In Lucy Alexander’s home village of Scotlandwell there is a cross roads. The lower route sweeps down and along the bird sanctuary beauty of Loch Leven complete with the island castle where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in 1567. Take the other route and you can reach a steep and rutted path which will take you up to the top of Kinneston Crags with all of Fife at your feet. Although she does not want to admit it, Lucy Alexander will soon be coming to a cross roads too.
You would not have thought it at Kelso on Wednesday. All and sundry greeted her with both admiration and affection as she set out to walk the course before racing. It was on this track in February 2010 that she had driven out the 40-1 shot Seeking Power to win her first race under rules as a 19 year old. It was these race goers who have long taken pride in Lucy subsequently becoming Scotland’s most successful female jockey and only a fortnight ago being crowned as the first of her gender to win the national conditional title. They and she have something to celebrate. How fitting that the obelisk on the horizon commemorates the poet James Thomson who wrote the words to Rule Britannia.
Yet Lucy Alexander is not into celebrations. The Saturday night of winning the title was spent en route from Market Rasen to Wetherby. She has yet to score this new season and her three rides at Kelso did not look that promising. She may have been bright enough to go to Edinburgh University and athletic enough to be her school’s Victor Ludorum, but she is tormented by the uncertainty of the perfectionist. “People have been incredibly supportive of me,” she says, “I have to repay that support and prove myself all over again.”
However her story sketches out a much wider picture which suggests there will be difficult decisions on the road ahead. For while it was not until April 2011 that she rode her second winner and her sole success of that season, her subsequent take off to land 38 winners in each of the last two campaigns was based on time spent in locations far removed from the normal grind of the Scottish jumping circuit. In her gap year before University she spent three months with Aidan O’Brien at Ballydoyle. In her summer break after spurning her biology studies for the racecourse she spent six weeks with Sir Michael Stoute at Newmarket, and last July her time with Kevin Ryan at Malton so impressed her agent Richard Hale that he thinks she should give riding on the flat serious consideration.
“She could be very, very popular on the flat,” says Richard who has masterminded Graham Lee’s switch from Grand National winning jump jockey to flat championship contender. “She has great balance and strength and she thinks her way through a race. She would have to lose a few pounds but if she got it stabilized she could have a real future at the level game.” Such thoughts are not a welcome intrusion as Lucy walks the course at Kelso. She will strip down at 9 stone 6lbs before she presents her 5foot 6 inch frame to the scales and wants all her strength and mental alertness to get the best out of three of the country’s lesser talented thoroughbreds in the races ahead. It only takes the first one to show how effective she can be.
Academy, a one-time Michael Stoute Derby entry for the Highclere team, is now one of those horses whose assorted problems make him try too hard in the beginning of a race and too little at the end. His eight runs for Nick Alexander’s otherwise highly successful training operation had up till Thursday gleaned just one third place at Musselburgh. The plan discussed by father and daughter during the car journey was to hold Academy right off the pace and deliver him as late as possible. For a long time it worked a treat.
Lucy Alexander may have only just lost her claim but there is a maturity about her. On Thursday there was no awkward hauling and pulling as she locked Academy down behind the others, no panic when the Montjeu gelding was temporarily lit up by the attentions of a loose horse on the top bend, and no faltering when she finally put her horse into the firing line as they thundered towards us at the last. But it was what happened next that was impressive. As Academy’s head came up in protest she clamped down and into him with a compulsion only real jockeys can show. Academy would not match the winner but his four length second was his best run to date. In case we had not been watching these past two seasons, Lucy had shown she is a lot more than that pleasant and pretty face.
Two races later another non-winner called Smart Ruler was cajoled a couple of lengths closer to draw effusive compliments from his trainer Jimmy Moffat. “This is not the best horse in the world by a long chalk,” says Jimmy, “but she has got the very best out of him. She is so keen and clever. I really do think she has something.” It’s an opinion shared by senior figures not necessarily disposed to honeyed words or female bias. “I thought I would need some convincing, but riding beside her you realise that she really can do it,” said talented Irishman Dennis O’Regan and a couple of minutes later a mighty hand on the shoulder indicated that trainer Chris Grant would add a word. “She’s good,” said the man whose strength in the saddle won him the name of Rambo, “she’s only light but she can catch hold of them and make them run.”
This is all praise to treasure but its extent so soon in a professional career only highlight the dilemma ahead. Should she stay in the warm family embrace at Kinneston for whom she rode 21 of her father’s 28 winners last season, or should she try her luck further afield or even take the no potatoes option of the flat? Peter Scudamore is the Alexander’s nearest professional neighbour. In his record breaking riding career Peter was eight times champion jockey. In retirement he is partner and assistant to trainer Lucinda Russell on the north side of Loch Leven at Milnathort. On Thursday he was in their box at Kelso celebrating the success of an improving chaser named Bobble Hat Bob.
“It’s difficult,” said ‘Scu’ whose face still shows signs of the re-arrangements that jump racing spills can impose, “because we are all getting old and soft and I never really liked the idea of girls over fences in the first place. Lucy can really ride and she could go far. But should she risk what she is building up here by trying somewhere else or even getting the weight off for the flat? I don’t know. But for the moment we have someone who is really bright and shows terrific promise. Maybe that should be enough for now.”
Airing such thoughts in the Alexander household that evening seemed to be much less important than sampling the splendid hospitality and admiring the location with the Loch out to the west and the crags up above. Nick is one of four sons of noted corinthian Cyril Alexander and there is a picture of the whole quartet at the start of the local point to point all wearing the scarlet and royal blue family racing colours. Nick has been a stockbroker and company director before turning more attention to racing where in the last year they have sent out (including point to points) 36 winners from less than 40 horses in training and where he and Rose have raised three other children beside Lucy.
“As a mother it is not easy,” says Rose making tea early the next morning while Lucy re-ran the Kelso races and wrote comments in the note book which she logs every ride. “Of course you want to support her and you know that she won’t want you to interfere. But once or twice when she was back after breaking her collar bone I did feel she was really putting herself through too much. Yet she has always been very determined. She was just about unbeatable at school athletics and I will never forget her first point to point when she was tailed off all the way and then the old horse (suitably named Wise Man) just took off and she got up to dead heat.”
That first time may have been as a passenger but coming from way off the pace has become a formidable weapon in the Alexander armoury. She did it dazzlingly in her first two victories on the flat and last season most famously when she drove a big, often ignorant horse called Isla Pearl Fisher to nail Tony McCoy, no less on the line. Ironically it was the same horse who “buried” her on the same track three weeks later and Lucy’s five week recovery, added to another seven day concussion stand down, led to the cliff hanging end of the season where her championship victory over Brendan Powell Jnr was only confirmed by three winners at Perth in the last week of all.
“He’s just not a very safe jumper,” she said of Isla Pearl Fisher as she rode out next morning, “he is fine a lot of the time and then he can gallop straight into them. But it was good to beat Tony. He is always very helpful and nice. I think he said ‘well done’.” At the racecourse Lucy has a reputation to being shy and focussed almost to the point of taciturnity but on horseback in the morning she is at ease in her element. “Probably not here I suppose,” she says in answer to where she will be in five years time, “but while I am not unambitious I am realistic. I am very lucky to have built good contacts up here. I have not had any offers from other stables so it is surely better at present to continue as we are.”
She is lean and easy in the saddle. When we walk across to where the all-weather strip climbs steeply up towards the crags, she curls her long legs up beneath her like the flat jockey she may become. The heady thrill of drilling up the gallop links her future and my past, but she is very down to earth when she comes to discuss the flat race question. “It is very kind of Richard Hale to say those things,” she adds, “and I would be interested to ride on the flat this summer to see how much I have improved. But while I did get down to do 8 stone 13 last year the weight went straight up again. It would mean holding it down at least 8 lbs under what I am at the moment and I am not sure I could do that, particularly if it was only for a few rides each week.”
“Besides,” she adds with a hint of the authority which she already displays behind the goggles, “I don’t think the jumping trainers want me to be under 9 stone, they will think I am too light and weak. I am a jump jockey, they say one of my strengths is getting horses jumping. I have come through hunting, and pony racing and pointing. I think they are right when they say you can’t do both jumping and flat.” It is a statement both of strength and insecurity for while she admits to being tired at the end of a long season with its so stressful conclusion, she hates the idea of taking a break for fear of losing momentum and admits that at present her attentions are entirely single minded.
“I do have friends and keep in touch with them,” she says before adding with a self- disparaging laugh, “but I never seem to have the time to meet up with them in Perth or wherever. I know I ought to take a real break but with racing it seems you just can’t.” As it happens she is currently on a seven day stay-away but that is only thanks to a three day suspension for interference added to four days for excess whip use when driving Frankie’s Promise home in the title clincher at Perth.
She was riding Frankie’s Promise on Friday and a less temperate jockey might have added a couple more whip blows when the white faced chestnut petulantly refused to step over a coloured pole in the sand ring before starting his schooling. Once warmed up however the tandem soared over the hurdles in a way that should put the horse in everyone’s notebook when jump racing gets serious in the autumn. His rider is unlikely to get unserious in the interim but her father has not given up hope of at least temporarily changing her horizons.
“From a parental point of view I would prefer her to go on the flat,” he said before taking his wife and daughter of on a three day break to Ireland. “But she doesn’t think she could do it weight wise and I don’t want to see her wasting all the time. I know she is worried that she should be available all the time for her contacts but I think she should have the confidence to take time out. She would be welcomed back at Ballydoyle. She could go to France or even America. She could have some rides out there, she would see a lot and she could come back really refreshed in September and pick things up again. Of course she may not take it from me but I am going to have another go.”
The final shot of family Alexander was of the trio trailing their luggage off to the Dublin plane. They looked easy if a touch incongruous in each others’ company. The middle aged, middle weight parents walking along with their high achieving daughter who is both older and younger than her time. She has become a champion by forsaking the diversions of university for the security of home. She now has to start wondering how much further she can travel. Whichever fork in the road she takes, she is unlikely to judge it for its easiness.
“I have never been tough on her at all,” Nick Alexander had concluded. She has always been her own hardest taskmaster and my favourite picture is of her age ten walking in behind Wise Man after he had won at Ayr. “She is carrying a cooling blanket and her face is set and very, very focussed. You can see there that I was never going to be able to persuade her to do anything else.”