Hayley Turner: Sorcery of the apprentice stakes a claim for girl power

Motivator's quality is the motivation for a woman jockey of substance. Nick Townsend meets the rider who is on course to be 'like any of the lads'
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The Independent Online

That blurred kaleidoscope of silks in a driving finish and the rippling muscles of equine blue blood; the glamour and wealth, the sex and intrigue. Horseracing has always yielded myriad images, though as she recalls her first race-ride before a sparse crowd at Southwell racecourse on a dismal March afternoon in 2000 the memories are rather more mundane for jockey Hayley Turner.

Mundane, and macabre.

Her parents, Kate and Richard Turner, had become increasingly concerned when the field had returned at the end of the moderate two-mile handicap with no sign of their 17-year-old daughter on the 25-1 shot Markellis. The debutante jockey eventually appeared, trudging across the infield of the racecourse, forlornly clutching her saddle. "Midfield when pulled up halfway; broke leg; dead" - the Racing Post post-mortem the next day was pitifully brief. A vet's humane killer had swiftly dispatched her mount to that great finishing post in the sky. It was not the most auspicious introduction.

"The adrenalin had been rushing round me because it was my first ride. It was such a big thing. What happened wasn't nice, but it's a part of racing, even on the Flat," Turner says when we meet at Nottingham racecourse, just two miles from where she was born. "If anything was going to put me off, it was going to be that moment."

It was never likely to deter Turner, now 22, whose slender 7st 10lb physique you could imagine on the catwalk if she had not entered a world where it is the beautifully proportioned equine individuals who sashay on to the stage. "My first winner was at Pontefract, my eighth ride, on a horse called Generate." She smiles self-depracatingly at the memory. "A bit of a steering job, really. I watch the video now and I just cringe. I think to myself, 'Look at those arms. How did I win that?' "

Today she exudes confidence, but it is perhaps that capacity for self-criticism, to be constantly undergoing a course of self-education by scrutinising the masters of her profession, that has propelled her to the cusp of the apprentice championship, a distinction held over the years by such icons of the Turf as Lester Piggott, Pat Eddery and Frankie Dettori.

Turner, who boasts 40 victories this season from over 400 runners, is currently four ahead of her nearest challenger, Philip Makin. Should she retain an advantage over him when the Turf Flat season concludes in four weeks' time she will be the first woman to secure the accolade.

It would be a remarkable accomplishment. While a glance at the names of the trainers who have "put her up" on their horses this season, including 17 individuals for whom she has won, testifies to their faith in Turner, there remains a residue of prejudice against women riders. "My agent [Richard Hunter], who also acts for Joanna Badger and Lisa Jones, has said to me a few times that he knows which trainers to not bother ringing for rides because they won't have a girl on," she says. "A lot of them are of the old school. But luckily the percentage of them is going down rather than up."

Fortunately, there are many who do support and encourage girl riders, notably her guv'nor, Michael Bell, whose Newmarket stable won this year's Derby with Motivator. Bell has compared her style with that of the former champion Kieren Fallon. Her other advocates include the veteran trainer Jeff King, the 64-year-old former National Hunt jockey. "Some would probably put him in the old-school bracket, too, but he's not," says Turner. "I think some people found it a bit of a surprise. 'Oh, Jeff King giving a girl a ride?' But he's been brilliant. I've had several winners on his horses. It's sort of a privilege to ride for him because of his tough reputation."

Turner adds wryly: "It's not actually riding the horse that's the hard part. That's the easy bit, just riding round the track. It's finding the owners and trainers with the courage to put a girl on a horse."

The reality is that race-riding is a physically demanding profession in which no concession is given to the distaff side of the jockeys' fraternity. Women riders compete on equal terms with their male counterparts. "The senior jockeys are really helpful," she says. "One day, when I was first riding, Kieren Fallon and I were both out the back on our horses, and I was just hitting mine. At the end of the race, when we had pulled up, he said quietly, 'Hayley, you don't need to be hitting it. Save your energy. You're beat. Once your horse starts dropping back, put your stick down'." She adds: "That was a lesson quickly learnt. It's just common sense, really. But as an apprentice, you do need to be told."

Turner is technically a professional now, having three weeks ago partnered her 95th winner in total. In doing so, she "rode out her claim" - only the fourth woman to do so since Alex Greaves broke through in 1991. However, she will continue to contest apprentice races until her current licence expires in March. It is an achievement which is both celebrated and regarded with trepidation by all riders, both male and female, who suddenly discover that some trainers are not quite so enthusiastic to offer them rides once they can no longer claim that vital weight allowance, which ranges from 3lb to 7lb.

Thus far, however, Turner has continued to prosper. Indeed, she rode a double at Catterick on Monday, and is now only one away from her century. "Some people say, 'Oh, yes, you're going to struggle now you've lost your claim', and are really negative," she says. "But I just try to be positive and, so far, I've had as many rides and probably more winners than I would have done when I was claiming."

There is a widely held perception that Turner could be the first woman to join the élite in Britain, just as the phenomenal Julie Krone did in the United States. The diminutive but deceptively powerful Krone, who galvanised 3,704 winners from 21,411 mounts, is the only woman to win a Triple Crown event, the 1993 Belmont Stakes.

Not surprisingly, Krone is Turner's principal inspiration. "Without blowing my own trumpet, a lot of people would say that you wouldn't be able to pick me out in a finish among the lads," she says. "It's making sure you're in the right position in the race at the right time, and getting a tune out of the horse. It's not all about strength. It's the horses who are the athletes. They're doing the running. We are just on top, guiding them."

Turner's affinity with equine pursuits is inbred, her mother being a freelance riding instructor in the Southwell area. "I was always into it, but I wanted to do something a bit more exciting than eventing and showjumping. I wanted to go a bit faster."

Initially, she rode out at Mark Polglase's base at Southwell, and then attended the Northern Racing College before earning an apprenticeship with Bell. "I thought, 'If I'm going to make a go of it, I want to go to a big yard, with a trainer who has a good strike-rate with apprentices'," she explains. "My first 20 rides I was shocking." Her father, who has joined us by now, considers that estimation a bit extreme. "Well, I wasn't very good," she retorts. "I knew I needed to strengthen up."

She adds: "The guv'nor sent me away, for experience, to a friend of his, Tom Amoss, in New Orleans for three months, and I learnt an awful lot." Equally beneficial was last winter spent riding work for Godolphin in Dubai.

"It was hard to get going initially," she says. "The guv'nor would tell owners: 'Your horse is running tomorrow and oh, we're putting Hayley on it'. They'd say, 'Who's Hayley?' He'd say: 'That's Hayley who's had one ride...' Once I'd ridden a few of the more moderate horses in apprentice races and they ran well for me, then he could say to the owners, 'Yes, she rode such and such the other day and it finished second, at 50-1'. It started building up like that, really."

The true test of her progress will arrive, however, when Turner is offered the mount on a horse with the quality of Motivator. Before he won his maiden at Newmarket, she did in fact partner the eventual Derby victor on the gallops. "Then they found out he was a nice horse," she says, adding with a laugh: "I'm not allowed near him now. I'm not even allowed to muck him out!"

Bizarrely, despite the plaudits, ever- increasing media profile and TV appearances, the highly personable Turner, who remains steadfastly single - "I haven't got time for boyfriends. The last thing I want to do when I get home is socialise. I just want to go to bed" - has no sponsorships, no endorsements and no business agent to market her potential as a sporting individual.

But that is not her priority. Ask her ambition and the response is simply this: "I just want to be making a good living out of riding racehorses - like any of the lads." With the accent on that last phrase.

FEMALE PIONEERS OF THE FLAT

Julie Krone

Remarkable American who defied horrendous injuries to become the most successful female jockey in history.

Alex Greaves

Became the first female apprentice to ride out her claim; partnered around 300 winners in a 15-year career.

Emma O'Gorman

Rode first of around 140 winners aged 16. Lost her claim at 21. Rode three winners at Ascot Festival of Racing.

Lisa Jones

Won 47 races last year, when riding out her claim. First woman to ride a double at Epsom. Overall tally stands at 123.

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 3 January 1983 in Nottingham.

Family: Father Richard, mother Kate, sisters Connie, Gemma, Becky, Lucy and Holly.

Height: 5ft 2in. Weight: 7st 10lb.

Career: Started riding horses at the age of three, and decided to switch to racehorses at 16. After reaching 95 winners, she lost her claiming allowance. Has a total of 99 winners.

Winners this Flat season: 40.

Also: First woman jockey to ride for Godolphin. Regular trainer is Michael Bell, based at Newmarket. Suffers from coeliac disease, a stomach illness that prevents her eating bread, biscuits, pasta and cake.

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