more winners for.

Yesterday, O'Farrell had her first race in a month after her recovery. As a freelance, she found it frustrating being side-lined.

"It's always a worry. It's like anything, out of sight out of mind. If you're not in there, you have to prove yourself again," O'Farrell says. "You're only as good as your last ride."

O'Farrell finished third in the Ladies Bumper in Limerick yesterday. The name of the horse? Sense Of Urgency.

Irish Independent

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