Grandmother prepares for equine race debut

It will be a case of grandmother on Gran Maestro later today when Froot Atkins from Goodmanham, near Market Weighton saddles up for the Macmillan Cancer Charity Ride at York Racecourse.

Froot Atkins riding Amazing Blue Sky on the gallops at Ruth Carr's. Picture: Mick Atkins Photography.

Froot had never ridden a racehorse before February this year but will be riding in the final race today alongside 11 other novice racing jockeys.

The annual event is open to all and applications have to be made to Macmillan, novice riders are then chosen and invited to start fundraising.

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At 56, Froot is by far the oldest rider in this year’s race.

“As one Yorkshire vet who wrote to sponsor me said, ‘Age is just a number, just make sure you’re fit enough,’” she said.

Froot, who has been riding all her life and regularly hunts with the Holderness applied to take part in the race after watching the event last year. “We went along as my husband Mick is one of the official photographers at York racecourse and we watched the whole day. We had a friend riding in the charity race, which is always the last race of the day, so we went to watch and support her.

“I just thought ‘wow’, it was so inspiring. We could see how nervous the novice riders were but also how much fun they were having. I’ve always hankered after having a go on a racehorse and thought – this is my chance. People have asked me if I wish I’d done it when I was younger, but I feel ready now. You have a different outlook in your 50s and I feel a lot more confident than I did when I was younger.”

The Macmillan race day at York is now in it’s 44th year and is the charity’s single biggest fundraising event. Last year the event raised more than £350,000 for Macmillan, £70,000 of which was raised by those riding in the race.

Froot said: “When I applied, they asked how much you can definitely raise, and how much you’d like to raise. I said I would get £5,000 and ideally £10,000. I’m pleased to say I passed the £10,000 mark earlier this week, and still have more collection boxes to come in.”

Applications for the race have to be submitted in December, with successful riders being told on January 1.

Riders who haven’t already got an amateur racing licence or British Eventing points have to go to the Northern Racing College in Doncaster to have a fitness assessment and a riding assessment as well as a test on their mechanical horse.

“That was a very rigorous test,” said Froot. “They were making sure that each of us has the ability and the fitness to get through the race.”

Once they have passed, riders are asked to find their own trainer and horse.

“I was very fortunate in that we have connections with Ruth Carr from Stillington, just outside Easingwold. I asked her if she would be prepared to take me on and she thought about it and said ‘yes’.

“They have been patient, kind and gifted teachers, because even though I have ridden a lot, it was like starting from scratch again. Everything had to be re-learned, new tack, new body position, new riding rules.”

Froot began riding out at the yard in February one day a week, building up to three days a week and apart from a fall at the start of her training, she has been steady in the saddle, including during a couple of test races at the end of race days.

This weekend’s one mile and one furlong race will see each horse carrying 11st 7lbs. With Froot’s saddle only weighing 5lbs she admits she’ll need to carry plenty of weights.

“When we went to York for a guided tour, they talked us through the weighing room procedure and weighed each of us. Because it’s such a big weight, they’ll need to borrow additional lead weights from other racecourses in order to make us all the same.”

Froot has three children, Chloe, Trish and Matthew, and a 19-month-old granddaughter, Daisy. “My whole family and extended family are coming along to watch me on the day as well as plenty of friends.

“I’ll have my lucky charm, a plait from my late horse Devil’s Advocate, tucked into my boot.

“I don’t mind being the only grandmother in the race – who knows, it could be an advantage. I just hope I do them proud, my family, Ruth, and all those who have helped me, the owners and Gran Maestro himself.”