‘It’s not a job to me, it’s more like a life­style’

It’s taken jockey Lisa O’Neill years of hard work to be­come an overnight suc­cess

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RACING / GOLF - JOHN GREENE

FOR some­one not used to count­ing her chick­ens un­til well af­ter they have hatched, Lisa O’Neill wasn’t sure how she was sup­posed to feel com­ing up the hill at Chel­tenham last March in her first ever ride at the Fes­ti­val.

Hav­ing hit the front on Tiger Roll round­ing the fi­nal bend in the chase named af­ter JT McNa­mara, that lead was ex­tended jump­ing the sec­ond last, and fur­ther again with a fine jump over the last. Only dis­as­ter be­tween there and the fin­ish­ing line could keep Tiger Roll and Lisa O’Neill from vic­tory. Her spine tin­gled. This was the stuff of dreams.

Still, bear­ing down on the line clear of the chas­ing pack she wasn’t quite sure what to think. “I never re­ally look be­hind me in a race,” says O’Neill. “I’m a bit of a pes­simist so un­til I land over the last safely and cross the line with­out any­one in front of me or be­side me, I never think any more of it. I never put my­self in the po­si­tion of get­ting ahead of my­self. I never get too ex­cited un­til I know for sure.”

For the record, Tiger Roll’s vic­tory was by three lengths, with the sec­ond-placed Missed Ap­proach hav­ing eaten into a larger lead in the fi­nal strides in a bid to hold off a fast-fin­ish­ing Wil­lie Mullins horse, Hay­mount. Tiger Roll was, as the

Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent re­ported the next day, “the clear win­ner”.

“I just couldn’t be­lieve my luck to be hon­est. The horse is very eco­nom­i­cal over fences, he doesn’t get too high. He made quite a few mis­takes and he was quite keen with me on the day. But he’s a bit of a char­ac­ter so you know when he’s on his day, when he’s go­ing to run well, and I did think when we jumped off that he was in good form and the thought came, ‘To­day could be his day’.”

The win com­pleted an open­ing-day hat-trick for trainer Gor­don El­liott fol­low­ing ear­lier vic­to­ries for Labaik and Ap­ple’s Jade and the trainer was ef­fu­sive in his praise for O’Neill: “She pre-trains our horses and does ev­ery­thing for us. She’s an ab­so­lute star and I’m de­lighted for her.”

Win­ning your first race as a jockey at the Fes­ti­val is, she ad­mits, “an over­whelm­ing feel­ing”, adding: “It was nice to be able to walk around and en­joy the con­grat­u­la­tions and stuff like that. The win­ner on the first day lets you go out with a bit more con­fi­dence . . . and to hold your head high.

“My mam and dad would al­ways say if the horse is good enough you’re good enough. I did be­lieve that my­self, but some­times it’s hard. Horse rac­ing doesn’t al­ways work out the way you plan so af­ter Chel­tenham it re­ju­ve­nated my con­fi­dence a lit­tle more — you feel as if you are more than ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing it out and do­ing the job.”

O’Neill prefers to stay clear of the lime- light, and hold­ing her head high is not a de­fault set­ting for the 30-year-old. Af­ter a race, she looks for­ward to the sanc­tu­ary of her car so she can phone home for an hon­est as­sess­ment of her lat­est per­for­mance. Her fa­ther Tommy, a trainer him­self, will al­ways give it to her straight.

“I’ll al­ways ask him how I looked, what he thought and what I could have done bet­ter. I think he’s bril­liant be­cause he’ll tell me straight out. I’m a bit of a per­fec­tion­ist as well, be­cause I al­ways think you can im­prove and do bet­ter. That’s why I’d al­ways ask him — I al­ways think I could be bet­ter.”

It was al­ways go­ing to be a life work­ing with horses for O’Neill. Grow­ing up on her fa­ther’s yard in north Co Dublin, horses dom­i­nated her child­hood. “I could prob­a­bly ride be­fore I could walk, some might say. We’d al­ways horses at home. I tricked around with ponies and stuff like that be­fore I got on to the race­horses and got bit­ten by the bug.”

She wasn’t sure ex­actly where her fu­ture lay, but a few months in the US work­ing in Ed­die Ken­neally’s yard, fol­lowed by a sea­son with Jonjo O’Neill at Jack­daws Cas­tle, ce­mented her ambition to spend her life work­ing in the busi­ness. And by the time she ar­rived home, she was de­ter­mined to pur­sue a ca­reer in the sad­dle.

Not that any­thing came easy. Noth­ing ever does in rac­ing. It’s all about hard work, and then more hard work. Her first win­ner was a long time in the mak­ing, and it came far from the bright lights, in New­ton Ab­bot seven years ago. She ad­mits there were times when she won­dered if that elu­sive win would ever come, if she should think about find­ing an­other part of the horse rac­ing busi­ness to work in. The thought would creep in ev­ery once in a while, ‘Maybe it’s just not my thing’.

“I sup­pose there was a point in time when I was think­ing this isn’t work­ing out, and it’s not for me, but when things don’t come around so easy as they might for other peo­ple you’ll al­ways have a bit of doubt. When I did get over the line that day in New­ton Ab­bot, it was just a dif­fer­ent feel­ing al­to­gether.

“My dad was al­ways re­ally big be­hind me, he knew I was more than ca­pa­ble of it, and he thought it just wasn’t go­ing my way. It was like wait­ing for a bus, once one came, a few came. It made it all the more worth­while when a few [win­ners] came round. I did be­lieve I was ca­pa­ble of it my­self but you think maybe it’s not for you when it’s not work­ing out. I sup­pose hard work al­ways pays off and it did even­tu­ally for me.”

That June day was a turn­ing point for O’Neill. An­other was when she ap­proached Gor­don El­liott for a chance to work with him. She had known him for years, through her fa­ther, and he hap­pily gave her a chance. She re­mem­bers the first morn­ing well. “I went in ner­vous as hell on the first day and I tried my best,” she says. “I think I ac­tu­ally got a fall on the first day I was in there. Hard­ened me up a lit­tle bit.”

Four years on and O’Neill has to pinch her­self some­times — in her mind, she’s liv­ing the dream, her dream. “Be­ing in Gor­don’s is great and for him to be be­hind me and have the con­fi­dence to put me up on a horse in big races is an op­por­tu­nity peo­ple dream of. I’d be nowhere with­out him.”

In Septem­ber last year she be­came just the sec­ond fe­male jockey to win the Kerry Na­tional (Katie Walsh was the first) on board Wrath Of Ti­tans, by far the big­gest suc­cess of her ca­reer to that point. Last month she re­peated the feat on Pot­ters Point. “I was ac­tu­ally in the car on the way into the races that day and we were stuck in traf­fic and I just re­mem­ber think­ing to my­self, ‘Well I had my day last year, we might have a chance but I’ll go out and en­joy it’. I didn’t think light­ning would strike twice, con­sid­er­ing last year was my year. So it was just un­be­liev­able.

“I sup­pose it’s a bonus be­cause I ride out in Gor­don’s ev­ery morn­ing, and it’s a bonus for me go­ing to the races get­ting on a horse that I know. I think it makes a dif­fer­ence. It’s all down to Gor­don. He’s bril­liant at his job, he’s a mas­ter of his trade, and he knows ex­actly what he’s do­ing. I’m lucky to be in a po­si­tion that he’s avail­ing of the claim that I have as a rider.

“It’s a great place to work. There’s such a good team of staff there. It’s very pro­fes­sional, ev­ery­thing is run so smoothly and they have ev­ery­thing down to a tee. There’s a good at­mos­phere in the place, there’s a bit of crack, as well as the se­ri­ous stuff that has to be done. There’s a mas­sive team of peo­ple there and a mas­sive team of horses ready to go to war with this year as well.”

O’Neill’s ap­petite for rac­ing is bor­der­ing on un­quench­able. She rides lots for El­liott ev­ery morn­ing — she is the reg­u­lar rider at home for sta­ble stars such as Ap­ple’s Jade and Beck­ford — and three after­noons a week she also works in the trainer’s of­fice. In her ‘spare’ time, she’ll help out at home, keep fit by run­ning or go­ing to the gym, or even get­ting in some prac­tice on the sim­u­la­tor in the Rac­ing Academy (RACE).

She is also a reg­u­lar on the point-to­point cir­cuit, and next Sun­day fea­tures as part of an Ir­ish team in a rac­ing chal­lenge against Eng­land, which is the main event at the Dowth Point-to-Point and Coun­try Fair in Co Meath.

“Point-to-point is def­i­nitely the heart and soul of Na­tional Hunt rac­ing,” she says. “It’s prob­a­bly where most of the Na­tional Hunt horses start off. I’m a pure Na­tional Hunt fan. It’s a great place, it’s where I learnt a lot as well, and I still love to go point-to-point­ing — you have the real true Na­tional Hunt folk at a pointto-point.”

The venue, Dowth Hall, is lo­cated near New­grange and over­looks the River Boyne. It is, she says, “a beau­ti­ful track with a fab­u­lous set­ting”.

“I sup­pose point-to-point­ing should feel priv­i­leged to have a place like that to have rac­ing. The his­tory is there and ev­ery­thing. They do such a great job on the day — they have some­thing for ev­ery­one. It at­tracts so many dif­fer­ent peo­ple.

“We’re go­ing to have the Ir­ish ver­sus English ladies’ and men’s chal­lenge. I com­peted in it last year when it was over in Eng­land. It’s a bril­liant spec­ta­cle for peo­ple to watch. There’s four or five of us on the ladies’ team, and four or five on the English team, and we com­pete against each other in a race and the same with the men. Some of the top English girls are com­ing over, they ride in point-to-points and on the track so it’ll be great. And it’s great to have it in Dowth as well. I think Dowth Point-to-Point re­sem­bles an English point-to-point in a way be­cause they have a lot of stands and fairs, and they do put a lot into point-to-point so it’s great to see that hap­pen here. I think the English will feel more than at home.”

For Lisa O’Neill, be­ing an overnight suc­cess has taken years of hard work, putting in long hours, en­dur­ing the falls and the fal­low spells, the in­juries and the doubts. “I do think that’s what makes it all the more worth­while, when you know you’ve those cold and wet win­ter days, you live for the good days. You have to take the bad with the good and there’s plenty of bad as well so it just makes the good days all the bet­ter.

“It’s not a job, to me it’s more like a life­style. A lot of my friends are in­volved in horses so you’re hang­ing out in those kind of cir­cles as well. It’s a drug, it’s hard to get away from. I could go home and sit down and watch At The Races all night. Of­ten, if I hap­pen to be in Dublin or some­where like that, I might look at peo­ple and think, ‘God they have a to­tally dif­fer­ent life to what I lead’, they are in a city or town like, and you’d won­der what a life like that would be like. But I love what I do . . . so that makes it eas­ier.”

‘You live for the good days. You have to take the bad with the good’

Photo: Gerry Mooney

Lisa O’Neill: ‘My mam and dad would al­ways say if the horse is good enough, you’re good enough’; above, clear­ing the last on Tiger Roll for a mem­o­rable win at Chel­tenham

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