Harrington leads the way in excellent year for Irish horsewomen
Last week Jessica Harrington received another major award to crown a fabulous year. Her triumph in the prestigious Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year shows how her achievements have resonated beyond the racing parish.
The nominees, based on monthly awards through the year, included world champion boxer Katie Taylor and Leona Maguire, the world's top-ranked amateur golfer, as well as several stars of domestic sport.
Harrington is thmce third woman from the racing world to take this award, now in its 14th year. Cathy Gannon was the inaugural winner for her breakthrough feat in winning the apprentice championship in 2004 and Nina Carberry was honoured in 2011, the year in which she won the Irish Grand National on Organisedconfusion.
This has been a year of notable achievement for many women in Irish racing. For a start, one should acknowledge the important supporting role played in the Commonstown operation by Harrington's daughters Emma and Kate.
Rachael Blackmore's triumph in the conditional riders' championship was a genuine glass-ceiling moment. She rode 32 winners during the 2016-17 season and already has 21 on the board this term, putting her in the top dozen on the overall table.
Fittingly, the individual highlight of Blackmore's year was shared with trainer Ellmarie Holden when Abolitionist won the €100,000 Leinster National at Naas in March. Kilkenny-based Holden has made a big impact in a short time.
On the Flat, pickings were thinner. Sheila Lavery, with 16 wins to her name, was the only woman other than Harrington to train more than a handful of winners.
In the amateur riding ranks Carberry took time out to have a baby and returned to a stage she has long dominated along with Katie Walsh. They now share the limelight with Lisa O'Neill, who joined the pair on the list of Cheltenham Festival-winning riders courtesy of Tiger Roll in the National Hunt Chase. O'Neill also won the Kerry National for the second year in a row, as well as making the most of opportunities offered by Gordon Elliott in bumpers.
Ballydoyle rider had compiled 22 wins to surpass her previous best of 19. Her terrible injuries cast a shadow over an otherwise glorious year for the O'Brien family. It is good to hear she is continuing to recuperate. All Irish racing enthusiasts will hope to see her back in action in the new year.
Birrane sparks revival at historic Mayo yard
With three wins at Dundalk in December, Fergal Birrane has done more than just put his name on the Irish racing map. He has helped to revive a long-dormant tradition and is proving the value of a visionary project undertaken by businessmen Daniel MacAuliffe and Anoj Jon to restore the historic stables and gardens of Killala House.
The house takes its name from the local County Mayo town where the French revolutionary forces made an ill-fated landing in 1798, and where Birrane grew up as a horse-loving youngster, inspired by stories of two grand-uncles who became jockeys in North America.
A first cousin of international show jumper Padraic Judge, winner of the Puissance at the international show at Birmingham in October, Birrane has a wide-ranging equine background, involving show jumping, eventing and riding instruction as well as thoroughbreds. He obtained a wealth of experience at the Barnfield House Equestrian Centre near Ballina, where Philip Scott and his late wife Deirdre became renowned producers of show horses and ponies.
For many years Birrane kept horses in the old yard at Killala House, which had its heyday over 100 years ago in the ownership of Augusta Knox-Gore, breeder of the Michael Dawson-trained 1904 Irish Derby winner Royal Arch.
The house and lands passed through many hands until acquired by the present owners in 2015. Having obtained a taste of racehorse ownership with Harry Dunlop, they have embarked on a major restoration project in the stable yard as well as installing top-class facilities including a one-mile Polytrack gallop, proving its worth as Birrane, who now leases the yard, gets into the swing of things at Dundalk.
Following a breakthrough victory with Glenmoore in November, the ex-Dunlop-trained California Lad won for Birrane at the beginning of the month. Another recruit, Rock On Dandy, who arrived in the yard as a ten-race maiden, has gained back-to-back 1m4f handicap wins in recent weeks.
The County Mayo venture shows it is possible to train successfully from a relative backwater of Irish racing, a facet well illustrated at Dundalk last Friday, when Anthony McCann, the late Oliver Brady's successor at Shabra Stables in County Monaghan, saddled a double, and Noel Kelly, based at Draperstown in County Derry, also had a winner. Let us hope continued success for these and similar small-scale operators will be an ongoing theme of Irish racing in 2018.
Irwin's prison project deserves support
Now retired from his position as chief executive of the Jack & Jill Children's Foundation, Jonathan Irwin, a major figure in the Irish bloodstock world for three decades up to the 1990s, is spearheading a campaign to introduce an equine rehabilitation unit to the Irish Prison Service.
Inspired by a project he came across on a visit to a local prison while attending the sales at Saratoga in the 1980s, Irwin has made repeated efforts to persuade successive ministers of justice to explore the possibility of introducing a similar scheme in Ireland.
He recalls: "It left a hugely positive impact on me, one I have never forgotten for its simplicity, humanity and results."
In the intervening years many countries have introduced such programmes and Irwin reports the results as "nothing short of spectacular" in reducing tension levels in prisons, cultivating a renewed sense of responsibility and self-respect among prison inmates, and providing practical skills to improve long-term employment prospects and reduce levels of re-offending.
With the help of former minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald, the project has now received the go-ahead, subject to seed funding of €100,000 being raised by supporters, for a stable block of ten boxes to be built at Castlerea Prison in County Roscommon.
Horse care and riding skills will be the main components of the project, but it is also planned to run courses for potential farriers and saddlers.
The Turf Club has agreed to administer the fundraising side. Anyone interested in helping this worthy and socially constructive scheme should contact its chief executive Denis Egan. In future the annual cost of managing the project will be borne by the Irish Prison Service.
A fond farewell to Beryl Murless, who died last week at 98. Wife of Classic-winning trainer Stuart, she was a part of my childhood experience of racing, providing generous entertainment after many a Curragh fixture, at Loughbrown Lodge, across the road from the track.
She dispensed liberal quantities of orange juice and biscuits to us children while the adults were served strong drink. Beryl never quite accepted my father's assertion of teetotal status. I fear he was not averse to giving her houseplants an added "watering" as a result.
She was a delightful lady, warm-hearted, amusing, high-spirited, retaining her boundless energy and enthusiasm for life deep into her nineties. Sincere condolences to Charlie and Rhona and family.
Read more of Alan Sweetman's Ireland's Eye columns:
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