Beating the odds to make their mark in man’s world

Katie Walsh, Hayley O’Connor and Jessica Harrington are united by their love of horse racing

Katie Walsh fishes for her phone and digs out the publicity photo she had shot a couple of weeks ago to promote Ladies' Day at Aintree. "I had to ride a horse in a dress at Haydock," she says. "Which was, eh, fun, to say the least."

And sure enough, there she is, crouched low in the saddle, strappy heels in the irons and the long train of a medieval peach gown billowing in the breeze behind her. "That's a big old frock," remarks the ever fashion-forward Irish Times. "Yeah, a big old frock," she says. "But that's a three-year-old colt I'm on, which is far more exciting."

Hayley O’Connor reaches for a story from Dundalk last September to try to explain the attraction of it all. Half her life, she’s the PR manager for Ladbrokes Ireland. The other half, she’s a breeder and owner. All the other bits and pieces like family, friends and whatnot, she tries to magic up a third half to fit them into when she can.

Anyway, she had a filly called Lola Bauex going up against an Aidan O'Brien good thing called General Marshall this night in Dundalk and decided to bring her mother along since she felt she had a chance.

“She’s just recovering from cancer,” says O’Connor. “She’s not into racing at all. And she can’t see why I waste my time with it. But the filly won and I was totally delighted by it, dancing around the place. My mum was there, walking nonchalantly into the parade ring, not really overly fussed about the whole thing. Like, she was happy that I was happy but it was no big deal to her really. But I had beaten an Aidan O’Brien odds-on shot! And he came over to congratulate me, which was very nice of him. But even nicer of him was when he said, ‘And is this your mother?’ He must have twigged that she hadn’t a notion about racing and actually, she was a bit bored by the whole thing.

“Because he went, ‘Now, Mrs O’Connor, your daughter’s horse beat my horse. When she bought hers, it cost €26,000. But now, mine cost €2.4 million.’ So that perked her up no end! She wouldn’t have had the slightest idea who Aidan O’Brien was. But after that, she knew he must be important.”

Jessica Harrington has trained horses for a quarter of a century. She brings the reigning Champion Hurdler Jezki to Cheltenham on Tuesday aiming to do a back-to-back on it for the first time since Hardy Eustace a decade ago. Yet if you go to the Racing Post website and click into the searchbox and type the words Jessica Harrington, you are told that 'No matches were found'. You have to type in Mrs John Harrington to find her.


“When I started training, I was training in my name. But after a very short period of time, I became very aware that the owners would really much rather talk to Johnny. And in my day, when you were married to someone, you became Mrs John Harrington to anybody who was sending you a letter. And so I was Mrs John Harrington on the racecards and that’s what I am to this day and that’s who I always will be. Obviously since he died, I wouldn’t ever change it now.”

Snapshots. Three women whose lives are braided through various strands of the racing game. They ride horses, they buy and sell horses and they talk horses 25 hours a day. Though it is a predominantly male world, they wouldn’t – couldn’t – consider a different slice of life for themselves.

“You do it because you want to do it,” says Walsh. “No one in racing is looking for a pat on the back because they got up 14 mornings in a row at 6am. There’s no special medal at the end of it.

“That was your choice to get into that line of work so you just have to suck it up. If you want to go and get a nine-to-five and have the weekends off, nobody is stopping you. Being a man or being a woman doesn’t come into it. The work is there to be done and whether you’re a male or a female doesn’t matter in the slightest.”

Walsh famously rode two winners at Cheltenham in 2010 and has a third place in the Grand National to her name, the highest ever finish by a female jockey. The vast majority of her work these days is out of the saddle, riding out for her father at home and buying and selling yearlings.

She had a couple of fine seasons riding for Willie Mullins but it was never on her radar to turn professional. Her brother Ruby isn't alone in being of the opinion that the amount of falls a professional jump jockey takes – one in every 13 rides – automatically rules women out of doing it as a career. A shame, reckons Harrington.

“Any young women who come into racing, I always tell them that to get to the top, you’re going to have to work twice as hard. I do believe that. You have to. It’s a male-dominated business. Look how few jockeys have really made it. Katie and Nina (Carberry) are huge exceptions. How many more are there that ride over fences and ride in Nationals? How many more want to do it? How many more are capable of doing it? How many more want to put in the work?

Short memories

“Nina and Katie had to be twice as good as the others to survive. Either of those two could easily have turned professional in my view. They’re both very talented riders. But it’s a tough, tough business. And I think any sort of injury or time out having been hurt and they would get forgotten very quickly. People have very short memories. People want results and if they’re not getting them, they very quickly stop taking risks. Or stop taking what are perceived as risks.”

O’Connor bought her first thoroughbred foals at the age of 21, having promised her mother she would do no such thing after a small but very helpful inheritance came her way out of the blue. She has bought and sold and bred and owned dozens of horses since and will do so for her lifetime. For the next week, she’ll be the face and voice of Ladbrokes in the media. Except for Thursday, when she rides one of Harrington’s horses Hurricane Ridge in the charity race.

“I am so nervous,” she says. “Thursday is Ladbrokes World Hurdle Day so all my bosses from England will be there, as well as probably 60,000 people in the stands and whoever is watching on TV. It’s pretty intense. I’m practising mindfulness meditation to help me.

"The first interview I ever did on TV was in Down Royal and my mum actually gave me Valium to get through it! It had no effect whatsoever. I was absolutely petrified. I had done two days of media training in Carr Communications in preparation. I was so nervous – I have no recollection of what I said. I could have said, 'Superman is riding Sadler's Wells here today in the Gold Cup. '

High heels

“My knees were knocking together. I was totally self-conscious and just had no idea why I would want to do this to myself. But it gets better obviously. You do more of them and you get better at them. And now it’s not a bother.

"The only disadvantage I have over Paddy Power and Leon Blanche of Boyleports is that I have to wear high heels and a full face of make-up. The lads can hop out of their car and throw on a jacket, crack open a Red Bull and put on their sunglasses and they're away. I have to be up and at it an hour before I leave the house. But that's the only difference."

And yet, as Harrington points out, as a rule, women are still the exception in racing. Along with Sandra Hughes and Liz Doyle, she will fly the flag at Cheltenham next week. Venetia Williams, Emma Lavelle, Sue Smith, Rebecca Curtis and Lucinda Russell all go with chances. On the jockey front, pickings are slim. Carberry, Walsh, Lucy Alexander might all have rides or they might have none. But there won't be many beyond them.

"I've been training for 25 years and it's amazing that there aren't more women involved," says Harrington. "Okay, there are women trainers - I made the breakthrough, Sandra Hughes looks like she will make the breakthrough but very few of the others really go for it. Joanna Morgan did well but now she's retired.

Work ethic

“But then you look at the bits around racing. There isn’t a female manager of a course in Ireland. There isn’t a clerk of a course. There isn’t a woman starter. There isn’t a woman stipendiary steward. It’s still a very male-orientated world. I was talking to someone about this the other day and they said, ‘Well maybe they just don’t apply for the jobs.’ And maybe that’s the case. But one way or another, really very little advance has been made.”

Not that too many people seem pushed to make an issue of it. Walsh and O’Connor are both adamant that they’ve never come across discrimination of any hue. Racing is a patchwork quilt and the main qualifications for getting your hands on a square are will and work ethic. The life is hard, the mornings are early, the rewards don’t come easy.

“People in the press probably like to play off the difference but it doesn’t occur to me,” says Walsh. “Like, when Seabass came third in the National, I got a lot of being introduced as the highest-placed female jockey ever. But that wasn’t something I knew or cared about. I just thought, ‘This is great, I came third in the National.’ That, to me, was the achievement. It had nothing to do with being female.

"I never in my life went down to the start of a race thinking that I was girl in a field of lads. I never won a race and thought, 'That's some achievement for a woman.' When I won the Kerry National this season, it never crossed my mind that I was the first woman to win it. It was never, 'This is brilliant because I'm a girl.' It was, 'Jesus, this is brilliant. A Kerry National. Amazing.'

"I feel lucky in a sense that we can take on the lads in our sport. You couldn't send out the Irish women's rugby team to play against the lads. But I can go to the start of a race with Ruby on one side and Barry Geraghty on the other. I can ride against McCoy. And I get a kick out of that, definitely."

O’Connor’s kicks come when she sees a punter’s opinion of her change before her very eyes.

“What I really love is when I’m out somewhere and I hear some guy talking about racing. And then the conversation might expand and the talk turns to Cheltenham and what everyone fancies for such and such a race.

“I love talking to punters who are totally arrogant about their opinions. And I love watching their faces as I lay out the case for a horse, rhyming off statistics and it becomes obvious that I know way, way more than they do. That’s very enjoyable.

“I rang Joanna Morgan the week after she retired to see how she was getting on. And she had been out at a social function the night before and I asked how she got on. And she went, ‘It was fine, I was surrounded by all these women though. We had nothing to talk about!’ I totally get where she was coming from. I’ve been in that position loads of times.”

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times