Racing: Grit hidden behind Hunnam's fresh face

Lydia Hislop on the young jockey who is now among the leaders of the upcoming generation of female riders
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The Independent Online
While Emma O'Gorman and Alex Greaves disappear into the sunset of the Flat season to battle out the female jockeys' title, quieter ambitions are being realised by the next generation further down the scoreboard. Jo Hunnam, a 21-year-old apprentice based at Chris Dwyer's Newmarket stables, cannot match O'Gorman's and Greaves's tallies of 22 and 19 winners respectively, but she has emerged late from the pack to chase home the year's top female apprentice, Aimee Cook.

Hunnam's ninth victory, at Lingfield last week, propelled the Newcastle- born jockey into close second place to Cook, ahead of fellow newbloods, Iona Wands and Angela Gallimore.

Fittingly, Hunnam recorded her latest success on Jennelle, the horse who has helped most to usher her young partner into the spotlight. Earlier this year, Hunnam and Jennelle moved into a bigger league, taking third in a Listed event at Deauville, before she booted the juvenile home to fourth place in a Group Three contest at Evry, only four lengths adrift of Pas De Reponse, subsequent winner of the Cheveley Park Stakes.

But 1996 did not begin auspiciously for Hunnam. Entering her fifth year of apprenticeship to Luca Cumani, she was despairing of leaving the starting block. Having waited nearly two years for her first ride, her career wins totalled only five.

Having shaped the careers of Frankie Dettori and Jason Weaver, the Bedford House stable is not a skin to be shed lightly. Nonetheless, Hunnam began to examine her options.

"I was getting only five rides a season and, although Mr Cumani supported me all the way, I knew I was never going to get any more with the owners he had and the pressure put on him.

"Chris Dwyer had been looking to take on an apprentice, but when I told him I wanted to move, he had advised me to stay at Cumani's. But this year I was still feeling the same way so he agreed to take me on."

Hunnam's horizons underwent immediate expansion. Arriving at Dwyer's yard one August day, she partnered the stable's leading juvenile in the first of her Gallic raids just 24 hours later.

Having forged a now memorable partnership with the Jenny Cornwall-owned filly, Hunnam recognises that she has been unusually favoured: "Jennelle's owners are the nicest people I've met in racing. Letting me ride in Pattern races where I can't use my claim is just unbelievable."

But Hunnam is accustomed to making her own luck. A precocious showjumping talent, she qualified for Hickstead at the age of 12 and although administrative error later forced her and her pony, Jumbo Jet, to forego their moment in the Sussex show ring, the world of jump-offs had by then been long forgotten.

"I'd been to Newmarket for a family holiday and from then on I wanted to be a jockey. It's a different world - you can feel the atmosphere as you start on the long, straight road past the stud farms."

Jumbo Jet never saw another jump. On her return, Hunnam's long-suffering pony began training like a thoroughbred. Haring along roadside verges, gallop-style, in her native Seghill, Hunnam quickly developed a jockey's poise.

"My dad told me what to do. He didn't know anything about riding, but he knew from watching jockeys on television what he wanted me to look like.

"He always rings me after a race to tell me what he thinks. We generally end up arguing, but I respect his judgement."

A fake birth certificate enabling her to participate in pony-racing - officially confined to over-14s - and mis-spent weekends riding on a Welsh flapper track galvanised Hunnam's ambitions.

At 15, she devoted an extended summer vacation to working in several leading stables. Susan Piggott issued the sole rebuttal, advising Hunnam that Newmarket was "not the place for a young girl".

After passing her GCSEs, Hunnam contacted those same stables, this time seeking an apprenticeship, Cumani was the first to reply.

"I never dreamed of actually getting a ride from Mr Cumani. When I did, I got flatfooted coming out of the stalls and had to push hard all the way home. I was absolutely knackered and thought: `If it's this hard, I'm never going to go anywhere'.

"But the next year, I rode my first winner, Caladesi, and the year after that, rode the yard's first runner of the season to win at Nottingham."

Having successfully made the break from Bedford House, Hunnam now has another pressing objective: riding enough winners to lose her right to claim an apprentices' allowance before it is forfeited at the age of 25.

"Emma O'Gorman started at 15 and only recently lost her claim. Obviously I want to do as well as her and Alex."

A Continental campaign has been sketched out for Jennelle next year, beginning in Italy next March. Meanwhile, Hunnam continues operations on the all-weather tracks this winter with a warm future ahead.