29 November 2020
Let’s be clear about this. Hollie Doyle, the Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year, is not only an exceptional woman jockey, she’s a quite exceptional jockey. She is a five-foot phenomenon who has changed her whole body shape and is setting new standards in the only athletic sport where women compete on level terms with men.
The statistics are only half the story but we had better start with them. In the third season out of her apprenticeship, Doyle, 24, has ridden 136 winners to be fifth in the jockeys table and could go up to third with a successful week.
In June she rode her first winner at Royal Ascot, in July her first at Group Two level and in August she rode five winners at Windsor on the same afternoon. In September, she passed last season’s record total of 116 and then in October topped all this by riding the first two winners at the season-climaxing Champions Day at Ascot, the second of them her first victory at Group One level.
Since then the pace has only quickened. This month she had her first ride at the Breeders Cup in America, last Sunday her first in Bahrain, before flying back for six mounts at Wolverhampton, winning the last for the champion trainer John Gosden. The victory came in the green Derby-winning colours of the Kuwaiti owner Imad Al Sagar, for whom she is now retained as first jockey. At the end of this week she and her partner Tom Marquand (also on 136 winners) will fly to Hong Kong for the International Jockeys Challenge on December 9.
Two other facts make all this truly dumbfounding: the first is that despite her jockey father, a rural equestrian background and winning on her first ride, Doyle was a disappointingly slow starter, logging only three winners in her opening three seasons. The second, let’s face it, is that she is a woman.
The enormity of Doyle’s own achievement and the challenges that women jockeys still face is laid bare by the tables. Forty-eight years since Meriel Tufnell rode the first winner in the UK, 33 since Gay Kelleway became the first to score at Royal Ascot, Doyle stands alone in the top 50, followed in 63rd place by Josephine Gordon, who rode 106 winners in 2017. Hayley Turner had a success at Ascot this year but has logged only 17 more to be 75th on the list.
The situation in jumping and over in Ireland is no better. While Bryony Frost’s 22 winners put her 15th on the UK’s jumping list, Lilly Pinchin — in 49th with eight winners — is the only other woman in the top 50. In Ireland the unique Rachael Blackmore actually tops the table but only Aine O’Connor also makes the top 50, with four first past the post. On the flat Ireland still seeks its own Doyle, not one woman making the top 50.
The two main disadvantages that a girl faces — and as many girls as boys enter the racing schools — is the unspoken but still undoubted prejudice, and, all else being equal, the musculoskeletal differences of the female physique. There are only two things with which a woman can overcome these: talent and hard work.
Doyle’s talent and ambition were always there. Her father, Mark, was a jockey, she was brought up with horses, was pony racing in her teens, and must have felt quite the finished article when she punched the air passing the post on The Mongoose as a happy 16-year-old amateur at Salisbury in May 2013.
But after spending time with David Evans’s set-up near Abergavenny and a year later Richard Hannon’s bigger yard in Wiltshire, she has always been very open about how far from finished she was and is. “I am small, so fit into the horse all right,” she said in a revealing video interview with Jason Weaver a week ago. “But when it came off the bridle everything used to fall apart and I would go bumping up and down in the saddle.” Weaver calls her “Bumper” on his WhatsApp group.
She is a long way from a “Bumper” now. Indeed, Doyle’s trademark is the way she clamps in close to her horse, appearing to compel them ahead. A furlong out at Royal Ascot, Scarlet Dragon was uncertain as to how much effort he wanted to expend. Sinking into him, threading and rethreading her reins and switching her whip from one hand to the other, Doyle was a little, unstoppable fury that was having nothing but a winning answer. No one could have done it better.
But she did not get there by chance. In the summer of 2018 she and Marquand met up with the conditioning coach Gavin Egan at the IJF Oaksey House rehab centre in Lambourn, Berkshire. “She had very specific goals,” Egan says. “She was heading for a 50-winner season but said she was not strong enough. She was 7 stone and wanted me to build her up, to get stronger all over. She set her sights on 100 winners, a Group One [win], she won’t stop.”
It has taken time and continued dedication, despite the ever-present danger of falls, which have already brought her concussions and two smashed front teeth.
After riding at Southwell on Friday, a now 8 stone Doyle dropped into Oaksey House for her standard 45-minute session, which includes 70kg squats, five repetitions of a 110kg deadlift and shoulder-height jumps on to a table. “Pound for pound,” Egan says, “she is stronger than anyone who has ever come in here.”
All sports need new heroes and how Doyle feels about her achievements can only be good for the game and those who will surely follow her. “There is so much to work on,” she says, with no false modesty, “so much to learn tactically, to improve physically. We can always do better.”
If luck doesn’t do the dirty, the records for Doyle have only just begun.