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Clarecastle's Sophie Mae Kerin who was the winner of the 12.2 Hands Pony Race at the Dingle Derby recently. She was the first girl to ever win the race. Photograph by John Kelly

Sophie Mae, 12, follows her dream and saddles up for success

Champion Chatter

AT just 12 years of age Clarecastle’s Sophie Mae Kerin is galloping ahead in her dream to be a champion jockey.

The youngster was a winner at the high profile Dingle Racing Festival, following in the footsteps of such giants of the sport as Pat Smullen, Richard Hughes, Oisin Murphy, Nina Carberry and many more.

First getting in the saddle at eight years of age, Sophie Mae began her equestrian life in showjumping, but it was racing that was always her ambition.

In the recent three-day Dingle festival she rode the aptly named Little Lioness to victory in the 12.2hh pony derby for Ballinasloe’s Tony Beegan.

Proud dad Kenneth tells us the whole family are thrilled with Sophie Mae’s success. “Dingle is the biggest pony race in Ireland of the year and this was her first proper race with
thoroughbreds.

“Before this she had run in a beginners race coming in second. She has only been entering races for the last eight weeks and she has been up with Tony Beegan who has been training her and getting her ready.

“She started show jumping four years ago, gaining experience, but once the opportunity came up to go racing, that was it, she just wants to do racing.

“She finished second in the national pony championships in one of her classes in showjumping before, which was a big day for her.

“But to win in Dingle certainly has surpassed anything she has ever done before.”

He describes her win as “amazing”.

“I couldn’t believe it. Tony has won the last four runnings of that race, it had been cancelled for two years because of Covid, but he won the last four.

“He’s a master of training the 12.2 ponies for the Dingle Derby. And he had that pony ready for that race, it was just down to the rider.

“Because she was a novice rider she hadn’t ridden against any of the top jockeys before, and now they were in that race.

“He gave her instructions and she carried them out to perfection. She couldn’t have rode any better than she did in that race.”

Among those competing against her was acclaimed rider, and fellow 12 year old, Kian ‘Tubs’ McNally, who Kenneth describes as “an absolutely exceptional jockey” as well as Dylan O’Connor.

“They would be the two top jockeys in the country and to go out to to beat them, she was absolutely flabbergasted by it to be honest.

“To see that she could got out there and match them, and they gave her an unbelievable reception when she came back into the jockey room, which meant an awful lot to her.”

Though he was delighted to see his daughter in the race, he admits to being worried, knowing only too well the dangers associated with the sport.

Sophie Mae’s older brother amateur jockey Shane suffered injury after being kicked by a horse.

Kenneth tells us Shane has recently had surgery and is recovering well.

While his daughter was in the saddle in Dingle, he recalls, “We were absolutely terrified. We wouldn’t suffer with nerves normally but that weekend we were very nervous just in case anything happened.

“We did speak to her beforehand, going through everything with her and explaining to her, but it is what she wants to do, and that’s it. All we can do is support her and just make sure everything’s ready and give her the best opportunity we can.”

Since the Dingle race Sophie Mae has gone on to finish second in a race in Mayo on another pony, and she is looking forward to competing some more before the end of the season.

She is also preparing to start secondary school at Ennis’ Colaiste Muire.

Kenneth tells us that being a jockey is all his daughter wants for the future, adding there are “great opportunities for girls in the horse racing industry”.

“You have the likes of Rachael Blackmore and Hollie Doyle, they’re absolutely fantastic jockeys, and they are as good as any of the men.

“To see them going off and being so successful it is inspiring these young kids to go out and try and be like them. It is great for racing and it is great for the kids that the opportunities are there.”

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