Almost 60 years after she rode her first point-to-point winner Moynalty woman Helen McDonogh still has a passion for horses and will this week take a keen interest in the four-day Cheltenham Festival.
With her husband Des, the couple are still going strong from a base at Billywood, Moynalty, only about a mile down the road from Cherrymount where this trailblazing lady grew up as Helen Bryce-Smith.
She recalls a great day when they enjoyed a 1979 double at the Cheltenham Festival with Monksfield and Stranfield.
Her father, Cyril Bryce-Smith was a noted trainer and sent out a regular flow of winners, but he was happiest when his daughter was enjoying point-to-point success and breaking new ground in an era when it was generally accepted that ‘girls couldn’t ride a horse’ and especially not on a race track against the men.
However, Helen Bryce-Smith challenged all those perceptions and almost single-handedly broke the mould.
With 106 point-to-point winners and 10 winners on the track, it was a record set by the Moynalty woman from the early 1960s and included one on Monksfield at Down Royal in March 1980.
That win on Monksfield was also groundbreaking in a sense as it had been scarcely two months after she had given birth to son Declan who would later be crowned champion flat jockey in 2006.
This tough and determined 78-year-old only gave up riding out each morning a couple of years ago - that was more to do with medical advice after a hip replacement was on the radar.
Last week she recalled with fondness that 1980 win on Monksfield, a horse both herself and husband Des took a chance on at the Goff’s Sales in 1972.
Monksfield won the BMW Amateur Hurdle at Down Royal which was the final success before he went off to stud.
Helen McDonogh also won the initial ladies series of flat races that was introduced in 1972.
The first race was in the Phoenix Park, a track that was a top class facility at the time, but is now home to apartments and houses.
“It was great to get a chance to ride in the race at a track like the Phoenix Park,” she said.
“My father got me the ride in the race for trainer Michael Connolly on a horse called Simead, we finished third.
“The winner (Wacoso) was trained by Kevin Prendergast who got an American jockey for the race.
“I was second the next day at Gowran Park, this time on a good horse Super Seer and then in the final race of the series I won in Navan, that gave me enough points to win the series outright,” she added.
A WINNER ON THE TRACK AT ROSCOMMON
The story of her career, her battle to make an impact in what was a male-dominated sport, produced some nice little anecdotes.
“I remember, after I got married, I was riding in a point-to-point and was described on the racecard as Mrs D McDonogh,” she said.
“I was going out of the parade ring and I heard this man asking a colleague - ‘who is this Mrs D McDonogh, never heard of her, she’s hardly any good.’
“His colleague was a bit more knowledgeable and told him that it was Helen Bryce-Smith.
“I didn’t hear any more of the conversation as I was on the way down to the start, but he found out whether I was any good or not when I came back into the winners’ enclosure,” she added.
That incident was recalled with a wry smile by Mrs D McDonogh when she reflected on what were groundbreaking achievements on behalf of women in sport in an Ireland of 50 years ago.
It was, just to reinforce the norms of the time, an era when women had to stop working when they got married.
It was an era when there was a ladies bar in the local golf club and females would most certainly not be permitted to enter the main bar - it was reserved only for the men.
It was an era when most women didn’t play any of the major sports save for a bit of the aforementioned golf, maybe some tennis, hockey or badminton.
It was an era, in terms of horseracing, when girls couldn’t be trusted to lead up a horse, never mind ride one on a racecourse.
There was, for example, only one registered woman trainer in Ireland at the time, Mrs Brewster (Ann Biddle).
Then there was Helen Bryce-Smith, the Meath woman from Moynalty who changed the perceptions of the racing hierarchy.
From an early age all a young Helen Bryce-Smith wanted to do was to ride horses and she had willing supporters in the form of her father Cyril Bryce-Smith and her mother Jean.
THE EXTRA-HEAVY SADDLE (19 kilos) THAT HER MOTHER GOT FOR POINT-TO-POINTS
“We lived in Cherrymount, just a mile or so up the road from where we are now.
“My parents bought Cherrymount after the War when they moved to Ireland, they had a few horses and I remember that they had to go into Kells to collect them off the train and then they were walked out to Cherrymount.
“When myself and Des got married and started to train in the early 1970s we had to move to a different location.
“It was all due to the Turf Club regulations that applied at the time, you couldn’t have two trainers in the same location.
“It didn’t matter that there was plenty of room and facilities at Cherrymount, but my brother John was starting to train also.
“It was a pity really as it was a great training facility and if it was in the present era it wouldn’t be a problem,” she added.
Looking back on her early years, there was never any doubt about what she wanted to do.
“It was always on the cards that I would do something with horses after I finished school,” she recalled.
“I had a good show pony when I was at school, we actually finished second on two occasions at the Horse Show at the RDS in Ballsbridge.
“Years later myself and Des went back to Ballsbridge to Goffs for the sales and bought Monksfield for less than €1,000 in today’s money.
“Goffs was across the road from the RDS at the time, I remember the day we got Monksfield, no one else wanted him.
“He threw his leg out a bit, but we took a chance, boy could he gallop, that was one that worked out.
“Anyway, after I finished school, this would have been the 1960s, the only option I had if I wanted to ride in races was in point-to-points as I wouldn’t be allowed on the track.
“At first my mother wasn’t too keen on that, the general view was that the girls couldn’t ride horses although my parents wouldn’t have agreed with that. My father was really enthusiastic for me.
“My mother wanted something that was safe to ride and we had this little horse, Still William, he was very well bred by a top sire at the time (Vulgan).
“She got the top jockey, Cathal Finnegan, who was riding out for us, to school him and then I got him.
“He was a very good little horse and we would win six races every year, the four open races that he could run in and the two members races when he would be carrying 13 stone.
“I weighed less than nine stone and my mother got me a special heavy saddle, it weighed three stone (19 kilos) and it meant I could get away with one lead cloth to make up the required weight.
“We won 32 races and he is buried in Cherrymount, that was a sad day when he was killed at the South Westmeath point-to-point near Glasson,” she added.
When asked about any injuries over the years, the response was something that you would expect from a person involved with horses.
“No, not too many injuries, I broke my collarbone a few times and a few other minor knocks, but nothing too serious,” she said.
“I only go racing occasionally now, I tend not to go too far, the local tracks at Navan and Fairyhouse have great facilities now in comparison to 40 or 50 years ago.
“The one thing I miss most is riding out each morning, I had to give that up a couple of years ago.
“My role now is to look after feeding the horses and see if any of them are off their feed, you have to be careful with that.
“Des looks after them in the morning, he won’t let me get up too early, I wouldn’t be down in the yard now until about 8am.
“We have a couple of horses from JP McManus and Jim Bolger and we have a small group of good owners, but it’s tough to keep going when you’re a small trainer.
“We have a great guy working for us from Poland, Sammy, he just called to the house one day a good few years ago looking for a job, he does a lot of the yard work and would go the races occasionally.
“Sammy lives in Mullagh and he is very reliable, that’s very important and he is very good with the horses although he had no experience with them when he started.
“We have three children and six grandchildren, our daughter Shona lives locally and Aisling and Declan both live in Kildare.
“Declan always wanted to ride horses and he wasn’t really that interested in staying in school, I don’t know where he got that from,” she said with a smile.
“The people in Moynalty gave Declan a great welcome home after he won the flat title in 2006, that was a nice occasion, overall, we have some great memories,” she concluded.
MOYNALTY WELCOME FOR A CHAMPION IN 2006
CHASING THE RECORD - LIZ LALOR
Tipperary woman Liz Lalor is closing in on the 106-winner point-to-point record set by Helen McDonogh over 50 years ago.
Lalor is one of the most successful modern-day lady riders in the history of Irish point-to-point racing.
She has won the champion ladies title on seven occasions. That title didn’t even exist when Helen McDonogh (Helen Bryce-Smith) was breaking the mould from her father’s racing yard at Cherrymount, Moynalty.
“I rode my 100th winner a couple of weeks ago and with a little bit of luck I hope to beat that record set by Helen McDonogh, I only found out about it last year,” the Tipperary woman told the Meath Chronicle.
“It was a marvellous achievement by Helen to set that record, the fact that it has stood for 50 years shows what a remarkable feat it was.
“I only returned to action a few weeks ago after I had a baby in January and hopefully I will get a few more winners before the season is over,” she concluded.
When Helen McDonogh won an amateur hurdle on Monksfield in March 1980 at Down Royal, she was returning to action after having a baby in January of that year.
Some 40 years later the woman who is likely to beat her record of 106 point-to-point winners returned to action with a winner two weeks ago after having a baby in January.