Unsung heroes of racing get their night in the spotlight
The Godolphin-sponsored stud and stable staff awards highlight the work of backroom teams in getting thoroughbreds to the track in peak condition, writes Siobhán English
EACH week I hear stories of how tough it is to get people to work with horses. Be it racing, show jumping or any other discipline, finding a competent rider or groom these days can be a tall order.
They often work long days, and are not always the best paid, but ask most of those involved and they will tell you that ‘they do it for the love of it’.
They will sacrifice the hours and money for job satisfaction.
Just observe the grooms of horses at any race meeting and you will see the sheer joy on their face when their charge is first past the post.
“There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the horse you look after every day win a race,” says Elaine O’Donovan.
Winner of the ‘Horse Care Award’ at the 2017 Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards, Elaine knows better than most the dedication it takes to be good at your job. She won this prestigious award last in recognition of her 20 years of commitment to Co Kilkenny-based trainer Eoin Griffin.
Set up in 2015, the annual awards aim to highlight the invaluable work done by these people in both the racing and breeding sectors across the country.
Without good employees it is impossible to run a successful business, and thanks to this initiative by Godolphin, men and women of all ages are recognised through the awards which this year boast a total prize-fund of €84,000.
In 2017 Elaine was nominated by her long-time employer Eoin and was overcome when she was announced the winner from three finalists. On the night she was presented with a cheque for €5,000, with a further €3,000 to be split between her work colleagues.
“I was chuffed to bits — it was just a fantastic night,” she remembers. “Even my parents came along and it was great for them to see video clips of all the other nominees too.
“The awards are such a fantastic idea and it is great to finally see people in the industry recognised.”
Elaine has worked with Griffin since she was just 12 years old and says that she could not imagine herself in any other role.
“I started coming to Eoin when I was still in primary school,” she remembers. “I was about 14 when I started riding thoroughbreds.”
Having quickly risen up the ranks, and even getting the opportunity to ride in a few schooling races, Elaine is now head groom and is highly respected in her role.
“We have a small team here — just three staff — so we always help each other out. One day I can be in the yard and the next day at the races.”
Elaine says this past winter has been particularly difficult for stable staff, especially those working for trainers who got badly hit by the snow.
“Eoin’s yard is on a hill so we were badly affected with snow drifts. It took several days before we could even get horses on the walker. A lot of people do not comprehend the work that goes into looking after horses seven days a week, sometimes in the worst of weather.”
Elaine has seen many changes over the two decades.
“At the beginning when Eoin started out we had about eight horses in training and then at one stage we had up to 40. Now we have about 15 which is a nice number.”
As well as the race horses, Eoin also breeds from a few mares each year and several of these foals have gone on to run on the track.
One of note is the JP McManus-owned Rathpatrick, who hails from the same family as one of the Griffins’ foundation mares, Lady Esmond.
“I remember him as a foal and I have watched him all the way through which has been fabulous,” Elaine says. “The highlight was when I got to travel with him to Cheltenham in 2016.”
Over the years Elaine has also enjoyed following the progress of other such horses as Don’t Be Bitin and St Devote, but she says the one to watch now is a horse called Banksoftheshannon.
“My dream is for some of the current horses in the yard to win big for us this year — maybe at Galway in July,” she adds.
Award-winning groom Elaine O’Donovan pictured at trainer Eoin Griffin’s yard