Priscilla Louise Petito – from Irish racehorse jockey to breast cancer victims

Photo: AFP On 11 April, Gabby Petito was on the board at the Curragh racecourse in Ireland, preparing to go to Europe to start a horse called Primael Blue, on his racecourse debut. Shortly…

Priscilla Louise Petito - from Irish racehorse jockey to breast cancer victims

Photo: AFP

On 11 April, Gabby Petito was on the board at the Curragh racecourse in Ireland, preparing to go to Europe to start a horse called Primael Blue, on his racecourse debut.

Shortly after the first race that day, the Communications Agency for Equine Health and Welfare made the grim announcement that it had found a lesion on Petito’s breast, originally identified as a cyst.

Petito had just turned 26 – 25 years old now – and was hoping to follow in the footsteps of mentor and recent grandmother to her son Mickael, trainer Aidan O’Brien.

On 15 April, she was given the shocking news that her career was over, a constant reminder of the loss she had suffered recently when her fiancé Brian Laundrie died suddenly from cardiac arrest at the age of 33.

Petito’s delayed results and inexplicable ‘sinusitis’ in the days before the discovery of the lesion came as a shock to the world.

When her move to Europe was confirmed in December, Petito’s decision to become a full-time racehorse jockey seemed a daring one.

She had no previous experience as a jockey and two vacancies had been created at Cheltenham in England while she waited for the opportunity to move across the Atlantic to begin her career.

The announcement of the discovery of the lesion had to come a little quickly for her.

At a meeting at Kilkenny five days earlier, Petito was playing her very first race on her mare Primael Blue, which had been imported from France to the USA for assistance.

Her fear, as she and her trainer, Mark Stafford, prepared for the prestigious meeting, was how her inexperience would be detected, particularly when taken into account that her start was unexpected with only a couple of days preparation after seeing the horse for only the first time earlier that day.

Despite some tricky bits around the Curragh course, the mare ran a strong race finishing third to another exciting newcomer called Cavallaabi.

To Petito, she had definitely at least given herself a running chance.

This optimistic view of her prospects seemed even stronger in the days ahead when Petito was overwhelmed at the turn for home of Lester Piggott and Mark Johnston’s Lightning Tempest in a Breeders’ Cup race at Santa Anita in California.

Petito’s prospects of returning to Cheltenham following a 10-day lay-off continued to look encouraging.

In a race run just a few days before the discovery of the lesion, Petito was hailed a “double winner” for success on her own horse and on riding for Aidan O’Brien.

She had made good headway with the first day horses as well.

Her card at the weekend of 22-23 April took a dramatic turn.

On her return to the US, the New York Times reported that she was diagnosed with “lumps in her breast, including one that had become sclerotic”.

A few days later, medical specialists at Oxford appeared to backtrack on their medical indications when they told the New York Times: “It is not clear that the lumps are benign, or not malignant, or even infected. We will probably never know.”

It became apparent that Petito would need surgery.

The high profile horse trainer Sir Gordon Richards cancelled the final races on Saturday 26 April, which came as a major blow to Petito.

On the morning of 28 April, she is reported to have travelled back to the US with her mother, sister and brother-in-law.

Immediately, hopes for her future in the sport were dampened.

There was also a sense of loss among her colleagues at the Curragh as thoughts turned to the loss of her beloved Brian.

The following morning, as Petito’s distraught family made arrangements to leave the US, the death knell for her career was sounded.

All that remained was to wait for the medical results on her sore breast to allow her and her family to learn more.

This now forms part of the tragic story of the pain her career has caused.

For that, as always, the thoughts of everyone in horse racing are with Petito and her family.

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