A FIRST victory for a female jockey in today’s John Smith’s Cup at York would cap a memorable 12 months for Hayley Turner in which she established herself as one of Britain’s premier sportswomen.
It was on this day last year that the 29-year-old rode her very first Group One winner when the brilliant but quirky Dream Ahead powered to a famous victory in Newmarket’s July Cup.
Even more satisfying, says Turner, was her memorable triumph at York last August aboard Margot Did in the Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes, another Group One sprint in equal prestige to the July Cup.
Not only was Margot Did trained by her boss Michael Bell – the man so instrumental in helping Turner reach such great heights in a male-dominated sport – but it helped the jockey to realise that her initial success on Dream Ahead “was not a fluke”.
“I just want to carry on winning big races – I’ve got a taste for it now,” says Turner, who grew up in north Nottinghamshire where she dreamt, as a young child, of being a jockey.
“It’s a bit of a shame I can’t have another crack at the July Cup, but the John Smith’s Cup is still one of the biggest handicaps out there and I love York.”
Her mount today, Stand To Reason, has a very creditable each-way chance. Trained at Lambourn by Mikael Magnusson, the chestnut colt won at Sandown last July for William Buick, who was again in the saddle when the four-year-old prevailed at Newbury this April following a nine-month injury lay-off.
More recently, the horse was second in the Cheshire Oaks before finishing fourth at Chester to Mark Johnston’s Licence To Till, who reopposes today for the Middleham trainer.
Though Stand To Reason was well-beaten in the Duke of Edinburgh Handicap at Royal Ascot on his last outing, Turner is unperturbed, even though the 2011 William Hill Sportswoman of the Year – an accolade that she won ahead of the likes of heptathlete Jess Ennis and swimmer Rebecca Adlington – has never sat on the horse previously.
“He’s got solid form and it’s an open race,” she told the Yorkshire Post. “I’ve never sat on the horse before, that’s the only downside, but it is part of a jockey’s job to adapt to them. I think it will be a bit of a cavalry charge, but the soft ground will suit and it will cap a year that I could only dream about.”
It is a measure of Turner’s prowess – in 2008, she became the first female jockey to ride 100 winners in a calendar year – that she is now a ‘go to’ jockey when trainers are making bookings for major races.
She could not understand the attention in June when she secured her first Epsom Derby ride on Caveleiro 16 years after Alex Greaves, wife of Thirsk trainer Dandy Nicholls, made a Classic breakthrough for the fairer sex.
“It’s just part of the job, another race,” says Turner.
“I don’t see it as men against women, that kind of thing, I just want to be the best jockey that I can be. It’s nothing to do with being a woman, it’s all about winning. That’s all that matters and I’m just lucky to be involved in a sport that I love.”
That was self-evident on this corresponding day in 2011 when William Buick’s unavailability – ironically, he was riding at York – meant she could partner David Simcock’s Dream Ahead, a one-time rival to Frankel before becoming one of Europe’s premier six-furlong sprinters, in the July Cup.
Buick, whose own rise to prominence in the past year has been as spectacular as Turner’s success, had no qualms about his deputy: “There are few tougher riders in a finish than Hayley, believe me. She’s that good.”
It was why the 23-year-old was on the phone to his rival on the morning of the race. “Will was very good,” recalled Turner.
“He just told me to ride the horse with confidence. Earlier in the day, a horse won coming up the stand’s side so I knew I had a good draw – there was only one horse on my inner and that was the pacemaker.
“Dream Ahead won well and it was a great thrill. I didn’t realise it would mean so much, but it was nice to get another Group One just to show it was not a fluke.
“That helped, especially as Dream Ahead and William went on to win the big sprint at Haydock and win at Longchamp on Arc day, beating Goldikova. Some might say ‘anyone could have won’ on him, but it was still nice.”
Turner is reluctant to talk about ambitions or possible Classic success – she says it is incredibly hard work just to compete as an equal at the highest level, but it is to her credit that she looks more accomplished than most male riders in a tight finish.
She is full of admiration for Lucy Alexander, a trailblazer over jumps for, amongst others, West Witton trainer Ferdy Murphy. “She’s extremely focussed, and brave,” says Turner. “The one good thing, both on the Flat and the jumps, is that there’s a whole gang of us, female riders, having success and this is a confidence sport.”
That said, Turner knows – better than most – that the highs and lows of sport are accentuated in horse racing.
Her great run of success follows a career-threatening fall in 2009 when she sustained serious head injuries. She was left with blood gushing from her ears after being catapulted to the turf when her mount broke its shoulder during routine starting stalls practice at Newmarket.
Turner wanted to resume riding the next day, but the BHA said she would lose her riding licence for a year – a devastating blow. After medical tests, the Racing UK-sponsored jockey was allowed to return after four months.
“The next day I was looking in the paper and my short-term memory was gone. I didn’t know where I was and what I was doing and who’d been to see me,” she said. “But I did know that I was a jockey and that I was riding at Wolverhampton and they wouldn’t let me go and ride. And that won so I was like ‘Now look what you’ve done – I’ve missed a winner’.
“I gradually got better. They stood me down for a year and that wound me up so much. I was riding out, the guv’nor (Michael Bell) knew I was fine, everyone knew I was fine.
“I could never get out of the racing bubble. I just kept wanted to ride. I didn’t care about anyone else or anything else. I didn’t even ask how my dog was. My mum and my sisters hated me. It was ridiculous. I was really just totally hungry to get back, with no consideration for anyone else. It felt like it was the worst situation that anyone had ever been in.”
It is why Hayley Turner just wants to make the most of her opportunity, and why she will not take her new-found fame for granted. “It could have happened to anyone,” she added. “It is why you live for the moment, and hope success follows.”