ANN Ferris (née Rooney), who died last Wednesday week, June 22nd, at Daisy Hill Hospital, was one of Ireland’s greatest horsewomen as well as a record-making amateur rider.
Originally from Glengormley, she was married to the late Harry Ferris, who was a prominent figure in farming circles around Newry, and was mother to two children, Gaye and Billy.
Ann’s father was the legendary Willie Rooney who rode 401 point-to-point winners and so, following the sad death of their brother Gerry, it was little wonder that Ann, and her late sister Rosemary, were to become such a powerful force between the flags and on the racecourse as well.
Riding in a time when point-to-points just took place in the spring, Ann, whose first success came at the age of 14, partnered 94 winners between 1960 and 1984.
She was crowned overall champion rider in 1976 with 23 wins, a seasonal total for a woman which only came under threat in the 2004/05 campaign when Clare MacMahon posted 21 successes.
Many of the Rooney sisters’ winners on the northern circuit helped advertise stallions such as Cantab, Grange Melody, Knotty Pine, Avocat, etc., who stood at the Mount Top Stud of their parents, Willie and Caroline.
Ann recorded two major successes on the racecourse, the first coming in 1979 when she partnered Irian to victory in the Irish Sweeps Hurdle.
It was only the previous day that she was asked to ride the French-bred gelding by trainer Arthur Moore who was to become father-in-law to her nephew, bloodstock agent Kevin Ross.
Five years later, Ann wrote her name into racing history when winning the 1984 running of the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse on the 33/1 shot Bentom Boy. The Mon Capitaine gelding was trained by her father who also saddled Dawson Prince to finish third under his youngest daughter, Rosemary.
Earlier that year, Ann and Bentom Boy landed the Ulster National at Downpatrick. She also won that race in 1976 on Mourneview, in 1980 on Champerty and in 1986 on Androy.
In April of last year, at the age of 80, Ann featured in an RTÉ news bulletin following the Cheltenham and Aintree exploits of Rachael Blackmore who she described as being “a very good rider. She has a great racing brain and deserves all she has done.”
As stated above, Ann was one of the country’s greatest horsewomen and enjoyed other equestrian pursuits in addition to racing.
She was, in her younger days, an active member of the Newry Harriers Hunt Club and, as such, was very much involved in organising, running and competing in the first one-day event held in Northern Ireland.
At Taylorstown in 2018, Ann Ferris (left) presents Maureen Welsh and Jennifer Stitt with the Hugh Ferris Memorial Cup \ Healy Racing
That was in 1961 when the Scarvagh Horse Trials (which was to run for many years) was staged across the neighbouring lands of the late Bill Buller (Scarvagh) and George Bryson (Lisnabrague). One-day events were held at the Ferris family farm at Carnbane.
During her later years, when her own riding exploits were confined to hacking her cob, Ann and her good friend, the late Shirley Kernan of Crossmaglen, attended Grand Prix jumping shows in the Ulster Region of the Show Jumping Association of Ireland and beyond.
“Ann Ferris was the very first woman to break into what was a male-dominated sport in my day,” commented Ted Walsh. “She was a tough competitor, fair but tough, and wouldn’t give an inch.
“I rode against her for quite a time and she could hold her own with anyone as could her sister Rosemary. In fact, the pair of them carved me up one day at Down Royal and I ended up flat on my back!”
Ann is survived by her children, Gaye and Billy, and her sisters, Carol and Eyssen, to whom we extend our sympathies.