Over the stable door: New chapter for yard jockey

Jo Foster sorting out the tack at her stables at Menston near Leeds.

Jo Foster sorting out the tack at her stables at Menston near Leeds.

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Last week the Foster clan was invited to a local wedding. My retired yard jockey Samantha Drake and her fiancé Jonathan England were tying the knot at Esholt village church just a few fields away from the Drake’s farm.

The village is the original home of Emmerdale and I had forgotten what an unexpected haven of Bradford it is. Caught in time, nothing has changed since my last visit as an Esholt Young Farmer 25 years ago.

Memories flooded back as we walked to the church. The annual show I would spend weeks preparing for, baking cakes, decorating biscuits, coaxing a reluctant calf to follow me obediently around the paddock in a vein attempt to win Best Junior Handler.

The wedding was full of racing friends and farming folk. Twenty-eight-year-old Sam, who hung up her racing boots last year, met Jonny five years ago when he moved to Yorkshire to join Sue Smith’s yard at Bingley as their conditional jockey.

At work we decided Jonny was an ideal match for Sam and would point this out to her at every given opportunity when passing him on the gallops. She would usually laugh off unwanted male attention, as she would to our joking but this time she was just a little too hasty in shutting us up.

Outwardly she tried to appear completely unflustered by the obvious burning ambition that bubbled just beneath the surface. If she was beaten in a race it was, “Yeah well, never mind,” and if asked out by a hot guy, “He’s okay - I suppose.”

A woman desperate to succeed in racing has to be hard. Sensitivity and emotion are words for the soft. We learn quickly to bury our feelings deep. Her pillow was cried on more than once before her skin fully thickened.

It was always going to take someone special to break through it. So even when she met Johnny England she played it cool, made him work for her attention. He might not have guessed how much she liked him but when she finally began to trust him they were suddenly inseparable. Jonny moved in to the Drake household and when Sam announced her retirement from race riding there was a sense she was moving to the next stage of her life.

I may not get chance to see her as often as I once did but I have known her since she was a little girl.

As I stood in the church and watched this hard-working, determined girl beaming so naturally as she walked alongside her husband I sensed in her a freedom which had not been there before.

The buffalo skin might have finally been cast aside, left at the altar. Her emotions were no longer a weakness to hide. She was suddenly free to cry her eyes out or hammer at the ground in sheer exasperated frustration if her best horse went wrong when she would once have shrugged her shoulders and mumbled, “Well, that’s life”. It no longer matters. Jonny has allowed her to be the pure exposed person she is really, tears and all. She is accepted unconditionally by him and that was all Sam ever really needed.

I am sure father Drake may sit and read this to her to which she will surely reply, with an exasperated look, “What is Foster talking about?” but old habits die hard, and underneath she knows exactly what I mean.

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