Michelle Payne’s historic victory in the Melbourne Cup got Tony Lake thinking...
Sitting in the weighing room little did Mrs Ann Ferris know that within twenty-four hours she would write another page of racing history. Waiting to take her mount in the Bumper, Arthur Moore asked her to take the ride on Irian in the Sweeps Hurdle. A woman jockey had never won such a competitive handicap and the horse had been condemned as “useless” only fifteen months earlier. The long odds looked mean.
Trained at Chantilly by Mick Barthlomew, Irian had won a couple of races as a three-year-old but had become prone to bursting blood vessels. Allied to a quirky temperament and becoming uncooperative his racing days were numbered. Fortunately, Yasmin Allen bought the horse and took him to Ireland, where she sold him to Raymond Keogh, the joint master of the Ward Union Staghounds. Irian though had become belligerent and difficult to train convincing Keogh to turn to Arthur Moore who had recently set up a yard at Dereens in Co Kildare.
With care, patience and innate skill the son of the great Dan Moore gradually changed Irian’s attitude, but it was a slow process. In November 1978, making his hurdling debut at Tralee, the gelding was beaten out of sight. Next time out, in another maiden hurdle, at Limerick Junction, he finished third behind the promising Bright Highway. He followed that run with a close second to the odds-on Tristram Shandy at Leopardstown and then ran Lord George to two and a half lengths at Punchestown.
Since it had been Lord George who had slaughtered him on his debut that race suggested that Irian was improving. At home too he was more positive and enjoyed schooling. Bay Cockburn, a nephew of Fred and Mercy Rimell, rode him in all his work and a rapport developed. Cockburn rode him in all his races and, in late December, the partnership romped home in the Milltown Maiden Hurdle at Leopardstown. Kept on the go, they won at Killarney in July before running unplaced in the Galway Hurdle, behind the Jonjo O’Neill ridden Hard Tarquin, on unsuitable quick ground. Moore had seen enough and knew he had a “Sweeps Horse”.
After three outings in the autumn, including a victory at Tralee, the trainer decided to give the horse a break. A month at Keogh’s Clonee farm was re-vitalising. Tommy Carberry, Moore’s brother-in-law, rode him in a piece of work and was impressed. With Cockburn unlikely to make the weight for the Sweeps, Ireland’s leading jockey was offered the ride. Although torn, Carberry stuck with Jim Dreaper’s Straight Row who had recently run well behind Chinrullah, winner of the 1978 Sweeps, in a conditions hurdle at Down Royal.
With the race only a week away Moore was looking around for a jockey when Bay Cockburn said that he would make the required ten stone. Cockburn had not made such a weight in years but vowed to waste hard over the festive period. By Christmas lunchtime he realised it was a forlorn hope and the trainer offered Dessie Hughes the ride, but Mick O’Toole had just engaged him for Yellow Dean.
As Moore’s search for a jockey continued he discovered that all the likely candidates had been snapped up. With Frank Berry aboard Spinning Saint, Tommy Carmody Deep Gale, Tommy Kinane Sports Reporter and Mouse Morris Bourbon Street, finding a partner for his hope was not easy. Then after the fifth race on Leopardstown’s Boxing Day card, the trainer came face to face with Ann Ferris. She was booked there and then.
Ann was the daughter of Willie Rooney who rode more than 400 point-to-point winners in a career spanning five decades. Based at Glengormley, Co Antrim, he was a legend and Ann was becoming one too. The 39 year-old rode her first winner “between the flags” when only fourteen and, in 1976, became the first woman to beat the men over hurdles. Later the same year she then became the first woman to win a steeplechase against male opposition, when winning the Ulster Harp National on Mourneview. Acknowledged as “A natural horsewoman, strong, sympathetic and very experienced,” by Arthur Moore, in “My Greatest Training Triumph”, he knew he had found a suitable partner for his contender in the race worth nearly £20,000.
From the “off” everything went as planned. Although Ann had never sat on the horse before the combination gelled and Irian settled well. Soon prominent in the 20-runner field, the gelding disputed the lead with Bective Road (Joe Byrne) for much of the two-mile journey. Running towards the second last, Bective Road faded as market leaders, Twinburn and Deep Gale, closed to challenge. Pinging that hurdle, Irian had the benefit of the rail rounding for home. Feeling that her mount was tiring the pioneering jockey gave him a quick breather as Twinburn ranged alongside.
At the last, neck and neck with Twinburn, Ann asked for another big leap and her willing partner answered. Obeying orders and not resorting to the whip, she drove the five-year-old with hands and heels to the line whilst Twinburn was responding to Tony Quinn’s urgings. As they passed the judge he called for a photograph.
Irian won by a short-head. Since its transition from a conditions race into a handicap, the Sweeps Hurdle had acquired a reputation for the unexpected and the eleventh running was no exception. Irian’s SP was 25/1 and the Tote paid 94/1 but the real shock was a woman rider landing such a prestigious prize. But that was in 1979.