An Interview with Karen Sharpe:
Regional Liaison for the IJF
Karen Sharpe works for the Injured Jockeys’ Fund in the role of Regional Welfare Liaison for the North. She loves racing and its people, and working for this charity is a way of helping the sportsmen she admires the most, the jockeys.
She had a childhood with ponies when growing up near Hay-on-Wye, a small town in the Welsh borders, known as the ‘Town of Books’ due to the number of bookshops. Racing has taken Karen up northwards and home is now near Penrith in Cumbria. ‘I’m very lucky to have lived in two very beautiful parts of the world,’ she states.
Karen met husband Adrian Sharpe through racing – he was a jockey but had to retire prematurely through injury and has worked for the BHA as a Steward for nearly thirty years. Their daughters are Bec, who has provided grandchildren Evan and Lena, and Rachel, who is studying for a master’s degree. Taking after her mum, Rachel also got the racing bug and rode winners pony racing and secured her amateur licence. Karen adds, ‘But I rode very badly point-to-pointing and fell off more than I stayed on!’
Karen and Adrian live with a menagerie, including four working dogs of two Irish Setters and two Labradors – and an extended family of pets of eight hens and fourteen sheep. ‘Of which,’ Karen says. ‘Chris Broad, the former jockeys’ agent, tells me my Texel tup is the ugliest sheep he has ever seen!’ Ugly or not, the sight of the sheep grazing at home in the Cumbrian countryside is a tranquil sight.
The Sharpe Family
Did you have a horsey childhood?
Dad had a small stud farm and we stood HIS premium stallions so my childhood was surrounded by horses. I was a member of the Golden Valley Pony Club and was a regular out hunting. As a small person, I was ‘farmed’ out to ride show ponies for people and it took me to many big shows. This was fun in a way, but I really wanted to be crashing around the Gymkhana and Chase-me-Charlie. I had some lovely ponies, did really well in all the Pony Club teams and went to the PC Championships at Weston Park a number of times.
How did you get into racing?
I think I have always been in it! From watching racing as a child, going point-to-pointing, a very short career riding in point-to-points then nearly every job thereafter has been racing orientated.
Did you ever ride in races?
Well, at least, I can say I tried! Aged eighteen, I bought my own pointer, a lovely little horse called Best Intent, who tried to look after me in five races. I fell off three times but did finish fourth once! One of my first rides was in South Wales at Erw Lon in a Ladies Race. There were twenty-one runners with top lady riders Pip Nash and Alison Dare to name a few – now I consider myself a bit of a daredevil having jumped out of planes etc, but I can promise you I have never been so petrified as I was at the start of that race!
I had really got the bug for it but sadly I then broke my leg really badly (riding a pony at home) and this put a premature end to any race riding career! I ended up being put back together by a wonderful Consultant called Hugh Barber who used to patch up all the jockeys (including Jonjo O’Neill) back in the day.
What roles have you had in the past?
I must admit that nearly every job I have had has been horse/racing related – my first ever job was for Russell Baldwin and Bright (became Brightwells); they had a small office in Hay and organised many big horse and pony sales. I then moved to Cumbria and had five great years working for Jonjo O’Neill as his secretary. I really loved the job and would probably still be with him now had he not made the move to Gloucestershire! I worked at Carlisle Racecourse as Operations Manager, which led to working at Aintree for the Grand National meeting, a role I still do now. I have also worked as a Point-to-Point Course Inspector but sadly the two Cumbrian ‘Points are no longer running.
How did you get your role at the IJF?
Right place, right time! I do remember having a lightbulb moment when I was chatting to a wonderful lady called Hilary Kerr. Hilary was one of the original Almoners in the North and I think I met her through Jonjo O’Neill. I recall talking to her about the Almoner role and thinking blimey, that would be a great job – some years later when Rachel had gone to Secondary School, I bit the bullet and wrote to the IJF expressing interest in the role and it happened to coincide with a job becoming available.
I had an interview in London with Lisa Hancock and Brough Scott; it was one of those days where everything went wrong! There were floods in Cumbria so my train was cancelled and I had to catch a later one, so I arrived in London with minutes to spare and had to run from the Tube Station to the Betfair Offices. I was dressed for Cumbrian rain but there was a heatwave in London and I looked like a sweaty mess, so the plan was to find the nearest bathroom to sort myself out. However, on arriving at the office I found Lisa and Brough sitting outside waiting for me in the sunshine! We went inside and I was given a visitor badge numbered 13…I thought I was doomed!
Please describe your role:
We are now a team of Welfare Liaison. There are six of us with three colleagues each based at one of the Rehabilitation Centres and three covering the regions. The founding principles of the IJF are care, compassion and support. We are here to deliver that. We provide immediate support, be it short or long term, to anyone who has ever held a licence as well as to their spouse, children or dependants. The support we offer is many and varied, from financial, pastoral, mental health to medical. We have three fantastic rehabilitation centres and the support they are able to offer our injured jockeys is second to none.
What is the best aspect to your job?
We have some truly wonderful beneficiaries – I enjoy nothing more than being able to spend time with them and listen to their wonderful stories and racing experiences. We have also organised some wonderful holidays for the beneficiaries. Most recently we took a group of thirty people (aged 19 to 85) away to the Calvert Trust in Kielder Forest for an activity break – it was both humbling and inspirational to see everyone get stuck into some pretty challenging activities and not once did you hear anyone say, ‘I can’t do it!’ The small matter of being in a wheelchair didn’t stop anyone taking on the zip wire, climbing wall or kayaking – an extraordinary bunch of people.
We must not forget the important work that goes under the radar, being able to support someone through difficult times that is equally rewarding.
And the worst?!
I love nothing more than to hear when a jockey announces their retirement on their own terms! Life altering and career ending injuries are sadly inevitable; that these injuries occur is one of the most challenging and distressing parts of the job. But singularly the hardest time I have ever faced in the job was when Laura Barry was suffering from cancer and very sadly died – she was an extraordinary girl who had a lasting effect on anyone who met her, including me – it was a privilege to have been able to support her, Ben and her family during the hardest of times.
Who do you admire in racing?
They are an extraordinary bunch of hardworking, resilient people. Early starts, hours driving, punishing falls, weight making, social media abuse etc, etc. In addition, I have seen how they rally round and are so supportive when one of their colleagues is injured.
How has racing changed over the years?
So many changes – but for me in my role predominantly I would say that racing has excelled in its medical support and provision, from the JIM (Racecourse Physio) teams, excellent racecourse doctors, like Jerry Hill BHA CMA, who does a brilliant job for jockeys.
What is the best advice you were given?
Not necessarily advice but words of wisdom I suppose. I remember when working at Jonjo’s we’d had a bad spell losing horses and Jonjo said, ‘Karen, as long as it is outside the front door’ – I have to say I have used that mantra a good deal in this job!
What is the best advice you can give?
So, this is my chance to bang the drum and have a good old nag! All jockeys should make sure they have private medical insurance, it’s a no brainer!
Anything outdoors – I am a keen fisherwoman and enjoy going shooting/beating and working the dogs - now I have got a brand-new knee, I hope to be able to do more walking!