The summer of 2018 was meant to be Katie O’Farrell’s breakthrough moment, writes Bradley West.
Big wins at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival and Galway Festival underlined the promise she showed as an amateur and her first win as a professional two years earlier.
But something was still missing for the Kilkenny-native. And that’s where English champion trainer Paul Nicholls comes in.
He was looking for a new conditional jockey and O'Farrell jumped at the chance to continue her racing education as his Ditcheat base, from where he has trained the likes of the legendary Denman, Kauto Star and Big Buck's
“At the start of the summer I planted a seed of thought in my mind,” O’Farrell said. “What if there was more opportunity somewhere else?
“It’s not that things were going badly but I'd had a few bad injuries which have slowed me down along the way
“Everyone has to do their time and wait their turn but I felt like I’d given my time and done my waiting and if there happened to be an opportunity somewhere else, I’d be willing to go and grab it
“Paul happened to be looking for another conditional. It was never in my mind that I wanted to go to England or go to Paul, it wasn’t anything specific, all I wanted was more opportunity.
“I wasn’t expecting to go anywhere and have magic happen overnight, I know it doesn’t work like that, I’m not an 18-year-old with silly notions.
Patience, evidently, is a virtue for a woman who has had to deal with more than her fair share of hardship
Blood, bruises and broken bones are par for the course but O’Farrell has had to battle back from numerous debilitating ankle, shoulder and leg injuries.
With all that in mind, it would have been so easy to give up but a mixture of hope and the love of the ride has kept her going.
She added: “Paul was concerned that I wouldn’t have the patience necessary but if there’s one thing I am then it’s patient. I’ve had to be, between injuries
“I said I was willing to do the time because there’s a chance things are going to get better for me
“I have a great love for what I do and even though it hasn’t been altogether very rewarding, I chose to do it because it’s what I’m most passionate about.
“When things get really tough and you can’t see that anymore you have to remind yourself of why you do this, and that nobody is forcing me to do it
“Any day I can change my mind and go and do something else, but that’s never interested me
“While I’m realistic, I’m a bit of a dreamer too. The hope that you’ll get your big winner is what keeps you going.
It is far more just winning that motivates O’Farrell though – she wants to make a bigger mark
The rise of female involvement in the sport has been well documented as O’Farrell, one of the stars of TG4 documentary series Jump Girls, well knows.
The success of the likes of Hollie Doyle, Rachel Blackmore and Bryony Frost has catapulted female jockeys into the spotlight, which has been rather a double-edged sword for O’Farrell
While she appreciates that highlighting the rise of women in horse racing is necessary to provide a profile, criticism is also reserved for how this very illumination hurts the quest for equality
“The last few years has made me feel like I’m a part of a movement,” added O’Farrell
“I’ve always felt like I wanted to be a part of something that makes a difference
“I do think the level of male stigma in the sport is better than it ever has been, naturally, but at the end of the day there is still a lot of people who will look at a girl as not being as good or strong as a guy
“I think that’s more outside the weight room than inside though. Inside the weight room there’s a lot of respect, no guy has ever made me feel like I shouldn’t be in there and that’s enough for me.
“Overall, trying to get taken seriously by owners and trainers still has a stigma around it but it’s progressing in the right direction.”