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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 23 May, 2018
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'I'd skip school whenever I could to go racing. I think my mother got sick of writing absent notes for me'

Cheltenham winner Lisa O’Neill speaks to The42 ahead of the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival this weekend.

JOCKEY LISA O’NEILL plans to be out on the Leopardstown race course around two hours before her first race at the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival this weekend.

Lisa O'Neill celebrates winning the JT McNamara National Hunt Amateur Riders Steeplechase on Tiger Roll Lisa O'Neill after winning the 2017 JT McNamara National Hunt Amateur Riders Steeplechase on Tiger Roll. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

She’ll walk through the grass before her races on Saturday, looking for the patches of ground that might suit her horse, while also keeping her eyes clapped for the parts that have been ‘chewed up already.’

O’Neill will repeat the process before performing on Sunday too.

The pre-race inspection is an habitual part of her routine, and one which she inherited from her father Tommy, who was once a jockey in his earlier years. Her trainer Gordon Elliott, who she has been working with for almost five years, also preaches the same approach to his riders.

“It’s just nice to familiarise yourself with everything,” she tells The42 after finishing another day’s graft in preparation for the festival.

After her races, she’ll ring her Dad for a review of her performance, and though they might sometimes disagree on some of his observations, O’Neill greatly values his input.

O’Neill will have a strong pedigree when she trots up to the starting line of those races. She is a two-time winner of the Guinness Kerry National Handicap Chase at Listowel — the second female jockey to win the event after Katie Walsh.

The Dubliner is also a Cheltenham champion, having scooped the JT McNamara National Hunt Chase for Elliott at last year’s festival.

But O’Neill suffered through some lean years before reaching those heights. It was 95 rides until her first winner, after racing for the first time at the age of 16.

Lisa O'Neill wins the Ryans Cleaning Event Specialists Flat Race on Samcro Lisa O'Neill riding at Fairyhouse last year. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Her first win was Newton Abbot in June of 2010 when she was aboard Vintage Fabric. After making that breakthrough, the victories came easier to O’Neill, with her second win arriving two weeks later at the Curragh.

But the early stages of her racing career were frustrating for O’Neill, and thoughts of quitting the game naturally crossed her mind during that time of drought.

Before I rode my first winner, I thought ‘there has to be easier ways of getting through life.’ I just thought maybe I wasn’t made out to be what I thought I could be.

“I suppose persistence and hard work and stubbornness pays off. And when you have good people around you, my Mam and my Dad were very good to me when I was finding it a bit hard.

“That’s one thing that makes me appreciate having winners and having a good record is the fact that I had to wait for so long to get my first winner. I suppose when you’re getting a leg up on good horses, it makes you appreciate it a bit more after waiting so long.”

O’Neill’s family was raised on horses, but while her siblings maintained a casual interest, O’Neill was the one who wanted to pursue it competitively.

She can’t quite recall the first time she hopped up on a saddle, but the desire to ride was obvious from the start.

“It was just always something I was so interested in and I couldn’t get enough of when I was younger. I used to go racing all the time with my Dad when he had runners and I was involved in every aspect of the training. It was second nature to me.

I’d skip it (school) whenever I could really to go racing but I suppose that’s just what you do when you’re in love with something. I think my mother got sick of writing absent notes for me but I got away with it anyway.”

To date, her win at Cheltenham stands as O’Neill’s most significant achievement as a jockey.

“I still get shivers down my spine when I think about that,” she says when the memory of that occasion inevitably comes up in conversation.

While O’Neill was trying to come to terms with what she had just achieved with her horse Tiger Roll, jubilant scenes were unfolding back in Ireland at the The Fox Inn pub in Ashbourne, where her father Tommy and mother Margaret were celebrating their daughter’s triumph.

Their stunned expressions were filmed as O’Neill stormed home in first place, and the video naturally went viral, with her mother being the somewhat unwilling star of the clip.

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

“I think she was mortified when she heard it went onto the internet and it was going around everywhere. No, it really shows what it means to us as a family. The excitement and enjoyment and the emotion and everything that runs through you.

“When I was in Cheltenham that night, somebody showed to me. It was great, I suppose it just shows what it means to us as a small family who have been in racing all our lives.”

Horse racing is perceived to be a male-dominated sport, and comparisons are often drawn between the male and female participants. A new study which emerged from the University of Liverpool earlier this week found that female jockeys are equally as proficient as their male counterparts, although it also claims that women riders get fewer opportunities to take on the bigger races.

O’Neill has built up a strong rapport with her trainer Elliott, who has always entrusted her with many of these marquee races. She considers linking up with him as ‘probably the best move I ever made.’

Tiger Roll ridden by Lisa O'Neill wins Lisa O'Neill. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

She has always felt welcomed in the sport and believes the environment in horse racing has become more inclusive of both genders over the years.

With that in mind, she has more wins to chase when the Dublin Racing Festival commences this weekend.

“I think the whole stigma that was attached to it is long gone. So many girls have proven their ability nationwide in England, Ireland and France as such.

“It’s not like it used to be and people are a lot more welcoming to female riders nowadays.

“Maybe someone might prefer a lad on a horse but I think that day is long gone and they’re are so many good girls in the weighing rooms that it’s great to be able to share the weigh rooms with them.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female. It’s not all about strength, it’s about technique. I think girls are more than capable of riding. If the horse is good enough, anyone can ride it.”

The Dublin Racing Festival is taking place this weekend in Leopardstown Racecourse. Headline acts include Damien Dempsey, Vogue Williams and Stockton’s Wing. There will be seven Grade 1 races, with prizemoney to the value of €1.5m.  Comedians Fred Cooke, Eric Lalor, Joanne McNally and Gearoid Farrelly will also be performing over the two days. Tickets are still available and can be purchased atwww.leopardstown.com/Dublin-Racing-Festival.

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