The Racing Life of Helen Donnelly
Updated: Jul 30
Helen Donnelly spent over twenty-five years working as a head of travelling for a number of trainers, including Jonjo O’Neill and Ferdy Murphy.
It must seem a generation ago that Helen was changing the nappies of Jonjo Junior and AJ O’Neill, not yet the talented professional jockey and amateur that those babies, sons of trainer Jonjo O’Neill, have grown into. Many years, road miles and winners later Helen is established in the foundations of the sport of horseracing and makes the most poignant statement: “Racing gets in your blood. I still miss it and I probably always will.” There’s no sadness to her tone, however, quite the opposite. There is an obvious happiness and delight in having once worked in racing.
Though gone from the racing industry for a number of years, Helen still recalls every vivid moment and memory. In October 1989, she had her first lead-up at Carlisle in a bumper and he won by a neck under Robbie Supple. Later, Helen was involved with winners at Aintree and Cheltenham and victories on the Flat too. “Those years working for Jonjo at Ivy House were my best years in racing,” Helen says in her broad Scottish brogue. “I was a ‘tough nut’, there’s no denying that. I was regimental but that was driven by taking utmost pride in my horses.” Such pride meant no horse under Helen’s care left the racecourse stables looking anything other than its shiniest and best.
Helen also always taught her younger colleagues, teaching them her ways and high standards. “I was professional and straight to the point. No tack ever went back in the bag dirty,” she chuckles.
Helen and Legal Right
Photo Credit: Grossick Photography
Helen’s love for horses is still so apparent – those she mentions are only a few of the favourite racehorses she had whilst in racing. The favourites from a long list of favourites. And there were so many great days that not a single one could be pinpointed. “A lot of race days were good,” she answered. Plus, the presence of the racing community also stays with Helen. “The people were a big part of the job – it was not just the yard but everyone in it.”
Yet, even despite this, a move from Gloucestershire to Yorkshire took Helen back up North but then her Scottish hometown beckoned and she now lives back in Falkirk, Stirlingshire.
Did you have a horsey childhood?
Yes – I loved horses. My sister and I had horses on loan, which was great. When I was about twelve, I worked three jobs to save up to finally buy a horse, King Canut. Once, I was cycling beside my sister as she rode Canut and he took off up the road, sparks flying. I peddled madly after them, even stopping to ask a group of farmers eating their lunch if they’d gone past. Two miles on a bolting horse was enough for my sister and I bought her out!
How did you get into racing?
At sixteen, I went to the British Racing School and I really appreciated the “military” type of training there at the time. From there, I was sent to Jonjo O’Neill’s, when he trained at Ivy House, Penrith, Cumbria. It was such a homely and friendly yard. The head lad Paddy Maloney was the best lad, running a “tight ship” but I, like at the BRS, enjoyed it being that way.
Helen's early years at Jonjo O'Neill's in Penrith
Which trainers have you worked for?
I started as a lass at Jonjo’s, then went to Peter Monteith before going back to Jonjo’s to do the travelling. Later on, I went to Alison Thorpe’s for a year and I loved it there. Alison was the nicest person to work for and she looked amazing at all times – plus the yard had a fantastic strike rate. Then, I went to Ferdy Murphy’s for 6-7 years.
How did you progress to the position of head of travelling?
I was rung up and offered the job as Jonjo’s head of travelling – of course, I took it. I always loved travelling and driving around.
Photo Credit: Grossick Photography
What were your favourite racecourses?
Cheltenham and Haydock. Perth was great; it was always in the summertime and everyone stayed overnight. The old accommodation was brutal but we had a few drinks and had great times! There was no rivalry between friends in racing – everyone got along, all congratulated each other. Everyone works in racing because they love it.
What was your favourite meeting?
I loved the Festival but it was too busy – sometimes fifteen or sixteen runners each day! All the high-profile meetings were great. I remember Legal Right winning in the November at Cheltenham, then the Tripleprint meeting, and that was always another enjoyable one to go to.
What were your favourite racehorses?
Stay Awake, who was an absolute darling and also Paco’s Boy, who was the first winner I ever lead-up.
Helen with Stay Awake with Perth
What was your favourite part of the job?
I loved doing my job and I always had pride in turning the horses out to very high standards. I loved plaiting; I was passionate about plaiting up neatly!
What was your least favourite part of the job?
Losing a horse, walking back with only the bridle – plus, the injuries too.
What is your fondest memory in racing?
Definitely the horses! Leading up Paco’s Boy, who was a softie and responded to me well; Stay Awake liked kisses and cuddles and I always loved Master Tern too.
Who do you admire in racing?
All of the travelling head lads, for the hours and hard work they put in. Stable staff too. AP McCoy because, even though sometimes he could be a bit grumpy, he was the best jockey and I loved working with him. Also, I had a lot of love for Jonjo, as a boss, a trainer and as a person!
Photo credit: Grossick Photography
What is your best advice for someone coming into racing?
Take a hundred percent pride in your job and cherish every memory. I loved every minute in racing.
What made you leave working in racing full time?
It was the right time for me to go, I wanted a change and to be back at home.
What do you do now?
I’ve been a support worker for seven years. I help people in their day-to-day lives. I feel that I’m quite pleasant to have around and, very importantly for me personally, it’s a job in which I’m up and out, not stuck behind a computer.
Where is your favourite holiday destination?
Mauritius and Bali. For my fiftieth birthday, a little over a year away, I’m planning to go to Australia and go to the Melbourne Cup.
What’s your favourite food?
What’s your favourite drink?
Orange gin, champagne and cocktails.