Hayley Turner: Queen of Flat who shattered barriers

The retiring Hayley Turner wanted to be one of the lads but transformed attitudes

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The Independent Online

In a year in which two racing phenomena, champion jump jockey A P McCoy and his Flat counterpart Richard Hughes, have clocked out of their winner-factories for the final time, Hayley Turner’s declaration of her own planned permanent dismount from the saddle, announced this week, could have been considered rather less consequential.

Yet, in its own way, her impending departure is just as significant. While the Nottinghamshire-born jockey has steadfastly viewed herself merely as a jockey who happens to be a woman, Turner has proved an inspirational figure for her sex and has transformed attitudes towards women jockeys within that rarity, a sport in which women compete against men on equal terms.

A decade ago, I interviewed her for this newspaper. The sole ambition then, of  a spirited, engaging 22-year-old, who that year, would finish joint champion apprentice, had been simply this: “I just want to be making a good living out of riding racehorses – like any of the lads.”

The emphasis was very much on that last phrase, and that is how she has come to be regarded. Derby-winning trainer Michael Bell, to whom Turner was apprenticed at the start of the pair’s 13-year association – the pinnacle being the triumph of Margot Did in the 2011 Group One Nunthorpe Stakes – once deemed her as good a rider as any man.

She had to be. The brutal fact is that if you can’t cut it, whether male or female, on your ability to galvanise half a ton of equine blueblood, you have no career as a jockey. Few men make it long-term. Fewer women establish themselves.

 On the Turf, there is no equivalent of all-women shortlists in politics. A trainer or owner’s sole criterion when selecting a partner for a horse valued at thousands, sometimes potentially millions, is whether their jockey has an affinity with their charge and extracts the maximum at the end of a race.

The leading stables long ago passed judgement on the tenacious Turner, now aged 32. She will depart with a record of more than 750 winners, including 100 in one season (2008), victory in two elite Group One events here and one Grade One race in the USA. 

“I’ve massively exceeded my expectations,” concedes the daughter of a riding instructor, Kate, but who is otherwise self-made, having entered the sport without any racing connections. “I’ve done pretty much everything, apart from have a Classic winner – but you could ride for another 10 years and not even get close to having one of those. I’ve reached lots of milestones and I’ve left the bar quite high for anyone else to take on.” Far too high for all but the most able who don’t possess Turner’s deep commitment to the cause.

“Maybe it gives them a target to aim at,” she says of the women who plan to emulate her success. “Sometimes it can feel as though you’re banging your head against a brick wall. Now they can see it’s hard, but it is do-able.” Asked whether “do-able” conceivably could include partnering a Classic winner, she retorts: “If I was asked to ride a two-year-old, and I’d won on it, and the owners were happy with it, and then it turned out to be a Derby winner, why not?”

But then Turner swiftly reverts to reality. “The chances are so unlikely. But it’s not a girl thing. If a girl is good enough, trainers and owners want a good jockey whether they’re male or female – if they’re good enough. Why not? They’re not sexist. But generally the girls aren’t good enough. That’s why they don’t get as many rides as men.”

Turner confesses she will miss the weighing room banter when she moves on, initially hoping to develop a media career (working for the racing channel At The Races) but insists she will not lament interviewers inevitably raising the “women thing”, as she puts it.

Some may debate with her, whether young women riders are granted the opportunities to develop the required prowess, but what cannot be disputed is that, throughout her 15-year career, Turner has dislodged many of the obstacles on the rock-strewn path of female progress in the sport. She has converted the doubters and negated much of the prejudice harboured by the residue of trainers and owners who, when she started out, would not consider booking a woman to partner their horses.

By 2008, the year that Turner completed a century of winners, her agent Guy Jewell opined: “I truly believe Hayley has broken down any sexual prejudice among trainers and owners where she is concerned, although I can’t speak for the other girl riders.”

Turner has had a positive season. She is leading female rider on the Flat, with 41 winners after a difficult year following a horrible fall from the filly Seal Of Approval in the Park Hill Stakes at Doncaster in 2013. She broke three vertebrae and chipped her pelvis and concedes that, for a time, she “lost her bottle a bit”, but declares that in terms of confidence, “I’m definitely back to how I was.”

Which makes her retirement from the saddle somewhat surprising. “I still love riding, and I love racing as much as I ever have done,” she explains. “But it’s the lifestyle that goes with it – I feel I don’t want to keep doing it.” It can be an arduous regime. We speak on Friday, when Turner had two rides at Chelmsford City, with one victorious. Then it was up to Newcastle for four mounts, which included a winner for Sir Michael Stoute, and back down to Kempton yesterday. And all the time maintaining her fitness and adhering to a relatively Spartan regime in terms of her food and drink intake.

“I want a change,” Turner adds. “It’s really as simple as that. Everybody thinks jockeys, ‘you’ve got such a good job’, but we don’t regard it like that because we love it so much. But when it does start turning into a job, that’s when you think, ‘God, it is tough’.” She pauses. “My hunger’s always been there, but that seems to have gone.”

Not that she is ready to accept the accolades. “When they say you’re a role model, I don’t think I appreciate it and don’t think I will until I get out of the racing bubble. I’m still in it, and I feel I’m just doing what everyone else does.” And that’s how she would like to be regarded. One of the lads, who realised virtually all her aspirations, rather than champion of women.