Vincent Hogan: The triumph of skill and bravery over prejudice proves racing no longer a 'man's world'
Jessica Harrington emits a weather-proofed smile, reminding us of a place that seems so profoundly last century now.
Of the ancient narrowness with which racing (maybe society in truth) looked upon women and that old Pathé News idea that they were best kept out of harm's way. Jessica is 70 now and a legend in her sport. But she talks of a time when her gender was considered some kind of terrible liability.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
"When I started training, it was very much a man's world," she recalls in 'Jump Girls', the captivating two-part documentary, episode one of which will be broadcast on TG4 next Thursday. "When you actually look back, the first time a woman was allowed to hold a licence was 1966. And I think it was seventy-something ('76) before women were allowed ride over jumps.
"There was a big discussion, should they be called jockeys or jockettes!"
It all seems scarcely believable now, that blazing, suffragette energy once needed to run, eventually, all the way to the British Court of Appeal so that women like Venetia Williams, Henrietta Knight and Mary Reveley could train horses under their own names as distinct from that of a so-called "better half".
Pointedly, when Harrington saddled Sizing John to victory in the 2017 Gold Cup, one of the first into the enclosure offering their congratulations was another of the great mould-breakers, Jenny Pitman.
But maybe the beauty of 'Jump Girls' is what the story chooses not to be. It doesn't seek to dredge back into that old-world, brandy-swilling, Jockey Club prejudice of grey men with a grey view of the industry. Instead, it anchors its narrative on the virtual uniqueness of National Hunt racing today as a sport in which separation of the sexes is, essentially, obsolete.
One in which men and women can compete on equal terms.
The weigh-room numbers may remain lopsided, but there is no sense of inferiority or deference from the minority now. On the contrary, as Ted Walsh flatly suggests, "Women are stronger people than men mentally. Men a**e-lick a bit, women don't. The real strong women say 'Go f**k yourself!'"
His daughter, Katie, and daughter-in-law, Nina Carberry, naturally feature, as do Ireland's only two current female professional jockeys, Rachael Blackmore and Katie O'Farrell. To those outside that community, the unremitting dangers of National Hunt tell us that a weigh-room cannot be a strictly rational place.
Yet, these absurdly brave people almost always communicate an easy courtesy and humility, as if the job they do is a small, daily, lottery win.
Blackmore, the first female to be crowned conditional champion and currently a close second to Paul Townend in the jump jockeys' championship, has an almost porcelain elegance out of the saddle, yet is established now as one of the smartest, toughest riders around. And her story is a virtual parable on the importance of forbearance and courage in a jockey's life.
John 'Shark' Hanlon recalls first using her in Thurles on a horse called Stowaway Pearl. He did so on Davy Russell's recommendation and, though fancying their chances, he chose not to tell Blackmore. 'Shark' quickly discovered that it would take more than a heavy press of expectation to unsettle the Killenaule, Co Tipperary girl, soon enticing her away from the heart-in-the-mouth world of point-to-point.
"A girl riding point-to-points... they weren't getting the best rides in the world," Hanlon recalls. "I just felt that she was going to get killed riding point-to-point horses. Because she got two falls one day, I'll never forget it. On two awful horses."
For Blackmore and O'Farrell, the heavy lifting for women seeking respect in a National Hunt weigh-room had already been taken care of by Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh. Both retired at Punchestown last year on the final day of the season, having - as Blackmore puts it - "blown any stigma" away.
Carberry has seven Cheltenham Festival winners to her name while Walsh, famously, had a double in 2010. Both are Irish Grand National winners too while Katie's third place on Seabass in 2012 remains the highest ever by a female jockey in the English National.
At Aintree, there is almost the sense of soldiers going to the front in that tradition of jockeys being applauded from the weigh-room before the National. And you get an idea why in '96 winner Mick Fitzgerald's recall of a bad fall on L'Ami during the '08 renewal. "It doesn't get much higher than winning it and it doesn't get much lower than feeling... well, not feeling anything," he says. "I was paralysed at the back of the second fence in 2008. And for the first time in my life, I was really scared."
In 'Jump Girls', there are echoes of her father and brother (Ruby's) candour in Katie Walsh's insistence of "I don't like bulls**t, I don't beat around the bush. That's the kind of person that I am!" Yet it's a little hard to see how she'd have been well served in such an intimidating domain by communicating anything softer. Both she and Nina could, undoubtedly, have made successful professional careers in the saddle but, as Katie reflects, retaining their amateur status gave them "the best of both worlds".
That said, racing owes the Katie Walshes and Nina Carberrys a profound sense of gratitude now too. As Harrington observes: "Before Nina and Katie came long, you know female jockeys were really treated probably as a bit of a joke. You know, they weren't strong enough. But they proved you don't have to be strong to win races, you just have to be a bloody good rider."
Kilkenny's O'Farrell patently has that jockey's royal flush of courage, empathy and timing too, but her story in 'Jump Girls' also conveys just how cruelly and quickly injury will wash away the very semblance of romance.
Having missed six months with a serious ankle break, she then suffered a freak injury to the same leg in Galway last summer. "It was in the Galway Hurdle and another's jockey's stirrup iron went straight into my leg where I have the plate from last year," she explains almost matter-of-factly.
"The next morning, I was declared on Low Sun for Saturday (they would win the €59,000 Handicap Hurdle) so, no matter what happened, I was going to ride that horse anyway. I went nine days and nine rides before I couldn't walk anymore. You wouldn't have to be a doctor to tell it was broken, put it that way!"
The endless paradox of pride and gut-wrenching anxiety endured by jockeys' families is captured perfectly in the experience of Lisa O'Neill, one of the leading amateurs today in Gordon Elliott's yard. Her parents' celebrations in The Fox Inn pub in Ashbourne went viral after Tiger Roll's victory in the 2017 JT McNamara National Hunt Chase.
One year later, Tommy and Margaret are filmed at the Festival as she takes an horrendous fall that proves fatal for her mount, Mossback. Initially unsure of Lisa's condition, their sense of dread comes pouring out through the screen. As Tommy reflects: "When you couldn't see her getting up quick enough, you always worry like."
But 'Jump Girls' is a simple declaration of love for the horse too.
In Harrington's case, the heartbreak at 2017 Irish Grand National winner, Our Duke's, sudden death clearly resounded right across her yard. The horse's work rider, TV presenter Tracy Piggott describes lying on the ground beside Our Duke as he began slipping away after suffering a massive heart attack.
Just weeks earlier, Jessie is filmed following her horse to the parade ring before the Cheltenham Gold Cup. She has come to the race without defending champion, Sizing John, after the discovery of a hairline pelvis fracture. Now her anxieties for Our Duke come out in what all but sounds like a soliloquy.
"Sick. Nervous," she says quietly. "You know, this was all a great idea three months ago. Now it's a bloody awful idea. You just start thinking about all the things that could go wrong. My imagination is brilliant at that you know. The mind gets a bit like a washing-machine."
As it happens, jockey Robbie Power pulls the horse up early, realising he is not travelling well. One month on, Our Duke's death is an emotionally ransacking experience.
"I just couldn't talk to anyone," explains Harrington. "Everyone in the yard was upset. So you know, it wasn't a very nice time. However much you wrap up bad news, it's still bad news."
It's seven years since the acclaimed 'Jump Boys' delivered fly-on-the-wall access to three superstars of the sport, Ruby, Barry Geraghty and Russell. But 'Jump Girls' delves maybe more intimately into the DNA of jump racing by virtue of focusing on slightly less luminous figures.
On people like O'Farrell, the X-ray of her besieged leg now revealing more metal than a blacksmith's yard.
In doing so, it works beautifully as an essay in how a once resolutely masculine place now showcases the very essence of female strength. Better still, it is a love letter to the horses who, sometimes, carry them out of their own imaginations.
Episode one of 'Jump Girls', made by Touchline Media, will be broadcast on TG4 next Thursday at 9.30pm, with episode two on Thursday, February 28, at the same time.