Dettori will always be the biggest name at Ascot but the happiest smile of the week belonged to Hayley Turner – and rightly so. For the history making ride on Friday that made her only the second woman to land a winner at Royal Ascot in 32 years was a personal triumph far greater than the much-trumpeted breaking of any sexist glass ceiling.
Race riding is a hard game and at 36, the little bundle of beaming energy that punched the air after threading the three year old filly through a 27 strong field to win the ultra-competitive Sandringham Stakes has been through much more of a mincer than most people would remember. As with any kid from a non-racing background, albeit with a mother who was a riding instructor, getting started was a slow progress and she was already 22 years old and five seasons in when she became joint champion apprentice in 2005. The 14 years In between have had notable breakthroughs but they have also been plenty of minor and two major, life threatening injuries, disillusionment, retirement and a return which has been far from easy. For all its brilliance we should remember that yesterday’s ride was only Hayley’s 12th winner of the year and she remains in 77th place in the jockeys table.
In 2008 she had become the first female jockey to ride 100 winners but in the Spring of 2009 it looked as if that smile went missing for a while. A horse fired her into the ground three strides after the starting stalls and her head injury was so severe that a year off was recommended. Back after six months, she worked her way up over the next two seasons to Group 1 success with Dream Ahead in the 2011 July Cup and Margot Did a month later in the Nunthorpe.
The career was back on track but the trap door to disaster opened up again in September 2013 when the filly Seal Of Approval crashed down at Doncaster in a fall so violent it makes you wince even at the mention of it. The return from these injuries was difficult with doubts developing in rider and onlooker alike to the point that her announcement of retirement in 2015 was perhaps as privately explicable as it was publicly unexpected. She tried various media things and began to enjoy it when she joined us on ITV. But you felt she was a jockey much more than a josher and there was a real moment of redemption here at Ascot last May when she came back to snatch the Victoria Cup in the very last stride.
But it would be a mistake to hail Friday’s success as a passport into much more than continuing competition in the big time for either her or for the rest of her sex. In her own breakthrough year of 2005, Hayley was the only female rider in the top 50. Today, over the whole year, only Hollie Doyle and Nicola Currie qualify so far and since the flat season began in May, only Hollie with 13 and Hayley with 10 winners make the top 50 and rank 34th and 44th respectively. Whatever may be said in public, those figures confirm that women still do not rank equal on the racetrack.
That should not totally surprise. For while the touch, timing, and tactical nous with which Hayley so deftly delivered Thanks Be on Friday are skills in which the female can be as good if not better than any male counterpart, there is one part of the set in which this does not apply. This is in the area of strength where, if males and females were equal they would compete in the same weight lifting categories in the Olympics. In many rides it does not matter but it does in some and Hayley herself has had no nonsense with pretending otherwise. “If you have to handle a big colt round Epsom we are not the same,” she has told me, “we have to make up for it in other ways.”
One of the nicest things about Hayley has always been this sense of reality. Having becoming champion apprentice there were no silly boasts only the down to earth answer. “I am not going to say I am going to be champion jockey, I want to make a living”. She has done that and more. “I think I needed the break to recharge,” she said after the dramatics of Friday. “I have come back keener than ever and am enjoying it more than ever.”
Racing always moves on but the good memories live on and Hayley Turner’s smile at Ascot will rank right up with the best.