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It's sure been Sam rise to the top for Ulster jockey

This week: Sammy Jo Bell

By Frank Brownlow

Sammy Jo Bell is the real McCoy. But she could be forgiven for surveying the scene at Ascot and thinking she already has it made. But racing's rising star has her feet firmly on the ground.

The Ulster jockey will ride at Ascot today in the Shergar Cup, racing's most prestigious team event.

Sammy Jo was a late call-up for the women's team - as a replacement for the injured Cathy Gannon - who will take on Great Britain & Ireland, Europe and the Rest of the World.

"It's great to be selected for the Shergar Cup. I'm thrilled to have such a wonderful opportunity," said Sammy Jo.

"But I am gutted for Cathy Gannon - she is such a great rider."

The captain of the women's team is Hayley Turner, who has been a fantastic ambassador for female jockeys.

"Hayley and Cathy are two jockeys I really look up to," said Sammy Jo.

"They have both achieved so much and both are always on hand to offer help and advice."

Sammy Jo has really taken the sport by storm this season, more than doubling her combined winning totals for the two previous campaigns and already hitting her 20-win target for the year.

"I have had a brilliant season so far," she said.

"It started off well and I have managed to keep the ball rolling with a few more winners," said Sammy Jo who has racked up £134,000 in prize money so far this season.

The Dunadry rider feels that racing has shrugged off its male-dominated image with more opportunities now open to women.

"There's not really a divide in racing any more between men and women," she said.

"I think really that if you are good enough you will probably get the rides, that's the long and short of it.

"I've got more rides this year because I've improved so maybe I didn't deserve many more rides before.

"I think if you're as good as everybody else, there's no problem with whether you're a girl or a boy.

"Probably girls will never be as strong as boys, but sometimes strength isn't really everything - there's putting your horse in the right place in the race and things like that.

"Maybe we take a little bit longer to get strong. I'm 24 now, and when I was 18 I didn't ride like this, so I've had to wait to get my chances.

"I suppose initially it was a man's world but now, especially with the stable staff and stuff like that, there's probably more girls than boys working in racing.

"There's definitely more than one girl riding every day, there's always a few of us here and there. Anything's possible in the future."

Ulster great Tony McCoy, who retired at the end of last season after winning the jockeys championship for a 20th successive time and riding well over 4,000 winners, was renowned for having broken almost every bone in his body as a result of hundreds of falls.

McCoy was the master of the jumps game, Sammy Jo rides on the flat, where jockeys don't end up on the deck quite as often.

But she had a hair-raising experience at Leicester last week when her mount bolted as the horses were cantering down to the start.

"Something seemed to scare him and he just took off. But it all ended up okay," said Sammy Jo.

"Touch wood, but I have had no serious injuries so far, certainly nothing that has really set me back."

McCoy, too, hails from County Antrim and is held in the highest regard by Sammy Jo - who was amazed when the racing legend waded in on Twitter with support for the Ulster girl.

"I was nominated for a sportswoman of the month award in which the public can vote and I nearly fell off my horse when I saw a tweet from AP on Twitter encouraging people to support me," she said.

"He's just an amazing man, so focused, and such a good role model for me and so many other people in racing.

"It was a real thrill that he'd thought of me," she added.

Sammy Jo has been riding since the age of four - no surprise really as her mother Jacqueline McCullough was a point to point rider, while her grandfather farmed at Dunadry using Clydesdale horses.

"My mum and dad watch all my races on television and have always been very supportive," she said.

Sammy Jo left home at the age of 17 to pursue her dream of becoming a jockey, working at the yards of top Irish trainers Jim Bolger - where incidentally McCoy learnt his trade after his early days in County Antrim with Billy Rock - and Kevin Prendergast before switching to the Yorkshire yard of Richard Fahey two years ago.

"I had 10 winners in Ireland before moving to England and things have really taken off from there," said Sammy Jo, who is battling it out for the apprentice jockeys championship.

But for anyone who thinks the life of a jockey revolves around glamour trips to the likes of Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood - Sammy Jo has starred at both - the Ulster rider is quick to point out the reality.

"I ride out for Mr Fahey early in the morning, work at the yard and then you hope you have a ride at the racecourse in the afternoon," she said.

"Then sometimes you are back in the evening for more work at the yard."

Forget the glamour - Sammy Jo just wants to ride winners.

Belfast Telegraph


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