Curling sees the point of having fun

Andrew Baker meets an amateur woman jockey who has little time for the big time
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POLLY CURLING, Britain's leading point-to-point jockey, appeared on Women's Hour recently, which must have been the challenge of a lifetime for whoever was working the editing machine. Curling's language is as colourful as the purple jodhpurs she wears to ride out the six horses in her yard: she doesn't call a spade a spade, she calls it a bloody spade - if she's feeling polite.

Point-to-point racing is the amateur version of National Hunt racing. Meetings are held at temporary courses all over the country, and often draw crowds of several thousand. Events are usually organised by local hunts, and horses that compete must qualify to do so by hunting at least seven times. "It's a fun thing," Curling explained over a cup of coffee in a brief break from mucking out duties at her Somerset stables. "The little girlie from up the road can have a go, a chap who is successful in business can have a bit of fun at the weekend. People bloody go out and enjoy themselves. Nobody goes point-to-point racing to make money."

If there was money in the game, Curling would be a rich woman. Last year she rode 40 winners, a record for any jockey, male or female, and capped the achievement with a win at Cheltenham in the Christie's Foxhunter Chase. In her 14-year career Curling, who is 31, has ridden "170-something" winners, including 29 in hunter chases, which are run at regular racecourses under National Hunt rules.

Such success has not been achieved without setbacks: broken wrists, collarbones and ribs, with collateral damage to lungs, pancreas and kidney. It is a credit to her toughness that she looked a picture of health, restlessly energetic, and pink-faced from a morning's hunting in the cold coastal wind.

But this season has not been without mishap. Last weekend she had a crashing fall and, as she put it, "found out if the ground was really good to soft with my bloody head". But minor concussion won't stop her defending her Foxhunter title at Cheltenham. After all: "There's no such thing as a safe conveyance in this game. Anyone says so, that's a load of cock."

What A Hand, Curling's mount in the Foxhunter, is trained by Richard Barber, whose Dorset stable provides most of her rides. Barber is full of praise for his regular jockey. "She keeps horses well balanced," he said, "and presents them well at fences. What's more, she is good fun to have around, and she's got good sense."

So why has she never turned professional? "Because I'm not good enough and I'm too heavy," she said. Regular observers of the point-to-point scene quibble with the first part - some with long memories rate her the best amateur they have ever seen. But she is tall for a jockey, 5ft 10in, and strong with it, so it is difficult for her to ride below 10st 7lb. Besides, "I'd rather be a big fish in - not exactly a smaller pond, but a different one. They are all so bloody professional in National Hunt racing. Point-to-pointing is more light-hearted."

Until last year, Curling was used to watching Cheltenham on television - she doesn't like the crowds and the socialising, just the racing. But this year she has not just one, but two good horses in What A Hand and Sunley Bay, her mount in the Kim Muir Chase. "I'm bloody lucky to have two really good rides," she said. "Lucky to go and play and be there." She looked around as she walked back to the stables, at the grey Quantocks behind and the shining Bristol Channel below her hilltop house. "Not bloody bad, is it?" she said. "Still, back to shovelling shit."

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