In most professions fifteen years isn’t such a long time.
In the life of a professional jockey, it’s a pretty lengthy period.
In the case of a female professional jockey, it’s an eternity.
The girls just don’t seem to stay around as long as their male counterparts. For some, the call of motherhood beckons, while others yield to the frustrations of restricted opportunity.
South Australia’s Clare Lindop is one of the real stayers, having just retired after twenty three successful years in the saddle. Victoria’s Linda Meech (37) has been around for a long time, and recently completed one of her best seasons ever. Leanne Henry has had a long and successful career in NSW country areas.
With fifteen years of race riding behind her, Sydney’s Kathy O’Hara is already in the veteran class. Setting her apart, is the fact that she has spent most of that fifteen years, competing in one of the toughest riding schools in the world.
More than eight hundred winners, many stakes winners, and two at the elusive Group 1 level, stamp the thirty two year old as one of the classiest female jockeys Australian racing has produced.
Kathy and elder sister Tracy were born at Singleton, but spent their early years at Goulburn, where they quickly formed an affinity with horses. For a while the siblings had to share a grey Welsh pony called Sheba, but later graduated to eventers and show jumpers.
Kathy loved the cross country category, but developed a fault that greatly worried her mother Donna. She wanted to go “one hundred miles an hour”, and unbeknown to her parents, her future calling was manifesting itself.
Donna arranged for her daughter to spend some time with local trainer Danny Williams, in the hope she could be taught the difference between half pace and “flat out”. She learned quickly, and Danny could see clear signs that this twelve year old might just make a jockey one day.
Kathy was fifteen when her family moved to Dubbo, and by this time thoughts of becoming a jockey were pounding in her brain. She all but dragged her parents around to the stables of Peter Nestor, when she learned that the respected trainer was looking for an apprentice. From that day on, the O’Hara girl hasn’t taken a backward step.
Gary Cooper was the trainer to provide Kathy’s first winner. It was New Year’s Day 2003, and a chestnut mare called Downiere won an insignificant 1000 Maiden at Gilgandra. Glen Boss wasn’t as excited when he won the first of Makybe Diva’s three Melbourne Cup just seven weeks earlier.
Kathy improved steadily under the tutorship of Peter Nestor, and by the time she decided on a transfer to Gwenda Markwell at Kembla Grange, she’d ridden 100 winners. Moving closer to Sydney gave her the impetus she needed. Sydney trainers were beginning to recognize her talents, and metro rides were increasing.
Her first city win came on Gem Trader at a Canterbury night meeting in February 2004. A year went by before her first Saturday metro winner came along, and that was the Tom Mulholland trained King Rex at Rosehill.
She carved herself a piece of racing history in the 2004/2005 season, when, with 24 wins, she became the first female NSW apprentice to win a junior premiership. The following season she rode even more winners (28), but could finish only third to Tim Clark.
In the final year of her apprenticeship, Kathy established another milestone, when she became the first NSW apprentice to outride her claim. Her sixtieth metropolitan win came up on “We’ll See” at Warwick Farm just weeks before her indentureship was due to terminate.
Nobody was more excited about that win than the late Guy Walter, who had been one of the first trainers to recognize the talents of the O’Hara girl. Guy offered her regular riding, if she was prepared to ride work for the stable two mornings a week - an offer Kathy couldn’t refuse.
A few months after winning the premiership she was involved in yet another piece of racing history. Her elder sister Tracy had been making her own way as a professional jockey, but the pair rarely clashed. As the siblings bounced out of the barrier in the Shoreline Restaurant Hcp at Gosford on Dec 29th 2005, they had no idea what was about to unfold.
Kathy on Duke Bonga Longa and Tracy on Birubi Gold hit the line together, and the judge couldn’t separate them- the only time sisters have dead heated on an Australian racecourse.
Guy Walter gave Kathy a precious opportunity on Johan’s Toy in the 2005 Epsom. Still an apprentice, she rode the mare very patiently before storming home to run second to Desert War.
The nineteen year old jockey won three straight Saturday races at Rosehill on Cellar Edition for Guy Walter, as well as a Rowley Mile and Scone Cup on Fighting Fund.
Straight Albert trained by Walter, gave Kathy a rewarding treble - Goulburn Cup, Gosford Cup and a Listed Tatts Cup at Warwick Farm. “Guy was a wonderful man, and had great faith in me in those early days”, reflected Kathy. “I hope I was able to justify that faith before we lost him”.
Young Kathy O’Hara had a fleeting but thrilling journey with a precocious little filly called Chance Bye, in the Autumn of 2010. She won her first two races by big margins at Randwick and Rosehill, and then followed another easy win in the Gr 2 Silver Slipper. By now the racing media had adopted the speedy filly, and her unassuming trainer Mick Tubman. She finished only ninth in the Golden Slipper just four lengths from the winner Crystal Lily. “She didn’t win again in five starts, but ran a couple of cracking races in top company”, said Kathy.
You know you’re doing something right when a former eight times premiership winning jockey like Ron Quinton, wants to put you on a horse in the Liverpool City Cup. “Out of the blue Ron asked me to ride Ofcourseican in the Gr 3, and I was thrilled when I was able to win on her”, recalled Kathy.
Two weeks later Ofcourseican stepped out in the Coolmore Classic, and came from well back to snatch Gr 1 glory from Epsom winner Secret Admirer. “I rode her on two more occasions including a third placing in the All Aged Stakes, and that was it”, said O’Hara. “She gets a big mention in my scrapbook.”
Like Guy Walter, Canberra trainer Nick Olive had been a big fan of Kathy’s riding, long before Single Gaze came along. Kathy had won Wagga and Frank Underwood Cups for Nick on Voice Commander, and a couple of Stakes races on Zaratone.
When Kathy won a two year old race on Single Gaze at Rosehill in November 2014, she couldn’t have envisaged what the future held. That was to be the filly’s only two year old win, but she did run second in the Black Opal, and was out of a place but only 3.8 lengths from the winner in the Golden Slipper.
She came into her own in the Autumn of 2016 - second in the Surround Stakes, a win in the
Gr 3 Arrowfield at Kembla, and then the one that counts. A perfect ride saw Single Gaze win the Vinery Stud Stakes - Kathy’s second Gr 1 success.
Two weeks later in the Australian Oaks at Randwick, a split second contact with Happy Hannah’s heels on the home turn spelled disaster. Single Gaze went down as though the ground had opened up, spearing Kathy to the turf, and somersaulting to land on top of the jockey. It was a sickening fall that brought gasps of disbelief from the big crowd on hand.
Kathy had been in several falls previously, sustaining broken bones and nasty gashes, but she’d never been in one like this. “Nick and I had often commented on the mare’s lack of size, but the fact she’s only a pony, may have saved me from more serious injuries”, reflected the jockey.
She sustained a dislocated clavicle, a collapsed lung, two broken ribs and a massive concussion. She was sidelined for months, and only her indomitable spirit got her on the road to recovery. Single Gaze escaped serious injury, but wasn’t the same mare when she returned to work, and Nick immediately aborted spring plans.
It was ten months before the chestnut mare returned to racing, and she failed to win in three runs over the Slipper carnival. She was “freshened” before heading to Brisbane, where she bounced back to her best. She won the Listed Tails Quality, was second in the Hollindale, a good sixth (3.5 lengths) in the Doomben Cup, won the P.J.O’Shea Stakes and ran second in the Brisbane Cup - a terrific return to form.
Single Gaze enjoyed a let up before heading to Melbourne where she finished close up in four Gr 1 races, before finishing a cracking second in the Caulfield Cup. “We went into the Melbourne Cup with high hopes, but nothing went right in the race, and she finished well back”, said Kathy.
She didn’t win in five starts this autumn but ran some super races including a fifth, beaten under two lengths in the Australian Cup. It’s now history that Single Gaze has been sold to overseas interests with a breeding career in the pipeline. The new owners have decided on one quick spring preparation with Chris Waller, before she bows out.
She’s had three barrier trials, and will resume in the Chelmsford Stakes next Saturday (Sept 1st 2018). Kathy tells me she has been booked already to ride the mare at Randwick, and hopes she will be retained for the remainder of the preparation.
It would be a great shame to separate the pair at this stage of the game. They’ve been through a lot together, and it’s obvious the little chestnut mare thinks the world of Kathy O’Hara.
I can understand that. The Sydney racing world at large feels exactly the same way.