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My Racing Story

My Racing Story

Lisa O'Neill

Lisa O'NeillLisa O'Neill
© Photo Healy Racing

I'm from Garristown in north county Dublin. I would have got involved in racing through my father Tommy O'Neill who was a trainer when I was growing up, and basically a jockey as well, so I was very much immersed in the horse industry. We always had horses in the yard at home, so I kind of learned to ride before I could walk! I started off with ponies before I progressed on to racehorses.

I was very much interested in horse racing and the breeding industry, but I never really knew what route I wanted to go down. I finished school and I actually went to Chantilly for three months with John Hammond and then I went to Eddie Kenneally at Churchill Downs in America for about six months. Then I spent a season with Jonjo O'Neill. I dipped my toe into a lot of things before I got stuck into the race riding. I loved the travelling aspect and I suppose sampling the different ways things are done in different places, and experiencing different cultures. I think travelling is an education in itself.

That is probably why it took me a while before I rode my first winner. I took my licence out when I was in school, but I never really took it seriously until I spread my wings a little bit. I was very lucky to be selected to represent Ireland in the Fegentri which mixed travelling and riding together. That was an experience in itself. You could travel to any country now and have a contact there. Aileen Sloane Lee and Susan Leahy helped me to get on to the Fegentri ladies' challenge in Newton Abbot where it was Ireland versus England. I was lucky to get on something that had a good chance. It is hard to describe that first winner (Vintage Fabric for Nigel Hawke in 2010) - I knew my mam and dad were watching back home and they would have got such a kick out of it as well. My dad taught me everything I knew and I'm very lucky to have such a supportive family behind me. I rode plenty for my dad at the start of my career and I will always regret that I never got to ride a winner for him. I was bitten by the bug at that stage. I was fully focused on the riding.

Through a conversation with (commentator) Richard Pugh, he pointed me in the direction of Gordon Elliott. I wasn't sure what to do and he advised me to go to Gordon who was very much an up-and-coming trainer. I went in there to work and if there was the chance of picking up a ride, I would be very grateful for it. I'm very much of the opinion that you need to work to deserve what you get. I think that has been ingrained in me from a young age. To be honest, when I had my first ride for Gordon, I was just so privileged to be riding for a trainer of his standard. It is very much about being in the right place at the right time, there are any number of jockeys in the weighroom that are good enough, but you can't do it without the ammunition.

I was Tiger Roll's work rider and I always knew he always had a bit of attitude and a bit of character! He came to Gordon's from the Sales and I was actually one of the first people to sit on him. We go back a long way. He has been one of those very unassuming horses and no-one really thought he would progress the way he did. He won a Triumph Hurdle in Cheltenham and to go on to win in Aintree (two Grand Nationals) is not something many do. It doesn't matter about the size or shape - it is when they have the heart, that's what they need. The best day of all was when I won the National Hunt Chase on Tiger Roll in 2017 because I went in as the underdog. It is what you dream about and I had watched Cheltenham on the television. That was my first ride at the Cheltenham Festival. I had ridden at the November meeting before but never at the festival. I never thought I would be lucky enough to be walking into that winners' enclosure. He doesn't just have a special place in my heart, he's the peoples horse.

Lisa (maroon silks) walking the track in Fairyhouse with her fellow lady ridersLisa (maroon silks) walking the track in Fairyhouse with her fellow lady riders
© Photo Healy Racing

I have some great memories to look back on and the back-to-back Kerry Nationals in 2016 and 2017 are up there in the highlights. The first Kerry National in Listowel on Wrath Of Titans, I was a 7lb claimer and he was quite fancied in the betting. It was one of those moments where everything kind of worked out. I came down to the last and I just thought I would sit quietly, he jumped it and set sail for the winning post. I actually hadn't ridden a winner over fences, I don't know if Gordon knew that at the time! I had ridden point-to-point winners but nothing on the track. They were quick enough to find out afterwards! They are the kind of opportunities you need to grab with both hands. It definitely brings a degree of pressure, but for me it was an opportunity and that's the way I looked at it. Someone was giving me this chance and you don't want to dwell on the pressure, you want that chance to prove to people that you are capable of seizing the opportunities when they arrive. I had nothing to lose at that stage, so it was gung-ho!

I think Samcro stood out when I won a bumper on him. I always think that back then he was one of the greats of the greats and I always say that he was the best feeling I ever got off riding a horse. I literally just had to squeeze my legs and he took off. He always stuck in my head for having that level of ability that I had never felt before. I suppose being in that position and having the support and backing of the likes of Gigginstown was fantastic. You are going to the big meetings riding horses with chances, that's what everybody wants.

I was kind of hoping to have a winner for Gordon and maybe go out on a good note (The Friday Man at Tramore last month). It's something I decided in my head a while ago and I was waiting for the right opportunity to arrive. I've a lot going on at the moment (assistant to Elliott, pundit for RTE and Racing TV, and studying for a Masters in Sports Psychology) and something had to give. I'm getting a little bit older and the girls in the weighroom are definitely a lot younger than I am. I'm so lucky to have shared the weighroom with some great iconic ladies like Nina Carberry, Katie Walsh and Rachael Blackmore. I've made some great friends as well - the likes of Helen Mooney, Aine O'Connor, Jane Mangan, Maxine O'Sullivan and Sheila Ahern. It was such a great place to be and such a supportive place. I'll definitely miss there and having the chats with all the girls.

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