Lady Luck

Nina Carberry is considered one of Ireland's most promising horse racers due to her physical strength, her racing brain and her soft touch with the fillies. She races in this week's Galway Races. Profile by John Byrne

She was the first woman to beat the boys in a professional race at Cheltenham in almost 20 years when she won the Fred Winter Juvenile Novices Handicap Hurdle in March 2005. She was the only woman to race in the Aintree Grand National in April 2006 (she came last, but did better than her brother, Paul Carberry, who fell). She rides for one of Ireland's biggest trainers and comes from one of the most famous horse racing families in the country.

"The first words out of Nina Carberry's mouth were probably, 'Get me up on that pony,' because if you're a Carberry, you get put down if you're not into horses," says racing pundit John McCririck. "It's a great help that she has such a great pedigree when it comes to horse-racing, but people are not talking about Nina Carberry because of her family name. They are talking about her because she is a very good jockey who's a darn sight better than a lot of the men out there. It's very rare that you get a woman as good as she is and she is challenging the in-built prejudice that exists against lady riders. When you go into the betting shops, you never see punters refusing to bet on her because she's a woman. They do bet on her, and they bet on her because she's the best."

The only girl in a family of six, Nina Carberry was born in 1984 and grew up in Ratoath, Co Meath, surrounded by the traditions of horse-racing: her father, Tommy Carberry, won the Grand National on L'Escargot, beating Red Rum in the process, and her brother Paul is one of the country's best-known national hunt jockeys (well known also for being jailed for starting a fire on board an airplane last year). She rode ponies from an early age, and all of her spare time outside of Loretto school in Navan was spent in the paddock. Horse-racing was not the only thing she excelled at, however. A natural athlete, she was selected at underage level for the squad of the Irish basketball team, but the squad session clashed with a pony competition and there was no doubt in her mind as to what her choice would be. After finishing school she did some sports physio-related courses before becoming a full-time jockey.

She made her mark almost immediately by becoming the champion Irish lady rider in the 2004/2005 season, but it was her win at Cheltenham in March 2005 at the age of 21 that really made people take notice. "Amateur Irish jockey Nina Carberry came to the Cheltenham Festival 12 months ago as a virtual unknown," reported the BBC. "After winning the Fred Winter Novices' Handicap Hurdle on Dabiroun, she left as the first woman since 1987 to beat the professionals at the festival."

She was modest about her win. "It probably opened people's eyes last year that a woman could win against the professionals at Cheltenham because it was a few years since it had been done." Since then she became Champion Qualifed Rider and Champion Lady Rider for the 2005/2006 season.

Her best friend in horse-racing is her nearest competitor in women's racing, Katie Walsh, who also comes from a horse-racing dynasty – her brother is Ruby Walsh and her father is the Grand National-winning trainer Ted Walsh. Katie Walsh came second to Nina in both the Champion Qualifed Rider and Champion Lady Rider for the 2005/2006 season.

"We're the same age and we've known each other for about five or six years and we go everywhere together," says Katie Walsh. "I suppose you'd start to piss off a few people when we'd be winning things back to back and sometimes you have to let a roar out of you to let people know that you're not to be messed with. You've got to win their respect but generally we get on well with the other jockeys. And she grew up with a family of five brothers so she knows how to look after herself.

"Everybody loves Nina. She's great craic, she can talk about anything and she's up for doing anything. You could say to her, 'Let's jump off Salthill' or 'Let's go paintballing' and she's up for it.

Katie Walsh's father, Ted Walsh, says, "She is a natural horse-rider. She has that Carberry style – she rides quite short, has a low crouch and keeps her bottom high. A lot of women who do the national hunt-racing have a longer, deeper style.

"She also has a great temperament – she is relaxed, but she is also really competitive. She doesn't give an inch, and she has a great riding brain. She's always in the right place at the right time."

Donn McClean of the Sunday Times says, "Her achievements so far are very significant. If you watch a race that she's in, you wouldn't know there was a woman competing. She is strong, polished and stylish. She is a top class rider. There was one race in Cheltenham where her horse hit a fence and the way she managed to stay on her horse was incredible – it defied gravity."

Most pundits point to her physical strength and her racing brain as the attributes that distinguish her as a special talent, but John McCririck says, "Men are stronger than women – there's no getting away from that. But what women have, and probably Nina has, is that gentle touch that some horses – and fillies in particular – respond well to."

She intends to remain an amateur, partly because being a professional restricts the number of races that she can enter and partly because of her job riding for Noel Meade, one of Ireland's top national-hunt trainers.

"What she's done is amazing and she's showing the way for other lady riders to do the same," says John McCririck. p

Additional reporting by Noirin Byrne