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Things can only get better as Gannon on the move

WHEN Cathy Gannon was taking elocution lessons to make the flat accent of her Dublin upbringing more decipherable, she scarcely dared to dream of fame.

But when, only a few years later, she won the Irish Independent Pádraig Power Memorial Award for the Young Sportsperson of 2004, as well as being named Ireland's 'sportswoman of the year', she was entitled to think her career would not descend to anonymous toil quite so quickly.

Three summers ago, Gannon was hot property. At 22, she became Ireland's first female champion apprentice. "It was all great, I was riding the rollercoaster," she recalled. "But it soon stops, you know."

It stopped so abruptly that, last year, Gannon packed her bags and came to England, hoping that the volume of racing would see her talents more widely aired. But it didn't work, the rides becoming so scarce and the travelling so arduous that she was, quite recently, close to despair.

Thankfully, though, this is not another in the long line of acclaimed women jockeys withering on the vine of prejudice. There may not be much of Gannon but this tiny, fair-haired rider is a fighter. This week, she is uprooting and moving south from Yorkshire to relocate near Lambourn. Already, she feels liberated.

"Bryn Palling has 30 or 40 horses in South Wales and says I can ride them all," she said. "Dave Evans is putting me up and I'm riding out for Gerard Butler. Simon Dodds, my agent, is doing a great job and I think I'm on the up now."

There may be another factor in her revival. Recently, in the trade press, a chatroom debate focused on her. One e-mailer, who dared to put down women jockeys, brought forth a torrent of Gannon supporters. Quite suddenly, the tide has turned. "It was great to read that - it gives you confidence," she said. All you need is a few winners to get you noticed."

Whatever happens now, though, Gannon's achievements are already immense. She came from Donaghmede on Dublin's northside, her father working all hours as a taxi driver to support eight children. Schooldays were spent avoiding lessons.

"I hadn't much interest in school. All I was doing was getting into trouble. My teacher saw that I just wanted to be with horses and she got me an application for the apprentice school on the Curragh. I was 14 when I left home to go there."

Grateful though she is for the basic training, it was not until she was dispatched to the nearby yard of John Oxx that Gannon began to bloom. It is no exaggeration to say that Oxx remains her hero, and his wife, Catriona, her heroine.

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"Mr Oxx is a legend. I learnt loads from him - respect, discipline, how to talk to people - and his wife was just as good. Every Thursday, she'd give me elocution lessons up at the house. I started there in my childhood, stayed eight years and still miss it now."

All the good advice of Oxx came to nought when Gannon finally made her debut as a jockey. "It was at Wexford and the horse finished third," she recalled. "Then I fell off straight after the line, because my legs were like jelly. The boss had been on at me about how to speak to the owners but when I got into the enclosure I couldn't walk or talk."

Oxx had identified something special in Gannon. She was runner-up in the apprentice championship in 2003 and won it the next season.

Stardom beckoned, if only briefly. "Maybe it all stopped because I lost my claim," she said. "It's very hard in Ireland, with not much racing and so much competition, and when they raised the minimum weight, it made it even harder.

"Coming here was a gamble. I had the option of going to America but I'd worked a winter for Kevin Ryan about five years ago and he said he'd take me on. He's been very fair to me, too, but he's got loads of jockeys and there's just not enough racing up north."

Recently, Gannon went three months without a winner. "I got down, for sure, disheartened that I couldn't get the results. I was doing so much driving, often for just one ride. Sometimes, I'd spend more money than I was earning.

"I thought of packing up, but my friends would tell me to stick at it. What persuaded me was reading about that poor girl (Suzzanne France) in Malton. She's been fighting for her life, fighting to walk again and here I was giving out because I'm not riding enough."

With a supportive family behind her and a host of trainers finally recognising her ability and availability, Gannon's story should not now end in the same disillusionment that befell Lisa Jones and Jo Badger. "I really think things are only just starting for me," she said. (© The Times, London)

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