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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

January 2023 Blog

I honestly thought I didn’t want children; that I was too horsey, too busy, and happy with a Jack Russell as a substitute. But I changed my mind and Finn was born on 20th December 2022. I remember extracts of those blurred hours – the time, the weight, the beautiful face of the midwife Laura, holding my newborn, an impossibly tiny woolly hat – like old photographs stuck in an album.

We were home for Christmas and I was up to see the New Year in but not down the pub, instead with a crying, colicky baby. I had never spent so little time outdoors or been up so late. I’d never watched so much television, delving into the previously unknown delight of following a really riveting series.

During maternity leave, my ‘keep in touch days’ included going racing with Monbeg Genius and I was lucky to lead up Land Genie when he won his bumper. Another time, I had a third in the summer with Our Friend Mo. So, when the nine months were up, there was no guilt or tears dropping Finn at the nursery door: I was delighted to be heading back to work. On stepping onto the yard, head lad Alan Berry gave me the task of doling out all the winter rugs, so I was extremely happy and felt – almost – that I had never been away.

I love my routine – half working, half at home on the days with Finn. There was never a question of staying at home – financially, I need to work, but I also want to. Racehorses had been my working life and had held my heart long before a small human, but the only way I could return was part time. Monday to Saturday, I work the early morning shift – mucking out, feeding, checking and bringing in at the pens – as well as doing similar tasks in the quarantine stables when required. It’s an early start and there’s lots of messages of communication and leaving of notes for the times I’m not there, and relying on my colleagues but, so far, it is succesful.

There are even similarities between young horses and young babies; both are snotty, unpredictable, enjoy chewing on everything and, when standing, are wobbly on their legs. Typing up a blog is impossible now that, ever captivated by his surroundings, Finn is fascinated by the click, clack of the keyboard. He’s into everything, often favouring the jangle of car keys above the jumble of plastic toys he has. In fact, a day at work often feels like a day off!

Even though I’ve returned to work, I haven’t ridden out yet. I would if it was required but at the moment, I feel happiest and more useful staying on the yard. There’s just that niggling worry that I must stay safe – that I can’t afford a bad fall. I need to be there to pick up Finn at the end of the day. Though, never say never – when I see the string, the snorting breaths, the flying manes, thudding hooves, I really miss that side of the job.

Sometimes, it’s hard not to go racing with ‘my’ horses. Fortunate Man won at Newbury on Finn’s birthday – I was disappointed I missed out on taking him but I couldn’t miss my son’s first birthday. Usually, I grab at any opportunity to go racing – seeing everyone, plaiting, leading up, washing off all feels just like old times.

As a family, Joe, Finn and I have done things that we never would have thought of doing before: pumpkin patching at Halloween and we were illuminated by a million watts at the Blenheim Palace light trail over Christmastime. Finn and I also completed two terms of ‘duckling’ swimming, which I enjoyed more than he did!

There’s only one aspect to my new work life that feels unnerving: compared to being full time, being part time feels precarious. I feel more replaceable, and that uncertainty is unnerving. As I haven’t even been back six months, I’m sure I’ll get increasingly settled over time. Yet, I am a good example that it is possible to mix working with racehorses and having a baby.

Furthermore, the racing calendar, with its recent addition of Sunday evening meetings, shows very little regard for racing staff – as well as jockeys and racecourse staff. When a meeting at Chelmsford was added on Good Friday and with meetings increasingly nearer Christmas Eve, it was only a matter of time that this escalated to Sunday evenings. Yes, it offers more opportunities to earn extra money but increasingly often, time off is more important than the pay, especially when families grow up so quickly. I see drivers and heads of travelling who are tired out – the nonstop racing is not a positive when there continues to be this shortage of staff.

Racing Home

During my pregnancy, I was contacted by the efficient and talented Dominique Tortice, formerly of NARS, who has been behind an initiative called Racing Home. Starting in July 2022, it fundamentally wants to ease women back into their former roles within the racing industry. With a greatly informative website, it also offers horseracing’s first mother and parent portal, with an aim of continuing to educate and empower women on returning to racing.

I had six free physiotherapy sessions at the Injured Jockeys Fund’s rehabilitation hub, Oaksey House in Lambourn. My physio was Anna Fisher and, whilst she hadn’t worked in racing, she is a mum and has grown to know the ins and outs of the industry whilst treating jockeys and stable staff alike. The sessions were all centred around being fit enough to return to a yard environment – tightening muscles that had loosened, the pelvic floor and the NHS’ Squeezy app (don’t ask!). Homework consisted of exercises to do on the living room floor.

The other side to the initiative was to offer help and advice, including legal issues, in returning to work, which often proves as a difficult proposition for employees and employers alike. I had several informative phone calls with the lovely and understanding Dena Mellor, which highlighted many aspects and gave me a lot of clarity in a time where I was clueless. Overall, Racing Home was excellent and no stone was left unturned in preparing me to go back to work.

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