Fortune favours budding jockey
Mairéad winning RACE to top
Published 16/06/2016 | 00:00
It's been one of those dreams that has remained constant for young girls growing up around the country through the last few generations: to ride a pony.
Times have changed but sitting up on the back of a trotting equine, looking down on the world like it's a million miles below, has remained a right of passage for many.
Dreams expand over time though. A new breed of young lady has emerged from the 'you can't do it, you're only a woman' dark ages to dream big.
A man's world no more, the jockeys' rooms at race meetings up and down the country, and indeed further afield, are seeing a female influx of quality riders.
What started with Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh here, has been furthered by Rachael Blackmore turning professional, turning heads and succeeding, when many in the industry turned their noses up at the prospects of such achievements.
Mairéad Fortune is one of those leading the charge of the next wave and a large, influential wave it looks set to be. The 17-year-old from Ferns achieved the child's dream more than a decade ago but realised she wanted more.
'I was looking at all the jockeys, Ruby Walsh and stuff,' she said, 'and was like "Oh God, I'd love to be doing that", riding horses and everyone watching you.'
So from an embryonic thought, a seed of the future began to germinate. The next question was 'how?' and Fortune answered that in a very 21st century way.
'I looked up on the internet "how would you become a jockey" and the Racing Academy came up on Google. So then I applied and went to the open day and got into that,' she explained.
The Racing Academy and Centre of Education, or RACE, is based in Kildare and offers students a '42-week residential programme comprising three terms, which is sponsored by SOLAS and is free of charge to EU citizens'.
For Fortune, initially it meant having to forgo fourth year of school, living away from home (which she describes as 'hard' but 'doing something you love helps it'), and training for a career in the equine industry for five days a week.
'We were on the horse riding simulators, shown how to use the whip, push out when riding a finish, our position on a horse, how to settle a horse on the gallop and all that kind of stuff,' explained Fortune of a course that covers the industry off the track.
'After the yard in the morning we would go to school. We had communications, business calculations, I.T.'
Fortune will graduate from the course in the coming weeks. The next step is to obtain an amateur licence to race ride, and she hopes to compete in a few bumpers over the course of the summer.
'Getting the amateur bumper licence, I'd get a bit of experience race riding,' Fortune said. 'Hopefully I might switch to a conditional licence after.'
To further her goals, improve and excel in the racing game, Fortune, like any young rider, is going to need the support of trainers. She said she has been lucky so far. With RACE, the young Wexford woman was placed with Curragh-based Alan Fleming since January.
'It was a great opportunity to get sent out to such a great yard like Alan Fleming's; him and Barry Connell have been very helpful and supportive of me and have taught me so much.'
As well as that, Fortune has spend her weekends gaining further vital experience in Paul Nolan's yard in Enniscorthy.
'Paul and James Nolan were very good taking me on when I didn't have a lot of experience,' explained Fortune, who began there last summer. 'They have made me into a much better rider. Alan Dobbs (Head Lad) has taught me so much about the care of horses and training race horses.'
Yet the next step is probably the hardest of all. To follow in the footsteps of her idol Ruby Walsh, Fortune must get the backing of trainers, get some luck and maintain the drive and determination that's got her this far.
Rowing against the tide of popular opinion has given Fortune inner strength and belief. 'They would rather have a lad up on a horse than a girl. They think that the lad would be stronger than the girls.
'It definitely (gives you more drive) to prove all the lads wrong.' If the young horsewoman can keep the fire burning she's certainly one to keep an eye out for.
By her own admission, her goal is unwavering, to 'be one of the best out there in years to come'.