Sylvia O’Donnell from Limerick features in this week’s edition of the ITBA Next Generation 30 under 30. Sylvia had great success last year when winning the Ladies Derby aboard Extensio for her father Pat. Sylvia still holds a jockey’s licence but also works full time for BBA Ireland.
How did you get involved in racing and the industry?
I have my family to thank for introducing me to the world of thoroughbreds. My mother, Una, and father, Pat, run a small but successful training and breeding operation in Herbertstown, Co Limerick. My childhood was mainly spent on the hunting field with both the Scarteen and Co Limerick Foxhounds. It wasn’t until I was in my teenage years that horse racing became my main focus. I graduated from Maynooth University in 2018 with a degree in Equine Business. A balance between study and work was always important to me, so during my years in Maynooth I continued to ride out for local trainers each morning. Opportunities arose along the way to gain some international experience, so I ventured future afield to Brian Meehan in Britain, Chris Waller in Australia, and Gerry Dilger in Kentucky.
Tell us about BBA Ireland and the role you play within the company?
BBA Ireland is a bloodstock and business agency based in Co Kildare. There are three main divisions in our office.
Bloodstock: Our agents purchase thoroughbreds in all four corners of the globe and also offer racing and breeding advice to thoroughbred owners.
Insurance: Our insurance department is one of Ireland’s market-leading bloodstock insurance brokers. Our small but personal team provides a fully comprehensive and personal thoroughbred bloodstock insurance service to the amateur and professional alike.
Shipping: The BBA Ireland shipping office has been offering superior door-to-door personal service to our clients’ horses since 1956. Our main routes include the USA, Australia, the Middle East, and Europe.
I joined the shipping team in 2019. In the beginning, my role mainly revolved around the shipment of horses to and from Germany. However, since Brexit, the shipping industry has seen a radical change which has caused many complications and delays to the movement of horses to and from Britain.
Our team has spent the last three years researching and investigating the various health certification and customs changes, so to ensure our clients’ horses are shipped safely and efficiently. My role now is to oversee all British and European movements, as well as the more international routes such as Australia, China, Saudi, and Dubai. I attend most of the European sales to assist our agents and clients with the shipment of their new purchases. The world of shipping is fast-paced and challenging – it’s part of the industry many people don’t get to see. I started at BBA Ireland with no knowledge of shipping and now all I seem to think about every day is lorries, planes, and VAT!
You had great success riding the winner of the 2022 Ladies Derby. Tell us about that day and how you felt in the immediate aftermath.
It was a real fairytale day! The morning started out as normal with a few lots in Ken Condon’s racing yard. I then headed to the BBA Ireland office to work through some shipments. It was a busy week for us as we were looking after the import and re-export of multiple British runners. When I arrived at the Curragh Racecourse I checked in with some of the travelling British grooms and drivers to make sure they were all happy and had all the documentation they needed for their return journey. I had to check in with my trainer (Pat) and the owner (Una) too to make sure their nerves were okay!
The race itself went very smoothly. Extensio is the only horse I ride on the track, so we know each other very well. A first winner is very memorable for any jockey, but to have shared the whole experience with my friends and family on a day we had targeted since buying Extensio as a yearling was unbelievable.
BBA Ireland had a double that day as Magical Lagoon won the Irish Oaks (purchased by BBA Ireland for Yulong Investments). It was an extremely special and proud moment for our family – which thankfully was all captured on television.
You are still riding out and ride in a few races every year, How do you find balancing that with work?
A normal day for me starts with 2-3 lots in Osborne Lodge (Ken Condon Racing) before beginning at BBA Ireland at 10am. Riding out has always been very important to me as it allows me to sort of ‘clear my head’ before a busy day in the office. I am very fortunate that BBA Ireland understands how important riding in a few races yearly is to me, so I can take time off here and there to go racing or to meet my father to ride a piece of work. Bluetooth earphones are the real heroes in my life!
What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to get involved in the industry professionally?
Gain as much experience as you can in multiple parts of the industry. You may know what area you like most but the knowledge you gain and people you meet through other sectors will always stand to you as you pursue a career in the thoroughbred industry. You also never know what opportunities may arise for you along the way which will broaden your ambitions.
What are your hopes for the future?
In recent years I started buying and breeding NH and flat horses with my parents. I get home to Limerick every weekend to check on them and ride some of them out. It has been great to see them develop and progress.
We’re still in the ‘hopes and dreams’ era but I really look forward to seeing some of them hit the track within the next year.
Moving forward I plan to continue to buy foals and yearlings to race ourselves – with professionals taking hold of the reins on the racetrack!