Racing: 'You've got to be twice as good as the guys. You've got to work that extra bit harder'

The Interview - Lisa Jones: A woman jockey is winning the race to be a real contender. Nick Townsend meets a driven rider
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There's a passage in one of the most evocative sports autobiographies you're ever likely to read, that of the American Julie Krone, the sport's "winningmost" female jockey, where she tells of a near-fatal fall at Saratoga racecourse in 1993. How half a ton of racehorse pounded into her chest, with the result a shattered ankle, a punctured elbow and a bruised heart. Krone concludes: "The pain was so wrenching, if someone had held a gun to my head and asked if I wanted him to shoot me, I would have considered the offer." She also tells you that 13 jockeys out of every 1,000 are killed in the course of their work. It is the highest mortality rate of any sport.

It makes for morbid reading. Yet, at 40, and despite more recent injuries, Krone remains in the saddle, still competing, still cussing at the men, with around 3,600 winners behind her. There is something within her psyche that empowers her; a similar element, you suspect, to that which dictates the future of the young South African jockey Lisa Jones.

At Sandown last week, during an interval between her races, Jones, who is 5ft 1in and who rides at 7st 5lb, presents at first sight an image of fragility, despite being clad in a body protector. Yet the bare shoulders are muscular enough, and the energetic riding of her two mounts thus far that afternoon - one fifth, one runner-up, for Newmarket trainers Alec Stewart and James Eustace respectively - confirms her physical prowess extends to what is not on display.

She may be half the age of Julie Krone and boast fewer than a tenth of her victories, but there are sufficient similarities of attitude to suggest that the sisterhood of the saddle have another contender to rival the men. On the surface, here is a genial and confident young woman, barely out of her teens. Beneath, she exudes the inner strength and faith in her horsewomanship of one far more mature in years, despite being still by definition an apprentice.

You suspect there is something of the devil within Miss Jones. Indeed, it was sufficient to earn her a two-day suspension recently, after using the whip "with excessive frequency". Certainly she displays an insouciance towards the inherent perils of the sport. "I did have quite a nasty fall at Epsom," she reminds you. "We clipped the heels of another horse and came down hard. I broke three ribs. That wasn't very nice..."

But no lasting damage to her confidence? "It's all part of the game," retorts a rider who has already had over 360 rides here and in South Africa. "You can't worry about it. The day you do is the day you hang up your boots. It's the last thing on my mind. You've got to have the confidence in your horse. I just concentrate on riding my best race, think about how the race is unfolding and bringing back myself and the horse in one piece."

That Epsom incident apart, it has been a propitious two years since she moved here from her birthplace. True, the dreaded labels "star potential" and "brightest prospect" can add a few pounds of lead to any young contender's saddle cloth, but some sober judges have remarked auspiciously on Jones's promise. They include that gnarled veteran of the weighing room, George Duffield, who acknowledges: "She rides as well as most of the lads. Hopefully she'll go a long way."

It is a daunting prospect, though. This is the only sport, apart from other equestrian events, where women compete directly with the men (ignoring some amateur races) on equal terms. Fillies and mares may get a weight concession from the colts, geldings and horses, being regarded as a marginally weaker sex physically. That doesn't apply to their human partners, though.

Despite the barrier-breaking feats in both horseracing codes of Brooke Sanders, Gee Armytage, Geraldine Rees and Alex Greaves, the prospect of a woman achieving a finishing position among the leading riders in any year appears unlikely.

"For a woman to be champion jockey, well, that would require a phenomenon," Jones says. "There's too many meetings, too many well-bred horses, too many retained jockeys. But I do think it's possible for a woman get into the first 10 of the championship. If I get the opportunities, I'll definitely give it a go. My other ambition is to win a Classic, or at least a Group race. That's very possible if you keep the ride on a horse that maybe you've ridden well as a two-year-old. But you need the breaks at the right time."

Jones decidedly got a timely break when she forced Lord Of The East through a gap on the rails at Epsom last month. It brought her many tributes, including one from the horse's trainer, Ken Cunningham Brown, who attributed the triumph to "brave and intelligent riding". It contributed to a double on the day, the first occasion a woman had achieved that distinction at the home of the Derby.

That was one of 29 winners from 311 rides this season, a strike rate of nearly 10 per cent. More significant is that her qualities have been appreciated not just by one or two trainers but by several throughout the country. Testimony to the fact is that a total of 16 different trainers have supplied those winning mounts.

However, the truly accurate meter reading of her progress will be taken when her apprentice "claim" (the weight allowance received by the horses she rides) of 5lb goes down to 3lb, and eventually to zero. "I don't worry about that, because it can affect you psychologically," she says. "It's gone well this season, but you've got to prepare yourself for the bad times; I know they will come. But when it does you can't afford to lose your confidence; at the moment I'm getting the support [from trainers]. I hope that continues and I keep improving."

To ensure that, perfecting style is one thing (she admires those of Kieren Fallon and Darryll Holland particularly), fitness is a priority in Jones's schedule. She concentrates on running, power-walking and swimming to keep in trim. "I've also got an Equicizer, which is like a mechanical horse, at home, which keeps you race-fit and your legs strong. It's important to do all that because, being a girl, you've got to be twice as good as the guys. You've got to work that extra bit harder."

Nevertheless, any bias against women riders is not mere prejudice, you suggest. Her sheer strength in the saddle can never compare with that of, say, a Fallon, the reigning champion. "It's not always strength; it's what you've got underneath you," she insists. "You could be riding one of Sheikh Mohammed's 100,000 [guineas] horses, or you could be riding a 5,000 selling horse. It's what you're getting out of the horse and whether you're placed to win at the right time. And it's a lot to do with luck."

What Jones won't do is complain about her treatment by the male jockeys. "Over here, I'm quite well accepted; you get a little bit of stick, but only for a laugh. I've never really felt that I was being intimidated in a race just because I'm a girl. But I do get teased a lot for screaming. When I get a tune out of a horse or when I'm fighting out a finish, I scream loud and shout. They say it's deafening; like a foghorn."

The only daughter of Scottish parents who lived in Botswana for six years, where her father worked for the diamond company De Beers before they returned to South Africa, Jones always had ponies at Pietermaritzburg, near Durban, where they lived. At 14, she was accepted by the Jockeys Academy in Durban. After learning the basics, the objective then was to persuade local trainers to offer work mounts, which would hopefully develop into racecourse rides. "We'd get up at four o'clock in the morning and you'd have to run from ring to ring [barn to barn] to find trainers who wanted to use you. We'd ride as many as 18 horses a morning sometimes. But they always preferred the best boys to ride in races. A lot of the young apprentices weren't getting a fair chance, the girls especially, although there were excellent ones like Chantal Moys, Danielle McCreedy and Lisa Prestwood."

Jones had 55 rides in South Africa, but no winners. "Michael Roberts, [no relation to the jockey who rode here], who I used to ride work for every morning, gave me my first ride and he supported me a lot. But when I was 16 and had been riding for him for only about two months, he shot himself. That was very hard to take."

Eventually, at 18, Jones realised that the only way to enhance her career was a radical move. "I never considered getting out of racing; I love my horses too much. But I felt if I was retained by a trainer it might be a bit easier. The best place to come was England, which is world-renowned for its brilliant racing."

She joined Didcot trainer Alan Jarvis initially, and then moved on to Willie Musson's Newmarket stable. There the transformation of fortunes has been remarkable. "I've always been competitive," she says. "I just don't like losing, and racing is addictive. Once you ride that first winner, you don't want to stop."

She adds: "I always wanted to do something involved with horses, either be a mounted policewoman or a jockey, and I've fulfilled that wish."

Provided present progress is maintained, the day appears far off when we might find her maintaining crowd control outside Highbury.

The trail-blazers

Julie Krone: the first woman to win a Classic, and now 40, she has accumulated nearly 3,600 winners in an 18-year career but injuries have taken their toll.

Diane Crump: in 1969, aged 20, became the first female to ride in a "men's" race. A Puerto Rican who was forced to retire in 1985 through chronic injury. The first woman to have a mount in the Kentucky Derby. Now owns an equine sales company.

Alex Greaves: First woman to win a Group One in Britain when dead-heating on Ya Malak in the 1997 Nunthorpe Stakes. Now 35, she was also the first woman to ride 100 winners and land a four-timer.

Rosemary Homeister Jnr: 30-year-old American with over 1,500 career wins. Rode in the Kentucky Derby this year, only the fifth woman to do so. Both parents were jockeys, and she went full-time in 1992, becoming top apprentice in her first year.