Amy Ryan, the Yorkshire Post’s new racing columnist, has her eye on the big races. She spoke exclusively to Tom Richmond.
AMY Ryan has earned the right to become regarded as the first lady of Flat racing in Yorkshire.
Champion amateur five years ago, the diminutive jockey last season became the first female rider in the sport’s rich and long history to be the winning-most apprentice – an accolade previously won by Turf icons such as Lester Piggott, Frankie Dettori and Paul Hanagan.
There have already been other notable successes – she won on her father Kevin’s highly-regarded Blaine at York last summer and Laffan on Oaks day at Epsom when her poise in the saddle repelled the late challenge of six-times champion jockey Kieren Fallon, one of the sport’s hard men.
Without the benefit of the weight allowance afforded to apprentice riders – the potential stars of the future – the 23-year-old North Yorkshire horsewoman now rides on equal terms against the Flat’s male luminaries.
Yet it has made little difference. The quietly spoken Ryan has retained an eye-catching strike-rate and now wants to graduate to Group races – the Flat’s showcase prizes at signature tracks like York.
“To ride a Group winner will be my next goal,” says the slender Ryan, one of several talented female jockeys who are more than holding their own in a previously male-dominated sport. “But that will take time because it is getting the right horse at the right time, and then hoping everything falls right on the day.”
Ryan, the Yorkshire Post’s racing columnist for the 2013 Flat campaign, is speaking from the inner sanctum of Catterick Racecourse on a typical spring afternoon for a rider whose success is breaking down barriers.
Her day had begun at 6am when the alarm clock went off. Under starter’s orders, she then made the short drive to her father’s stables, nestled on the summit of Sutton Bank, the highest point of the idyllic Hambleton hills.
The views to the wind-swept East Coast and beyond are priceless – but there is no time to admire then. The jockey must put six horses through their paces, and no favouritism is shown to the trainer’s daughter in a results-driven sport.
In the depths of winter, and when Ryan is “breaking in” the yearlings who will make their racecourse debuts as two-year-olds this season, it can be bleak, but she says she derives pride from seeing these “babies” prevailing on the big stage at Royal Ascot or York later in the year.
These include horses of the calibre of Bogart who enjoyed big race success at York and Redcar in 2011 under Phil Makin before finishing an impressive third on his comeback at Nottingham recently under Ryan. He is her horse to follow this season.
From Sutton Bank, there’s a relatively short journey to Catterick for three rides on what was to be a frustrating afternoon, when racing is at its least glamorous. Panama Cat never has a chance thanks to an unfavourable outside draw; Moe’s Place is hampered at the start and Layla’s Boy is 11th out of 14 runners.
Ryan is also frustrated that ground in North Yorkshire is softer than stated. In between races, she watches the action replay in the stewards’ room – and will do so again in the evening at the home she shares with Brian Toomey, the promising jump jockey. Ryan will hit the pillow shortly after 9pm – and that’s assuming she’s not been riding at an evening fixture as far away as Wolverhampton. “It’s a tough life – the travelling is definitely the toughest part,” she adds.
Yet, despite the Catterick disappointments, it is still an enlightening afternoon for a jockey who is quick to pay tribute to the unflinching loyalty shown by trainers like Richard Whitaker and his family who are based on the outskirts of Leeds. They put their faith in Ryan before others – and she is keen to highlight this.
A broad smile is etched across Ryan’s face when Channel Four’s Grand National commentator Simon Holt describes the former Ryedale School pupil as “champion apprentice” as she canters Panama Cat to the start.
And there is no hint of disquiet amongst the viewing spectators about the jockey’s abilities as a horsewoman – and these are hardened Yorkshire racegoers who are not shy from coming forward if they detect any hint of rider error.
“The best thing someone can say to me is ‘you ride like a man’,” explains Ryan. “I hate it when people say ‘you can ride this horse because it will go well for a girl’. The good thing is a few of dad’s owners have rung up and requested me to ride their horse – that was a massive compliment Perhaps perceptions are changing.”
Even when Alex Greaves, wife of Thirsk trainer Dandy Nicholls, made history in 1996 when she became the first female jockey to ride in the “blue riband” Epsom Derby, her personal breakthrough was tainted by sexist remarks that belonged to a bygone age. Yet the breaking down of barriers – horse racing and equestrian are the only disciplines where men and women compete as equals – accelerated when the prolific Hayley Turner shared the apprentice title with Saleem Golan in 2005.
While Golam has subsequently struggled, Turner has reached the sport’s upper echelons thanks to landmark Group One successes on Dream Ahead, and then on the super sprinter Margot Did in York’s Nunthorpe Stakes in 2011. The trailblazing Turner offers hope to Ryan that she can reach such heights in the years to come.
“Race riding is not just about strength – it’s about technique,” explains Ryan who maintains her weight at just over eight stone by eating healthily but without spending hours wasting in the sauna like so many of her male rivals.
“I’m just over eight stone, but I can hold some horses on the gallops at home which some of the lads can’t do – and they’re 13 or 14 stone.
“It helps because I just don’t do race riding – I have two showjumpers, Charlie and Jock, so I do other kinds of riding in my spare time. Look at Frankel who has been described as the best horse ever. He won 14 races under Tom Queally. Yet, if you’d put a jockey on him who wasn’t balanced and didn’t know what they were doing, even a horse as good as Frankel could have been beaten.”
There are still frustrations – there are occasions when the showers, or hot water, are not working in the female changing rooms, even if the likes of Ryan have little time for make-up or fashion.
Her fans include Derek Thompson, the respected media pundit.
“Female riders have improved out of all recognition, and it is thanks to people like Alex Greaves setting the ball rolling,” he said.“Hayley Turner is as good as any male jockey. Amy has done really well. She rides anything and everything. She has a great record on big priced horses. She’s definitely on the way up and this could be a big season.”
It was inevitable that Ryan’s life would revolve around horses – her father, born in County Tipperary, was a moderate jockey who then assisted top trainers Jack Berry and Richard Fahey before going it alone. His first win as a handler came courtesy of the aptly-named Komlucky at Catterick 15 years ago.
As such, Ryan has ridden ponies from a young age at this family-run yard where her mother Jill works in the office and her brother Adam oversees the training of 100-plus horses.
Yet, as for Ryan, there is no favouritism – and none is expected. She believes she has to work harder than any riders to prove her worth to her “boss” – and the owners who pay the bills.
It is why last season’s apprentice title meant so much to Amy Ryan. While her York win on Blaine, another horse to follow this summer, was all the more satisfying because she beat Garswood who should line up in today’s 2000 Guineas at Newmarket for the aforementioned Fahey, she made history in her own right by becoming apprentice champion.
“I’d lost my claim early on the season on an outsider for Richard Whitaker who has been so good to me, it meant I had gone past 95 career winners, and I thought I might struggle for rides,” said Ryan who ultimately recorded 46 wins in 2012 from 426 starts.
“I knew it would be my last year to win the apprentice title, so it was in the back of my mind, but there were a lot of good apprentices and I didn’t think about it until the end of the that season.
“Darren Egan was unlucky – he got injured late on – and I’d had a bit of luck at Ayr on a horse that clipped heels, and I came down. Another day and I could have been out for weeks, it’s the risk you take, but I’d much rather ride a horse at speed and the buzz of split-second decisions than be on a poor jumper heading to a big ditch.”
While this season will be one of consolidation, Ryan believes it is only a matter of time before a female rider wins an English Classic.
In the meantime, Amy Ryan is just happy to have won the respect of her sport. As she put it: “Not many people can say they love their job and get paid to do something they love.”
Amy Ryan will be writing a weekly racing column in the Yorkshire Post, starting next Friday, and in conjunction with York Racecourse where the prestigious season-opening Dante festival begins on May 15.