“Did you ever have a bad dream, wake up and it not stop?”

Jennifer She Said, Lloyd Cole & The Commotions

IT’S been crazy. My phone rings when I am with them and all I get is, ‘don’t answer it, don’t answer it mom.” I say, ‘Mommy’s off at the weekend’, my six-year-old one evening said, ‘Mommy that is never true, you always go to the office even when you say you are off’.

“And I do, every weekend. The health screening still needs to be done every weekend, you still need to make the phone calls to people who come up on the red list every weekend.

“It is not a sacrifice, I have done it for the most part and it won’t always be like this. At some point I will turn my phone off at weekends… You won’t feel like you have to be on call.

“I think lot of people who grow up in racing, your work finishes when the work is done. The people on the team are very much like that, we all have the same work ethic. It may not be necessarily healthy but that accessibility, for better or worse has got us this far.

“(But) yeah, I can’t wait until I am just doing my normal job. Just the senior medical officer for the IHRB. Nothing to do with tests. I am praying for that day that we can hand everything back.”

Jennifer Pugh is grinning ruefully. There have been many challenges in the past 18 months as she first volunteered on the frontline, then took on a job that has nothing to do with what she was employed for when the resumption of racing came on the horizon, while trying to attend to the continuing health of jockeys, which is her job, and be a mother to two young sons, Christopher and Conor.

The former point-to-point champion lady rider from Loughbrickland received a special recognition award from the Irish Stablestaff Association recently for the “extraordinary support she and her team provided to the Irish stud and stable staff during both the suspension of racing and since its resumption under restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic”, work that saved thousands of jobs.

Stable staff respect

That meant a lot, not least because she has so much respect for the stable staff and what they have done to keep the show on the road. But Pugh emphasises that she was accepting it as just a member of the IHRB and HRI Covid squad, which included the likes of IHRB communications manager Niall Cronin, INHSC registrar Paul Murtagh and Sharleen O’Reilly, HRI’s racing operations manager.

On the home front, husband Richard picked up any slack, though he is a very busy man himself, known in the industry as a racing commentator, Tattersalls’ director of horses in training and proprietor of P2P.ie, the resource for all things point-to-point.

The good news is that the indefatigable Pugh has had a week off, her first since the first lockdown in March 2020. If anyone deserves it, she does but being the amenable individual she is, she still happy to chat while the rest of the gang have shuffled out to do some sightseeing.

Closed doors

“I remember taking the calls in Cheltenham on the Thursday to say racing was going behind closed doors,” she details, of the beginning of the nightmare from which Irish racing has emerged with such credit.

“We didn’t know what behind closed doors meant. Or those phone calls scrambling for Dundalk that Friday night. All of a sudden you are kind of thrown into a subject that I have no skillset for. But I had to say that even at this stage I still find it very rewarding and very challenging and it has been fabulous. I have developed myself, so much more skills than I ever would have had beforehand.

Infection control

“Initially both HRI and IHRB would have looked to me to say, ‘from infection control, how do we do this? What do we do?’ And it was very much thinking on our feet for those first couple of weeks.

Then obviously everything shut down and paused which gave us a chance to regroup. And from reopening last June (2020), and from there it has just become part of what we do every day. In fairness, it was a small enough team and sometimes that is probably better that you are not having lots of different cooks, if that makes sense. And the racecourses have been great.

Over the top

“I know a lot of what we would have done people would have viewed it as over the top. Even still people think some of it is over the top. I understand that and particularly as time goes on people get a bit frustrated but I am immensely proud that at no point have we had transmission of Covid at the races. There have been people in racing who have gotten Covid but they have gotten it outside of racing and it hasn’t spread. There has been plenty of cases and plenty of testing but there has been no transmission.

“We were always ahead of it and that came in from the buy-in. The same with the jockeys, trainers, stable staff. The health screening worked and people came forward. I am still now taking calls from racecourse managers or farriers or vets or cleaning staff, saying, ‘what should I do here?’ And that has been really important.”

Glorious Cheltenham

If Cheltenham 2020 made racing a pariah in Ireland, the latest renewal was glorious, not just because of the success on the track. Pugh describes her role in overseeing the safe travel and residence of the Irish to the track as “the biggest thing I ever undertake in my life” but as usual, namechecks the contributions of others, including IHRB colleague Jennifer Walsh and HRI’s Barbara White. Most of all though, it was the trainers, jockeys and staff that did themselves proud.

“I got a sense that every single person there was adamant, ‘we will not be seen and painted in a bad light here.’ The behaviour was just exemplary. I will be forever privileged to have been involved in that. Even though it was the most challenging week of my life.”


“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

Peter Drucker

Had things gone to plan, Pugh would be back to a few days a week of general practice now, having also made considerable advances in a slew of different areas around jockey health. But global pandemics care little for plans.

Nonetheless, progress continues. WIT student Lewis King has done some valuable, IHRB-funded research surrounding jockey/trainer mental health in association with his PhD programme. The papers have been published in medical journals but most importantly, have been acted upon.

“I think Lewis’ work has been really pivotal in all of this because if you go look into any stakeholder and say, ‘we want to increase the mental health support.’ ‘Well why?’ ‘Well this is why.’

We have an actual survey from a really high percentage of trainers and the same for jockeys. And even alone the response rate to this survey of trainers and jockeys, if you are not interested in something... They actually read this email and said, ‘I am going to answer this’.

Industry assistance

“There are several things from that research. Equuip have relaunched the industry assistance programme, and I was lucky enough to be involved in that. We have a freephone number to call – you can call the Samaritans, you can call whoever you want but this is very much more bespoke to us. There is financial help, there is legal help and then there is the mental health side of it. So I think Equuip have really listened to what the industry needs and I think that was the really fabulous point.

“And then we launched Leafyard a few weeks ago, a really innovative app from a company in the UK, a guy who owns racehorses and is very clued into racing. He approached us through Ruby Walsh and Irish Injured Jockeys. We have launched it to the jockeys so far, through their WhatsApp group, and the response – it is completely confidential so all I get is the number of people using it – it has been way above anything that I would have ever hoped for.

“They can log on and it asks you different questions and then it puts you off on the path that most suits you. It is very bespoke, not generic, you must go through all these steps. It takes you in and out, whether there is a problem with your sleep: is it anxiety? is it depression? Whatever your worries are. Leafyard has worked really well.

“And we still have (sports psychologist) Ciara Losty and her services (available to all licensed jockeys via the Jockey Pathway) are incredible. Covid again has surprisingly helped. Most of her work is now done remotely. And so doing it like this it is easier in that you don’t have to get in your car and travel. You don’t need to set aside time to do it and it makes it a little bit less daunting… Her work has increased dramatically.”

Social media abuse

Social media abuse plays a part in mental health difficulties, particularly when piled on top of the unique challenges faced by jockeys. Pugh agrees that accepting it as part and parcel of the job is not good enough.

“It’s an area that we haven’t done a lot of work on. As part of the licence I would love to see some sort of training as to how to handle that. No matter what you say to people, particularly this generation absolutely live on social media. And the impacts are massive. I think calling it out is really important.

“The BHA are now doing that and we really need to look at something similar as well as giving an education and support to people who are taking out their licence and even the guys who are established. This is certainly an area that we could do more on.”

There is completed research or research beginning on strength and conditioning, bone health and jockeys’ post-retirement experiences and options. Meanwhile, David O’Neill is on the cusp of launching his first survey looking into the weight structure.

Weight structures

“He is surveying 300 jockeys, owners, breeders and the rule makers to try and get where everybody is at with the weights. Alongside that then – I have battled hard for it – HRI are looking at setting up a working group within the race planning department to look at the weight structures. We got a 2lb increase on the weights across the boards with Covid. That is still in place.

“Anecdotally, the jockeys have said it made a massive difference. And the closing of the saunas means they are no longer losing 2lb or 3lb within a half-hour or 15 minutes of race riding. They have to be more prepared, they have to do it the night before or the morning of, so they are getting a little bit of time to compensate for that dehydration and adjust to it rather than jumping straight out of a sauna and straight onto a horse. Physiologically you can’t have adjusted to that.

“The 2lb definitely made a massive difference and the 48-hour declarations have been really positive for them. I will be looking for the 2lb to be applied permanently but we just want to make sure we do that through the right channels. I know that they are some concerns, obviously, on the horse side.

“But between the PhD work and HRI’s subcommittee with the various stakeholders I think we will definitely make some make really good solid progress in getting the better weight structure that suits the population of jockeys we have.

“I don’t mind saying publicly, my aim will be to retain the 48-hour decs and keep the saunas closed. To think we are actually enabling what we know to be unsafe... It is completely against the grain of what we believe… But if you have lived without them for a year and overall people, and a lot of the other jockeys, even the guys who don’t have trouble with their weight, will say that overall everyone is happier. They are happier they are not living in saunas.”


One area that remains of concern is the use of so-called social drugs. The statistics show that jockeys are tested in higher numbers than other sports and a couple of years ago, there was a raft of positives, particularly for cocaine. This has reduced but Pugh remains very concerned.

“Statistics-wise, there have been fewer positives. We had no positives this year. I think anecdotally there is still a massive problem. Definitely the bit of education helps but I think we still have a problem.

“The BHA have done the pilot of the saliva testing which is the same that the road guards do. We have had some early conversations with the makers of those tests because that gives you an instant result as opposed to the urine sample which takes two weeks to come back.

“I don’t think people are taking cocaine in their car before they come racing. A lot of these guys that take cocaine at the weekend, they are probably safe to ride midweek but it is still an illegal substance and it is a banned-at-all-times substance. What you really don’t want is someone who is actively under the influence of cocaine or cannabis or any such drug, the same as alcohol and we have stamped that out with the breathalyser.”

Pugh doesn’t see use of cocaine as an aid for jockeys in terms of an energy boost or appetite neutraliser, but “it is a much easier option than drinking pints or coke and vodka, which is full of calories. I still think it is a weight issue that makes this such a popular drug. But I don’t think that they are using it routinely.

“Once somebody gets addicted to it, that is a different story, the same with cannabis. But my feeling is most stuff is used recreationally in preference to skulling pints. It is not about the alcohol anymore, it’s the drugs.”


Elsewhere, there is the day-to-day dealing with injuries and the constant desire to improve matters, with tremendous support from the Jockeys’ Accident Fund, Irish Injured Jockeys and the Jockeys’ Trust.

She is currently working with Santry Sports Clinic to establish a return-to-ride protocol after a jockey has suffered concussion. In conjunction with that, there is the ongoing efforts to improve helmets and back protectors, an area in which Ireland is already an industry leader.

But it is Covid that towers over the past 18 months. People have had statues erected of them for far less than what Pugh has done in that period. But she will deflect such talk for as long as the mountains of her native Mourne sweep down to the sea.

“Thanks goes to the other members of the team and for racing for the buy-in. I know people have cursed me when they haven’t been able to go racing and they haven’t had a bar code and have been turned away, and they have been told to put on a face mask for the 500th time. But I would stand over everything that we have done.

“We were the last sport going in March, the first sport back in June and we’re the only sport not to have had to stop at all. I think we should all pat ourselves on the back for that.”

Female jockeys and

women in racing

“WE are thinking we are all great that women can compete. Absolutely they can but in my opinion, we still haven’t done enough to encourage it.

“That is not fully true. There is a really big cohort of apprentices through RACE. And even when you go into the weigh room on the flat now, last year there was just Siobhan Rutledge, now Annalise Cullen has had a few winners, Nikita Kane, Melanie Horsman, there is a good cohort of them that are beginning to get rides frequently. National Hunt, there is certainly no difference there. Rachael (Blackmore) is a complete outlier, a fabulous outlier.

“Part of Rachael’s argument, and I would agree with it, if you have been in racing all of your life, you don’t notice any difference because you are treated the same. There was never a sense, ‘oh God I can’t believe a woman got that job.’

“I don’t feel any difference from the fact that I am female. I still think there is still more challenges for females in the workplace, particularly this year. I think it is a massive thing we should be looking at with the stable staff. Whatever about jockeys transitioning out of their career. If you are female and you are at that stage of life where you want to get married and have kids, going back into racing is very difficult.”