While all eyes in U.S. eventing were focused on the CIC3* events at Carolina International and Poplar Place this past weekend, Jennie Brannigan quietly made her debut as a jockey in an allowance turf race at the Aiken Spring Steeplechase.
She finished in fourth place aboard Where’s The Beef, a former novice stakes winner over hurdles that is making his return to the top echelons of steeplechasing under the care of new owners Tim and Nina Gardner, champion jockey Willie McCarthy and renowned trainer Brian Murphy.
The race proved to be the highlight thus far of Jennie’s foray into galloping Thoroughbreds, a journey she started nearly two years ago after the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2013, when her first trip to a CCI4* event with her longtime partner Cambalda, also owned by the Gardners, went awry.
“Tim and Nina flew down to watch the horse go, and it was such a special experience to ride my first race for them,” Jennie said. “Racing has enriched my life so much. It’s something I’m thankful for every day. I had a hard time in the last few years, and it saved me a little bit.”
In many ways, Jennie’s own story of trial and triumph is not unlike Where’s the Beef’s. She came out with a bang when Cambalda started his upper-level career several years ago, racking up wins before hitting a wall they finally scaled this past fall with a win in the Dutta Corp Fair Hill International CCI3*.
Jennie met Willie McCarthy during that low point in her eventing career, and he set her up with the job of galloping racehorses for Michael Matz, who has trained champions like Barbaro, Kicken Kris, Round Pond and Union Rags. “It’s something now I can’t imagine not having in my life. To be able to gallop the horses, it’s made me a lot better for eventing, not just in my fitness but mentally. It’s given me balance.”
Similarly, Where’s The Beef, a 7-year-old gelding by Rockport Harbor out of Clair de Lune, found nearly overnight success in steeplechasing after graduating from the flat ranks, winning his first two starts over hurdles with Willie McCarthy in the irons and Brian Murphy as his trainer, including the 2013 AFLAC Supreme Hurdle.
He was then sold and moved on to different connections, and his success over hurdles flatlined at that point. Tim and Nina decided to buy the horse in June 2014 to reunite him with the original dream team of Brian and Willie to give Beef another chance at thriving on the track.
Beef goes eventing
After “Beef” enjoyed some time off in a field, Brian encouraged Jennie to event him in order to help get the horse fit for his return to steeplechasing. “Brian had showed me the first videos of the horse jumping years ago, and ever since then, we always thought he could event,” Jennie said. “I had him for two months in my barn, and in that time, he went from being on vacation to eventing fit.”
Beef competed in his first event this past January at Ocala Horse Properties Winter I H.T., where he finished 14th in his Beginner Novice division. He finished 11th in Novice at Rocking Horse two weeks later, with Willie and Brian in attendance to watch the horse go and cheer him on.
With Beef back in action, Brian put him back into race training, with the horse aimed at this weekend’s $75,000 Carolina Cup, a 2 1/8-mile steeplechase race that attracts one of the largest crowds in the country at Springdale Race Course in Camden, South Carolina.
Just like in eventing, steeplechase horses will run prep races to prepare for bigger races, and Brian tapped the 1 1/4 mile allowance turf race at least weekend’s Aiken Steeplechase, as Beef’s prep race for the Carolina Cup.
And while Willie, who will pilot Beef at the Carolina Cup this coming weekend, would have been happy to take the ride in the prep race, Willie and Brian decided that after all it had taken to get the horse back to this point in his career, perhaps another jockey should get her chance in the irons.
Jennie goes to the races
From Willie’s point of view, it made all the sense in the world to have Jennie ride Beef in the race. “It was just a good situation for everyone. Tim and Nina are his new owners, and Jennie is their top rider in eventing. She’s a very good friend of mine who has been very good to me. Jennie knows the horse, and she had him eventing for a bit in preparation to come back to racing. It made sense.”
So Jennie applied for her apprentice jockey license and got her racing silks in preparation to ride in the turquoise and white colors of Tim and Nina’s Welcome Here Farm. Will also sent Jennie a video of a previous running of the race so she would have a better idea of what to expect.
Sean Clancy handicapped the race on Thisishorseracing.com: “Event rider Jennie Brannigan is named on Where’s The Beef. Brannigan, who gallops for Michael Matz, was ranked as the tenth leading rider of the year in 2014. She’ll feel speed she’s never felt. Welcome to steeplechasing, great to have you on board, enjoy the ride.”
Hannah Sue Burnett, who wasn’t competing at Carolina or Poplar last weekend, offered to go with her to Aiken to offer moral support, and they walked the track with Willie the morning of the race so Jennie could map out her game plan.
“Willie said, ‘You’re probably going to be 20 lengths ahead in the beginning, and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ He told me to gallop into the first turn and then just hold him. He’s meant to run over three miles, and he was only running a bit over a mile in this race, so he said horses would start passing us. It ran just how he said it would, which made it less nervewracking.”
Willie said Jennie rode the race perfectly: “She carried out the instructions to the letter. The plan was to have a good clear run out in front. I ended up winning the race on another horse, and I didn’t pass her until we were coming onto the stretch. I was surprised how close behind us she finished at the wire.”
Indeed, Jennie very much held her own and then some in her debut as a jockey, which quickly silenced anyone in the racing world who had previously raised their eyebrows when they heard she would be riding in the race.
“A few people were saying to me, ‘It’s a big thing to have her in the race. Are you sure it’s a good idea?’” Willie said. “People don’t know the eventing world. Everybody was kind of expecting somebody to come out that hadn’t galloped racehorses and was going to get run off with. Then they saw Jennie, who was perched up more stylish than anyone else. I think everyone was a bit taken back with what a good race she rode.”
So will we be seeing more of Jennie in jockey silks? “It was probably the best adrenaline rush I’ve ever had,” she said. “I guess I should have seen this coming that I would love racing and want to try it again. I’d like to try racing over jumps if Willie is willing to teach me. He held my hand the whole time in preparing for the race. It’s overwhelming how much he helped me through the experience.”
With her first race officially behind her, Jennie said she’s grateful for many things, like the encouragement she’s received from her friends and family — “I’ve never gotten so much support for finishing fourth before!” — and the kindness of her fellow jockeys in the race, who she said were extremely welcoming.
She’s also thankful to Willie and Brian for their help every step of the way and to Tim and Nina, not only for trusting her with the ride but for giving Beef a second chance. “It’s been emotional for all of us to see the horse thrive and have his comeback. Nina has always said the horse will have a home no matter what career he ends up doing. We will all love him no matter what.”