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'People are noticing me as opposed to the boys, there's a long way to go but we are a bit more on a par with them'

Vanessa Maye speaks to The42 as she reaches the verge of her major breakthrough.

Vanessa Maye with sister Jessica.
Vanessa Maye with sister Jessica.

EARLIER THIS WEEK, Richard Fahey, a native of Clougherhead but long a leading northern trainer in England, made a stance.

Fahey vowed not to take on any more apprentice jockeys, frustrated as he was by significant changes to the split of riding fees and prize-money.

Flat trainers retain up to half an apprentice’s riding fee and prize-money in return for paying towards the jockey’s expenses. From March of next year, apprentices are to receive no less than 80 per cent of their riding fee and prize-money; trainers will no longer will pay their expenses.

These concerns are a world away from Vanessa Maye. If she is not yet the Maye West of the Irish apprentices, she is making quite a striking impression.

“A very good personality who will give loads,” says Craig English, whose brother Damian took the kid on to ride work and then horses earlier this year.

“She took my eye,” Damian admits: he was keen to utilise her ten-pound claim.

According to Warren O’Connor, “she always had natural talent”.

O’Connor had a spell teaching Maye how to ride but it is telling that she had the gumption to challenge him. “He has his own style and he was trying to make me look different. I felt my own style wasn’t wrong.”

For a teenager, she lacks little in confidence. If Rachael Blackmore were the pioneer for her peers over jumps, Maye could yet be the Flat equivalent.

While Blackmore has been phenomenally successful over jumps, the story of the lot of the Irish ladies riding on the Flat makes for grim reading. Blackmore has ridden two winners on the Flat this year, whilst Emma Doyle, Karen Kenny, Siobhan Rutledge and Amy O’Hanlon have scored once each. With the exception of Maye and amateurs, no Irish female rider has had a winner this year.

Things may be changing and Maye is doing her part. Donnacha O’Brien quit due to weight issues and his brother Joseph, who also became a trainer because he was too big to ride, has a vision of a somewhat dystopian future.

donnacha-obrien-after-winning-on-nobel-prize-in-the-irish-stallion-farms-european-breeders-fund-maiden Donnacha O'Brien. Source: Peter Mooney/INPHO

“Irish people are getting bigger, heavier, stronger. Those who’d have been small as kids and pushed into becoming a jockey – that doesn’t happen so much any more,” said the elder son of Aidan.

“There will be more coming from abroad, but getting visas and permits is not easy at all. I hope to God they start rising the weights. There’ll be no Irish or English jockeys left. It’ll be like the US now: no American jockeys.”

This is where kids like Maye come in because the up-and-coming females usually have at least one thing over their male rivals: less weight. Moreover, some women simply get on better with horses because they have kinder hands, and Maye is the epitome of same.

We have seen her before but most of us have no recollection. “I’m far better than what I was. I started off in 2017 when I first got a license and had four rides but I was so weak,” she recalls.

“I didn’t know anything. There’s a complete change now. I’m much more comfortable in a finish; getting to ride all the time is much more of a help physically; riding every week in Dundalk is great and the more rides I get…”

Considering the imprint she has made, it would have been a shame had she abandoned it all, and she nearly did. A native of Maynooth, I ask her how long her Dad, Johnny, has been working for Moyglare Stud.

“Hang on there a minute. Mam! How long is Dad at Moyglare? Around 22 years isn’t it?”

Her parents knew she loved horses but it may have turned out differently.

“I was still in school back in 2017, working part-time for Keith Clarke; he gave me four rides. Last year I didn’t get my license back until the end of the year. 

“To be honest, I’d given up on the chance of it every happening. I was finding it such a struggle to get rides.

“You need someone to believe in you and I got lucky with Damian English. 

“I’d started back with Keith last year for a few months and was asking myself at the start of this year: will I bother?

“I said to Jack Davison, ‘Will I renew under your name? Well and good if I get rides; mam and dad have a couple of horses, I could ride them at least.’

“I started with Jack in February and ride work every morning there but he doesn’t have horses for me to ride yet.”

That will change. 

That Maye can ride so light meant she was “getting put up on light weights but they were all long shots”. Trainer Philip Byrne gave her a spin on a low-grade steed called Out On Friday. The pair couldn’t manage a placed finish between them – but at least she was keeping the ride.

Then English used her for Geological over an inadequate five furlongs. He wanted to see what she was like. Now he has a fair idea.

Her ride on English’s Tribal Path Tuesday evening at Dundalk was subtle in simplicity. Back in 2016, Tribal Path was prolific, his success that summer at Bellewstown his fifth in the calendar year alone.

He might have been forgiven for sighing somewhat as he greeted the all-weather track three days ago, having not won since that day near County Meath’s slither of coastline, a losing sequence of a staggering 44 races.

A 44-race stretch of defeats is ignominy for connections of any horse, let alone one so tough – and who spent time with John Oxx and Willie McCreery as well as Damian English.

Despite being pestered up front for the lead, Maye trusted Tribal Path’s finishing pace, and the old boy suddenly found a way to win again.

A nexus even more remarkable is that of Maye and Geological, like Tribal Path a front-running steed by proxy. A book could be written on Geoligical and it would make good reading too.

Bought for less than a grand as a two-year-old, his career earnings went north of €200,000 since he started teaming up with Vanessa Maye.

She rode him on his 100th career appearance, at Dundalk on 19 October. The horse was 22/1. He won.

She rode him on his 101st career appearance, at Dundalk on 1 November. The horse was 8/1. He won.

She rode him on his 102nd career appearance, at Dundalk on 20 November. The horse was 10/1. He won.

“People are noticing me as opposed to the boys, I suppose. I feel like in the last few months, girls here are getting a bit more noticed.

 ”There’s a long way to go but we are a bit more on par with the boys now. And I get on great with the male apprentices, they’re great lads.

“I can’t believe it: sure I never thought I’d even get down to my 7lb claim. Things are starting to look up. You get a lot of confidence in yourself.

I am very grateful I got the opportunity. I literally came fourth on one of Jack’s and thought that was great. Obviously now I want to win. I don’t expect miracles but If I ride the 95 winners apprentices can ride, becoming a professional would be the dream come true.”

The Maye story is heartwarming on many levels. Whilst from Maynooth, she has more than a hint of a Dublin accent, thanks to her dad, and she rather recalls Cathy Gannon, who developed into a fine rider in Britain.

She had no interest in going to college as she hated school.

Remarkably, however, she was not the only Maye riding on Tuesday at Dundalk.

“Yeah, my sister Jessica had her first ride on Tuesday and the mad thing is she’s 21 so older than me! She’s very good and she only weighs six and a half stone!

“Her plan is to go back to college eventually but I suppose she saw what I was doing and right now she is riding out for John Geoghegan. Once she gets a taste for it, and a winner, she’ll want to keep going, if she is like me at least.”

Better judges than this one recognise Vanessa’s talent. She has a nonchalant style, attempting to nurse horses into going forward rather than coercing them to.

“Vanessa has an advantage in that she is being tutored by her dad who is a very accomplished horseman,” says Pat Smullen, who rode countless winners for Moyglare. “Horses seem to run for her and I’m thrilled she is doing so well.”

Davison, too, is up and coming and embraces the same when he sees it.

“Vanessa has been with me nine months and it was immediately apparent that she could really ride. She has good balance and soft hands and her ability to get a horse to relax beneath her is notable.

“I’m looking forward to giving her some good opportunities as the stable expands.”

If you haven’t seen Maye in action, she is bidding to bring Geological home in front for the fourth race in succession Friday evening. Win or lose, she is becoming iconic for girls with ambitions to make it in sport.

“It’s great to see Vanessa get her breakthrough because it is so hard in Ireland on the Flat for these talented young girls to make it,” Warren O’Connor adds. “She has proven when finally giving a chance that horses do run for her any time.”

Over in Southwell on Thursday, Hollie Doyle overcame Josephine Gordon’s record of 106 winners by a female rider in a calendar year. Geological may not be quite good enough on Friday evening but Maye may already be off the mark, with her booking aboard Lapilli in the Crowne Plaza Race & Stay Handicap (5.15) as eye-catching as his run here Tuesday behind a certain Tribal Path.

Snapollentia makes plenty of appeal for another apprentice, Shane Crosse, in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Median Auction Fillies Maiden (5.45).

Speaking of Tribal Path, there’s a lovely video, taken by Jessica, of Maye aboard Tribal Path in the parade ring before his race this week. The younger sister gives the other a wave and a smile. The elder sister starts laughing.

Sisters are doing it for themselves.

About the author:

Johnny Ward

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