In the largely male dominated field of harness racing, one young Mid Canterbury lady is helping the girls knock the mantra.
Sarah O’Reilly is still very much in the infancy of her career sitting in the sulky, but she’s making big strides and turning heads at every corner.
Matt Markham spoke to her about beating the boys and shaking her quiet demeanour to bring forward some aggression on the track.
In horse racing the term bloodlines are often used as a measure of potential ability and in the case of Sarah O’Reilly, hers are impeccable.
A third generation member of one of Mid Canterbury’s most successful harness racing families, she’s got the double-edged sword of having all the experience in the world to call on from her extended family, but also the added pressure of having to live up to the family name.
And for a quietly spoken young teenager, who is still finding her feet in the hustle and bustle of the racing world, that’s a tough challenge, but one the former Ashburton College student is relishing.
She’s already on the board, having driven her first race day winner earlier this year – a moment that will sit with her for the rest of her life as a career highlight, but the desire and hunger for more success is like a drug in this highly competitive sport and O’Reilly’s keen to keep the success levels up.
“Driving winners is the ultimate goal.
“It’s tough – but it’s so rewarding when you get one,” she said.
“It’s probably quite hard to explain the feeling of winning a race.
“It’s a huge adrenalin rush and a bit of an emotional experience at the same time.”
Harness racing has been pretty much all that O’Reilly has known, and all she’s ever wanted to do – a very familiar trait throughout the industry for children and grandchildren who are almost bound to follow in the footsteps of famous forebears.
She’s now working full time in a harness racing stable near Christchurch and can be seen most weeks out on the track, plying her trade – which is exactly what she harboured dreams of doing when she was growing up.
“It started with the family involvement, and just sort of grew from there.
“I’ve been going to the races since I was young and always enjoyed working with them at home and learning more and more about them.”
O’Reilly’s father is Gerard O’Reilly – one of Mid Canterbury’s finest horsemen – so the wealth of knowledge from which she has been able to draw from has never been an issue, especially when her uncles, Leo, Kerry and Patrick are also hugely successful in the industry as well.
But it’s Dad who holds the special spot as mentor, in a fashion in which only a father and daughter will know.
“I look up to him,” Sarah said frankly.
“He has really taught me everything I know, and given me the foundation on which to hopefully build on.
“He’s my biggest fan I think, but probably also my biggest critic.”
While family support is great, it can only go so far and so O’Reilly has had to reach out further in the industry to find others to learn as much off as she can and who better to guide a young female in the sport, than one of the best of them ever.
Former Geraldine girl, Samantha Ottley, has taken up a mentor role with O’Reilly – helping her learn a few more of the ropes and to guide her through her driving out on the track – the relatable nature of it, and Ottley’s experience, is hard to put a value on.
“I always looked up to Sam, and the way that she approaches things, so to have her as my mentor is something I’m really thankful for.
“She’s out there showing the boys how to do it most weeks, so to be able to call on that experience and knowledge is really important for me if I want to keep getting better.”
O’Reilly is one of a number of female horsewomen in the industry who are leading the charge and shifting the perception that it’s a males’ sport.
Female participants make up a large percentage of the industry’s numbers and they are continuing to grow too – with female names appearing more and more in the winners’ lists as drivers, trainers and owners.
“There are more and more coming through the ranks which is really good – it’s nice to be a part of.”
With things ticking along nicely at the moment, O’Reilly’s goals for the future are quite simple – win more races and continue the O’Reilly family legacy.
“One day I want to be a trainer to carry the family colours through for another generation.
“But it is also a goal to win a race for my uncles too, that would be really awesome.”
And with the dedication and drive this young Mid Canterbury lass is already showing, you’d be silly to bet against it not happening.