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16 June 2020

Frying pan to fire – the BHA’s Cathy O’Meara talks about her career stateside and the unique challenges she faced right from the gate in her post as Head of Raceday Officials.

My first job in racing was right out of college when I took an internship at Pin Oak Stud in Kentucky. However, I was basically born on a horse as my mom was a riding instructor. I was the resident guinea pig, trialling any new lesson horses, which quite of few were OTTBs (Off the Track Thoroughbreds); but it wasn’t until Pin Oak that I really began in the racing industry proper.

Learning from the inside out

After my internship, I did a breaking season at Kildangan Stud and upon returning to the US went to work at the racetrack as an exercise rider, eventually taking out my owners’/trainers’ licence. While continuing to train in the mornings, I also managed accounts for some stud farms in addition to getting my masters degree. It was after I completed degree that I took a role at The US Jockey Club.

Working for over 10 years with The Jockey Club and the Racing Officials Accreditation Program gave me a wealth of experiences with international racing jurisdictions, managing various industry initiatives – from the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summits and officials’ accreditation.

When the opportunity arose with the BHA, it was a position I was keen to explore as British racing is one of the premier racing jurisdictions. Additionally, with having three young children, the chance to raise them in Europe was an added plus.

Opportunities and new friends

My current role with the BHA is Head of Raceday Officials, which entails overseeing all the raceday teams and their professional development.

Honestly, this pandemic has granted us some unique opportunities. While, yes, it’s been challenging working from home, I’ve been thrust into many more aspects of the operational planning phases for the resumption of racing and been able to interact with many of the industry stakeholders. Zoom calls and Microsoft teams have been great friends, while my struggling WiFi has been less than desirable.

Settling in a new country during a pandemic certainly was not what I imagined when I took this new role, but it actually has been a blessing in some ways. I’m able to spend more time with my daughters and we go for daily walks and bike rides to explore parts of the city. Navigating the schools’ system has been challenging and my oldest has only met her teacher through Google Classroom, but everyone seems to be getting along well. One main advantage of working from home has been the ability to run more. I’ve always loved running early in the morning and have found some great running trails through the many parks in North London. I never knew London had so many hills, however, which no matter which way I go, I always seem to be going up!

Putting the wheels in motion

The Resumption of Racing Group put in lots of time formulating a multitude of scenarios for racing’s return. Once the green light was given, it was a matter of finalising the pieces and putting the wheels in motion. It was paramount for all the raceday teams to be briefed with a good understanding of the new protocols so that they could assist the participants with the resumption. The process and protocols are constantly under review as new guidance is released from government. We are also able to learn from each new fixture and pass that knowledge onto the next course.

The racing industry internationally has all had their challenges during this period. I stay in contact with many of my international colleagues both back in the States and through my previous committee work. Discussing how others have dealt with similar situations is always productive.

The first day back

It was great to see everything fall into place. All the planning over the previous weeks finally came together and what an amazing experience to see all the participants truly excited and thankful to be back doing what we all love. It was a bit surreal, though, without the crowds and no roars through the finish line.

So many in our industry pour their hearts into this sport because we love the horse and the thrill of competition. Years of work and dedication from the selection of sire and dam to the long hours ensuring the utmost care is taken with respect to each individual horse’s training – live racing is the peak. It’s such a unique industry, which can bring together people from all walks of life and supports our communities as a whole.

Sports, and racing have so many lessons and life skills that can be imparted to the next generation and our communities. There are not many industries that have such a breadth of opportunities across such a wide diverse range of skills. Obviously, my area of focus is with the raceday teams. It’s vital not only for training and educating of our officials but also being able to inform the industry and public of our processes and procedures, so they can have confidence in the way British racing is run.

Read more about how racing operations around the world have responded to the Coronavirus pandemic below:

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