Iris’s former husband, and local trainer, Gary Nielsen, right, and Ballina trainer Kevin Nipperess at the Ballina Jockey Club where an all-female race will be run to honour Iris’s career as a rider.
Iris’s former husband, and local trainer, Gary Nielsen, right, and Ballina trainer Kevin Nipperess at the Ballina Jockey Club where an all-female race will be run to honour Iris’s career as a rider. David Nielsen

In loving memory of Iris Nielsen

NEARLY 21 years down the track, Ballina trainer Kevin Nipperess can still clearly recall the last words he ever spoke to one of the most successful jockeys on his books, Iris Nielsen.

It was at the Lismore racecourse on Saturday, March 19, 1988.

“She had ridden a horse earlier in the day for me and the last words I said to her were ‘I’ll see you Monday’,” Nipperess said.

But Nipperess never got to see the likeable 38-year-old again as she was fatally injured when the horse she was riding, Happy Zephyr, fell during the running of the 1200m Association Stakes.

Nipperess received the dreadful news of the accident once he got home and the secretary of the race club asked him to try to find Iris’s husband, Gary.

“But by the time I got to Broadwater, he had already gone to the hospital,” Nipperess said.

It’s been reported that on the way to the racecourse that day, Iris Nielsen told her then nine-year-old daughter Rebecca that the ride onboard Happy Zephyr was going to be her last.

Her husband, Gary Nielsen, who stills trains and races horses locally, confirms the story.

“She had talked about giving it away, she had a bad back,” he said.

“That horse she was on that day ... had won the week before and they asked her to ride it again.

“Otherwise, she would have probably retired before that day.

“It was just one of those things. The horse in front (Tropo) was ridden by one of our best jockeys, Johnny Hutchings, and he just fell straight in front of her.

“It was one of those shocks that nobody ever wants.

“Even though we had discussed plenty of times what could happen, we knew, and she knew, the dangers.

“But if you are prepared to take those risks, unfortunately things can happen to some people.”

To commemorate Iris’s life, the Ballina Jockey Club has organised the second running of the Iris Nielsen Ladies Invitation Cup (1300m) on Sunday, January 25.

The $27,000 event will involve a line-up of Australia’s best female jockeys, which will help reinforce Iris Nielsen’s place as one of the ‘pioneers’ of women’s riding in this country.

“It was pretty hard when they started because it was a male-dominated sport,” Gary Nielsen said.

“Women weren’t supposed to be strong enough to ride thoroughbreds.

“They got the rides on some of the slowest horses to start with, but they succeeded on some of those and as it went on they got rides on some of the better horses.

“They had caravans or bits of tents to get changed in.

“There were no jockeys’ rooms or anything. But the ones that started, who were dedicated, put up with that to do what they wanted to do.”

Iris Nielsen became the first female jockey to win the Lismore Cup/Big Maiden Plate double.
Long-time race caller Bob Lane, who was up in the box the day of the tragic race, was a great admirer of Nielsen.

“Horses just travelled for her,” he said.

“She was a pioneer and got quite a following among the punters once she got established.”

Nielsen went on to ride more than 100 winners for Nipperess, which is why the Ballina trainer believes a memorial race in honour of her is entirely justified.

“She just had an affinity with horses, she was just a horse person,” Nipperess said.

“Horses would just run for her.

“She was a real pioneer lady rider in this area. She looked after all the other girls as they came along.

“So a race named in her honour is entirely deserved.”

The Sky Gold Coolmore Iris Nielsen Memorial Ladies Invitation Cup is to be held at Ballina on Sunday, January 25.


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