As the much-fancied Deacon Blues flashed home in the prestigious Wokingham Handicap on the final day of Royal Ascot this year, it should have been one of the biggest wins to date in the career of Hayley Turner—the country’s leading female jockey on the flat. Instead she was over 300 miles away at Ayr in Scotland, riding Margot Did for her chief employer, Newmarket-based trainer Michael Bell, in a reasonably valuable Listed race. Such are the ups and downs of life as a jockey—especially when you happen to be a female trying to make your mark in what is still very much a man’s world.
“It was obviously disappointing to miss out as I would love to have a Royal Ascot winner,” says Turner, smiling ruefully. “But Margot Did is rated 112 and I’m not in the position to go jumping off horses like that—I’m not a Ryan Moore or a Frankie Dettori!” Yet in tune with the roller-coaster ride that has been her career so far, just three weeks later she landed the plum ride on Dream Ahead in the July Cup—one of the most prestigious races in the UK—after the first two jockeys the owners had hoped to use were booked to ride elsewhere that day. The horse was suited to the rain-softened ground and a supremely confident ride from Turner saw him win comfortably, the first outright Group One victory by a female jockey.
“I’m thrilled that I can tick it off the list now,” she said afterwards. “I’m going to give my agent a ring now and tell him a Classic win is our next mission!”
As she left the course, complete with a crate of six bottles of champagne, it was clear that a long night was in the offing and just as well that she had a rare day off from racing the next day.
During her career, Turner has fought back from far bigger setbacks than her Royal Ascot disappointment. In March 2009, she suffered a terrible fall while “schooling” a young horse through the stalls on the Newmarket gallops, just across the road from where we’re talking. The fall left her unconscious and bleeding from the nose and ears, while she also suffered memory loss and bruising to the brain.
Turner was initially told she would have to sit out of racing for a whole year. She contested that decision and was allowed back into the riding ranks four months later following extensive medical tests. “I woke up every morning thinking, ‘What am I going to do today?’” she recalls. ‘There is only so much time you can kill.”
It didn’t take her long to get back in the saddle and she ended the season with 60 winners. It’s typical of the determination and ambition she showed from an early age. Having grown up around horses—her mother was a riding instructor—Turner first thought of becoming a jockey after a taster session at Doncaster Racing School. In 2005, she was the first woman to be champion apprentice and in 2008 became the first to ride 100 winners in
Such success, however, does not mean she enjoys the weekly high-profile races enjoyed by the likes of Moore, Dettori, Johnny Murtagh and Jamie Spencer. For those like Turner, making a living on the next level down, it’s a daily grind.
The day before we meet was a long one. “I was up at 4.30am to drive from Newmarket to Lambourn to ride out there for Hughie Morrison,” she says. “I was due for a really light ride at Newbury in the evening but it was declared a non-runner so I was able to have my breakfast—I would have had to skip it otherwise!
“Then I went to Brighton where I had a winner, though I picked up a three-day ban from the stewards. And in the evening at Newbury I had a winner in the last race (on the catchily named Bouncy Bouncy) and got back about half-past ten. I was up again this morning at half six to ride for James Fanshawe (Deacon Blues’ trainer), then it was time to ride out for Amy Weaver (the country’s youngest female trainer).”
Once Turner has spoken to us and posed for our pictures, she has to jump into her car for the drive across to Wolverhampton where she has just one ride in the afternoon. After that, it’s Windsor for the popular Monday night summer meeting—one of Turner’s favourites in the calendar as “the sun’s shining on your back and there’s a band playing”.
I clock up about 80,000km on the road each year
She points out that this is the busiest time of the year for her: “It’s peak season so I’m racing seven days a week—afternoons and evenings most days. I clock up about 80,000km on the road each year.” Then she adds, hastily, perhaps feeling she’s giving us the wrong impression: “I love the life and it’s not all hard work. Last year, I went out to South Africa and rode in Johannesburg and Cape Town. We stayed behind afterwards to do some sightseeing and let our hair down, and stopped off in Dubai on the way home so that was fun.”
Her aforementioned three-day ban means she has no choice but to take a break from racing: “I’ll just have to take a couple of days off and go and have a spa day or a day on the Norfolk Broads with my sisters—I don’t normally get any time for that sort of girlie stuff. Going to Glastonbury would have been fun…”
So who would be her dream headline acts if the festival didn’t clash with the busiest part of the flat season? “My musical tastes are quite varied so it would be something like Arctic Monkeys and Lauryn Hill—but I doubt they’d ever get her to play there. And anyway, I’d take the chance to ride in the Northumberland Plate up at Newcastle over the festival any day of the week!”
While Frankie Dettori can afford a nine-day suspension for use of the whip during his Ascot win in the Prince of Wales’ Stakes —his retainer for riding with the Godolphin stable is around £1m a year—that’s not the case for the likes of Turner. “With the way the prize money is (down on previous seasons), it’s been a tough year,” she admits. “There have been less rides around (partly due to the firm ground, meaning horses have been unable to train on the gallops and partly due to the prevailing economic climate) and there are more riders around jostling to get those rides… I’m desperate to get the 100 winners again for the year but it might be tricky.”
As it happens, the day of our meeting turns into a good one: Turner rides two more winners and happily tweets to her 8,500-plus followers on Twitter while heading back to Newmarket: “Double today. LOVELY JUBBLY”. A few days later, followers see her sense of humour as she tells them from somewhere on the M1: “I just pulled up to the services, and realised I have a slight problem, I’m still dressed as a jockey! Shall I go in?”
She admits she finds Twitter addictive and useful: “Racing’s now a long career and I was conscious of the benefits of raising my profile. You can totally be yourself and get your personality across. And it’s lovely when you’ve had a winner and you get tweets from your followers saying well done.”
Twitter has made plenty of headlines in relation to sportsmen over the past few months but Turner has managed to avoid any of the pitfalls or the attention of over-enthusiastic fans. “I’ve been lucky and not had much in the way of hassle or ‘inappropriate suggestions’,” she laughs.
Clearly she is aware of the importance of sports stars having a social presence: “I’ve not got an official website right now but www.hayleyturner.com will be launched over the next couple
It might well coincide with another landmark in her career—breaking through the 500 winners’ mark. She professes not to know exactly what the current tally is but it is over 490 and fast approaching what a punter backing one of her mounts on-course would describe as a “monkey”.
Which of her wins has been the most memorable? “Probably Barshiba in last year’s Lancashire Oaks (a Group 2 race and the biggest win of her career so far). She was a lovely horse.”
Turner has also ridden some of the world’s best horses off the track—while working as an apprentice for the Godolphin stable—and also riding Derby winner Motivator for Michael Bell on the gallops. She confesses it’s hard to explain quite the feeling that these equine superstars give you when in the saddle: “It’s a combination of how they look, how well they move and change gear. You can just feel that it is a superb athlete under you. But other horses can be quite laidback at home and then come alive when they get to the track.” Rather like our cover star Usain Bolt, you could argue.
If there’s one race that Turner has become synonymous with it’s the annual Shergar Cup, which sees racing become a team sport for a day at Ascot. The jockeys are split into four teams of three—Great Britain, Ireland, Europe and the Rest of the World. Turner has captained the home side for the past three years and does so again on 6 August.
Racing’s purists may raise their eyebrows in despair at the dancing cheerleaders and pop music that accompany the event, but the bare facts are that more people attended last year’s competition than witnessed Harbinger’s stunning victory in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at the same venue a month earlier.
Now in its 13th year, Turner has an idea to keep the Shergar Cup and attract more of the fairer sex to the racecourse.
“I’ve been banging on at them to let us have a girls’ team to compete in it,” she says. “And they have promised to do that next year. That should really set the cat among the pigeons!”
Turner praises the efforts of the British Racing Authority’s Racing for Change initiative to raise the popularity of the sport: “I think people see the betting terminology and the jargon that the serious racing fans use and it puts them off and intimidates them—it can almost be a secret language. But a day out at the racing is such fun—it’s nice for the girls to get dressed up and for the boys, too! When a group of friends or a family have a Saturday night out or a Sunday off and are deciding whether to go to a gig or a trip to the seaside, we want to get them to come for a day at the races.”
If there’s one race meeting which doesn’t need to be sold to the public, it’s Royal Ascot. “It has such a unique atmosphere—I just love it,” Turner enthuses. And the success of Manchester United striker Michael Owen at this year’s Royal meeting won’t have done racing’s profile any harm—anyone who witnessed his joy after his horse Brown Panther won the King George V Stakes might have wondered if the “Sport of Kings” rather than the “Beautiful Game” is now his primary motivation and passion.
“Michael has been a big supporter of racing for a few years now,” Turner says. “It was great to see him having winners at Royal Ascot and can only help raise racing’s profile. It was fascinating to see him so overwhelmed in the winner’s enclosure.”
Turner’s own passion is undiminished, even when some aficionados have questioned whether a female rider can match the strongest male jockeys such as Kieren Fallon and Ryan Moore in close finishes. “The horses are the athletes at the end of the day,” she says. “Being a jockey is not just about strength—it’s about judging your ride, knowing your horse and being in the right place at the right time.”
Derby-winning trainer Bell, who provides Turner with her most high-profile rides, is effusive in his praise: “I know she doesn’t like to make anything of her sex but she is a woman in a man’s world. It’s very, very hard for a girl to make a go of it as a jockey. From a very early age, she always looked a special talent. She may look like a woman, but she rides like a man and she’s in a different class to any female jockey that has ever ridden in Europe before.”
The Queen really knows her stuff—there was a real sparkle in her eyes when we chatted
Another high-profile owner has also supported Turner: the other first lady of the sport—the Queen. “I rode a winner for her, which was fantastic,” says Turner. Her Majesty’s horse Tactician won a maiden (a race for horses who had not previously won on a racecourse) and has since had decent results, though is not quite in the same league as one of her other runners—this year’s Derby third, Carlton House.
“I wasn’t nervous about riding the horse in the race,” says Turner. “It was meeting the Queen. She is very knowledgable about her horses and you can tell how much she enjoys it—there was a real sparkle in her eyes when we chatted. I was absolutely thrilled to win for her.”
Turner is, of course, not the only woman similarly forging her way in the male-dominated world of racing. So is her friend (and flatmate), trainer Amy Weaver. Formerly an assistant to Michael Bell, Weaver struck out on her own in June 2008 and sent out her first winner the following month. She’s now established at the Woodlands Stables, Lower Yard, where we are kindly allowed to photograph Turner with a couple of the residents.
Weaver admits that 2011 has been a tough year for trainers: “Racing seemed to have been slightly cocooned from the effects of the recession for the previous two seasons but we’ve definitely noticed the slowdown this year. Before then, horses were already in training whereas now owners are being more careful about sending them to us. If they get an offer from abroad to buy one of their horses, they are also more likely to take it. Keeping a horse in training can be an expensive business,” she admits.
“We’re down on numbers from last year, though we’ve got some better horses. We have an average two or three runners a week, so about 100 over the course of the season and hopefully a good number of winners in that lot!”
As for Turner, given her enthusiasm for bringing the sport to new audiences, would she be interested in taking a racing administration role when her career in the saddle is over?
“Possibly. Things can change so quickly, though—people get married and have kids.” Then she adds hastily: “Though I don’t have any plans at the moment!”
Andy Tongue is the editor of PODIUM. He’s pondering taking the plunge and investing in a share in a racehorse.
Portrait Drew Gardner