'I don't go home to watch Coronation Street. I'll watch racing all the time'
Julian Muscat meets last year's winner 12 months after her finest achievement
In the fullness of time Jessica McLernon will almost certainly reflect that the last 12 months have been the making of her.
This time last year she was a dual winner at the 2018 Godolphin Stud and Stable Staff Awards. She earned recognition as Employee of the Year, the most coveted of the seven awards, together with the Leadership Award. It was just the beginning of a sequence of events that brought due reward for her inspiring endeavour.
Five months later McLernon, assistant trainer to Richard Fahey at Musley Bank Stables, was the inaugural winner of the Toby Balding Award bestowed by the National Trainers Federation in memory of the late trainer. The accolade is given to an individual who is committed to attaining higher-level qualifications or undertaking personal development training.
The £4,000 winner’s prize enabled McLernon, 27, to pay for the three modules in the trainers’ course that every wannabe must attend ahead of any application for a licence.
And having breezed through that, McLernon’s upward career trajectory was recognised once again at the start of the year. She was made an ambassador of racinggroom.com, a website which promotes the cause of grooms and serves as a hub to bring them all together.
From McLernon’s perspective, the biggest fillip was undoubtedly the Godolphin-sponsored awards. Winning them rewarded her with £25,000, together with a similar sum to be shared among the staff at Fahey’s North Yorkshire stable. She collected her gongs at the annual gala dinner which celebrates the best of racing’s workforce.
“It was made even more special because I had my family with me from Ireland,” McLernon says of that night. “It was also special for the north [of England] as well. There have been past winners from Middleham but I think I was the first winner from Malton. Hopefully it will help to get people into the industry, and who want to work in Malton.”
Given the ongoing success of the Fahey stable, however, she is in no hurry. “Richard is very supportive in trying to find the right opportunity for me,” she says. “I've had a couple of offers locally but didn’t feel they were quite right for me and my career path. It’s just finding the right base, the right horses."
“Financially as well, it’s quite difficult,” she continues, “but I’d like to think I’ve done enough to get my name out and about. My work has been recognised and people have a good picture of me. They've seen that I’m a big cog in the wheel, so hopefully people will take a chance on me. I’d like to think I’m ready to go when the right opportunity comes along.”
McLernon has been with Fahey for nearly nine years, rising from groom to assistant trainer through a series of quick promotions. Her responsibilities are myriad.
She rides out two lots in the morning before she becomes the central administrator, liaising with vets, farriers, jockeys, travelling head lads and the rest of the staff. She is also responsible for a stable of 150 equine inmates when Fahey and Robin O’Ryan, his long-standing right-hand man, are away.
McLernon’s leadership skills come naturally. “I was always quite an organised person when I was growing up,” she says.
She has had no formal training since she chose not to attend university towards the end of her gap year. By then she had already started with Fahey, who gave her the responsibility of taking a team of horses to the Dubai Racing Carnival.
McLernon has two sisters: one works in an accountancy firm in Dublin; the other is a nurse in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Cork. But her brother Richie, the jockey based at Jonjo O’Neill’s stables, had already chosen racing as a career.
To have become a central player in a leading Flat stable is not a role McLernon could have envisaged when, aged 18, she left Ireland to join Fahey. Until then she’d become versed in the ways of jump racing at the County Cork stable of Eugene O’Sullivan, a family friend. Flat racing was a novel concept.
“I learned about the progression of yearlings to two-year-olds,” she recalls. “The sprinters: the way they can run almost every day and deliver results. I came to love Flat racing and have become Flat-orientated. Richard’s way is all I know. It’s a way that works. I don’t see why I’d change anything if I was to start training.”
She is unequivocal on what is best about her job. “Winning,” she says without hesitation. “I come from a pretty competitive family. When we were younger we all rode ponies, played tennis, swam together. Anything we did we wanted to win, so it’s probably something that carries forward.
“Success is what it’s all about,” she continues. “I saw Ribchester in the lunge pit with no tack on when he first arrived here. I saw a rider get on him for the first time, saw him go up the grass gallops and on from there to win at Royal Ascot.
“Spending all that time with such a good horse makes you strive to make the yard a better place. It’s also great for morale, which is important. It can be quite a down day when things don’t go right.”
Such exciting ventures are receding, however. McLernon needs to be on hand when Fahey is away, which is becoming more frequent as the stable expands its horizons. She thrives on having the responsibility for ensuring that the daily routine runs smoothly.
And when she signs off at the day’s end, she enters a parallel universe. “I don’t go home at 5.30pm to watch Coronation Street,” she says. “I’ll watch racing all the time, right up to the 8.45 at Chelmsford. I’ll look through all the sales results, look at pedigrees, everything.
“That’s something I learned from Robin [O’Ryan]. He made me realise that you have to put your whole life into this industry if you want to make a real go of it. I see what Richard and Robin have done to make themselves successful, and that’s how I’d like to go on. I really can’t thank them enough for what they have done for me.”
The many joys of a career in racing
There is no staff crisis at Richard Fahey’s Musley Bank Stables in Malton. The total workforce of more than 70 people barely changes from year to year, thanks largely to Fahey’s philosophy.
“It’s a great place to work, very friendly, and everybody who comes to work here pretty much stays,” says his assistant trainer, Jessica McLernon. “There's always room for a really good new member of staff but we’re doing just fine as we are.”
In terms of staff recruitment, the industry emphasis has shifted to making working hours more sociable and trying to ensure decent weekend breaks from time to time. Yet McLernon is adamant that a career in racing is extremely rewarding.
“Even if I wasn’t able to train, I’d still make racing my career,” she says. “I’m extremely happy in my role. The racing industry is a fantastic place to work and you make some very good friends.
“You can’t see it as a job you get up to do every morning. It’s more of a hobby, but you can travel the world and there are plenty of opportunities. There are major career paths, whether secretarial, stable staff, or with Weatherbys or the BHA. There’s nothing to stop you progressing. You can find your niche and work from there.”
In starting from scratch, McLernon has worked her way up to a position where training horses is firmly in her sights. But she takes nothing for granted.
“I have to be quite realistic,” she says. “I have to keep progressing and hope that what’s for me won’t pass me by. You see other trainers get the ball rolling and climb onto the next rung, like David O’Meara and Ruth Carr. I have also seen it here for myself since I arrived.
“I’d very much like to stay in Yorkshire. I feel like a Yorkshire lass now and it feels like home. When I wake up every morning I have to pinch myself for the great opportunities I have been given. The only other thing I could ask for is to stay happy and healthy.”
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