Jennie Brannigan never could have imagined she’d be donning jockey silks and goggles, but nevertheless, on March 21, she found herself in the baby blue colors of Welcome Here Farm as she headed to the starting line of the W.C. Jackson Training Flat race at the Aiken Spring Steeplechase in Aiken, S.C., on a horse she’s known for the last two years, Where’s The Beef.
Brannigan, who blogs for the Chronicle, is in the middle of prepping her longtime partner, Nina Gardner’s Cambalda, for the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** in April, but when her friend, winning jockey Willie McCarthy, asked if she wanted to ride “Beef”, a 7-year-old Thoroughbred (Rockport Harbor—Claire de Lune, Regal Classic), now owned by Welcome Here Farm, she couldn’t pass up the chance.
Brannigan, Kennett Square, Pa., was impressed when she saw Beef win a hurdle race with McCarthy last year. When he was up for claiming at PARX (Pa.) seven months ago, she and Gardner claimed him in hopes of making him into an eventer.
“I’ve never even been to PARX, let alone claimed a horse,” she said. “If he doesn’t go in the starting gate you can’t claim them and if he does go and breaks his leg, they’re still yours. I fell in love with the horse and it’s been a bit of an emotional deal. He had four months off to gain weight and then I had him in my barn, which was pretty amazing.”
Brannigan competed Beef twice this winter at beginner novice and novice events, which went well, but she decided that jump racing was his calling and he went back to his previous trainer, Brian Murphy.
When the gelding needed a prep run on the flat before the Carolina Cup (S.C.) at the end of March, Murphy and McCarthy asked if she’d like to ride. Nervous, she accepted the invitation.
Brannigan, 27, is no stranger to riding racehorses though. She works as an exercise rider for trainer Michael Matz. “Racing’s changed my life,” she said. “Meeting Willie was very random. After [Cambalda] fell at [the 2013 Rolex Kentucky CCI****] on the pavement I was pretty depressed and got invited out by a friend to go have a drink and I sat down across from him and next thing I know I’m galloping for Michael Matz and the next thing I know I’m riding in a race. You just never think that something like that would happen. I never had any passion for it, so it was emotional for it to be on this horse that I’ve admired and respected. I just hope for everyone’s sake that he runs really well [in the Carolina Cup.]”
Brannigan had plenty of support on race day, with friend and fellow four-star competitor Hannah Sue Burnett and Gardner and her husband Tim on the sidelines.
“I saw all the tents and I think my heart started racing,” said Brannigan. “Willie had sent me a video of the race the year before and I was like, ‘Oh my God, there are a lot of people here!’”
Brannigan had to do some last minute borrowing of pants from jockey Jeff Murphy and a saddle from someone she didn’t know.
“Willie was helping dress me, I mean, talk about being completely out of your element!” she said. “You’re wearing these nylon pants, boots I’ve never worn before, a saddle I’ve never ridden in, and the Gardners were there. I’ll give it to Willie, he held my hand though the whole thing.
Willie gave her some advice on how Beef would run and helped her weigh in.
She and Beef ended up in fourth place, while McCarthy won the race on Rockford Stables LLC’s Gun Point.
“I’d say I felt as nervous to do that as I’d feel Rolex day,” Brannigan admitted. “I was completely out of my element, but there’s a little bit of an adrenaline rush where you’re like, ‘Alright, here we go.’ A little scared, but you know it’s fantastic and then by the time I was on and ready to go, I kind of knew what I was doing a little bit.
“The race rode exactly how he said it would ride and the horse rode almost exactly how he said he would,” she continued. “I was nervous that I’d mess him up, but I think he came out of the race just fine.”
As the only female jockey of the whole day, Brannigan did have one slight challenge when she reached the jock’s room.
“I walk in and granted I know Willie and I knew Darren Nagle, but there were all these Irish boys I’d never met before, and Willie asked the steward if I would have a place to change. They’re like, ‘Don’t know what to tell you,’” she said with a laugh. “The boys pulled apart the tent to block off a corner for me, which was absolutely one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen. It was very cute.”
Brannigan’s got her eye set on Rolex for now, but the race has left her wanting more.
“I haven’t felt that much pure joy and passion to do something in quite a while,” she said. “I definitely have a pipe dream of running in the Maryland Hunt Cup one day. You see Bruce [Davidson] did that. It’s something I’d love to be able to say I’ve done as well. How many people have owners involved in racing and eventing at the same time? I feel lucky and feel like it’s almost meant to be for me to do a little bit of it [in the future].”