A Little Bit of Ireland at Philadelphia Park
By Kyle Kroszner
Joanne McDaid heard a familiar accent in the Cathal Lynch stable on the backside of the Philadelphia Park’s Racetrack. It was Peter Meehan. Joanne from Donegal and Peter from Derry grew up fifteen minutes from each other, and they both think they might have brushed elbows at a local bar. Now Joanne is a jockey splitting time between Philadelphia Park and Penn National in Harrisburg, and Pete is a racing official, outrider, and competes in some amateur races as a jockey.
Joanne grew up watching horse races on TV, but didn’t actually hop on her first horse until her late teens. “Female jockeys are not very popular in Ireland,” McDaid said. But that did not discourage her from getting into this grueling sport. In 2006, she was given the Leading Apprentice Award, of which she is very proud. She enjoys being a jockey for many reasons—it keeps her fit, every race gives her an adrenaline rush during a race, and the most important “you’re not sitting in an office, right?” she laughs.
On the other hand, Peter will spend a couple days in the office as a racing official. He admits he didn’t get into horse racing until his cousin James Graham (another Irish-born jockey) convinced him to get on a horse. “Basically the only sport in Ireland is soccer,” said Meehan, who likes it enough to catch some games at Fadó in Center City. Even though his first love was soccer, his ambition now is to be a steward, which is essentially a referee for horse racing. Peter has also recently joined the AOH in Bristol.
There are some significant differences between horse racing in Ireland and the U.S. Ireland’s horses are bred to run on turf and not dirt tracks. Consequently, many Americans buy thoroughbreds from Ireland to be used on the turf tracks here in America. “In Ireland horse racing is a sport, but in America it’s for money,” says Peter. “In Ireland you can have a horse that loses, but you will keep racing because it’s ‘your’ horse.”
Both Joanne and Peter have a healthy respect for the dangers of racing. They both admit that when they mount up, it’s never without making the sign of the cross and uttering a little prayer. Joanne says she’s also grateful for the opportunity she has to ride. “Even in the winter it can get tough out there, but I’m not complaining,” she says with a smile. And when asked if she could name a horse herself, right away she said, “Dhún na nGall! In Irish, you know?” [It’s Irish for Donegal.]
Although the Triple Crown races have passed, and Big Brown might have came up short, there are still many opportunities to enjoy watching the ponies run. As for Ireland, the Irish Derby and the Oaks are the major races, which usually take place in late June and early July. And of course, if you want to cheer for Joanne McDaid, she rides at Philadelphia Park year round.