18 December 2005

Brough Scott on why a bright, young, sensible girl can herald a refreshing wind of change in the weighing rooms

Hayley Turner is young, bright, successful, good-looking and the first woman to land the apprentice riders’ championship in Britain. But she is also sensible. It is an important, not a patronising word.

For being champion apprentice, a title she shared with fellow Newmarket rider Saleem Golam on 44 winners during the Turf season, which ended at Doncaster last month, is all too often a poisoned chalice. Its publicity brings heightened, head-turning and unfulfillable expectation. Which is why it was very sensible of Hayley Turner to be at Southwell on Thursday.

She could have been in Dubai. That’s where she went last winter, riding work for Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin string. On Thursday, she could have spent the afternoon relaxing by the pool in the sunshine. Instead, she was driving five untalented animals through the deep and unforgiving sand. It was the very bottom of the racing tree. But it was where she wanted to be. And it was home. She had even brought her grandmother with her.

Twenty-two-year-old Hayley was brought up in Southwell, went to the school next to the 12th century Minster in what is the smallest cathedral town in Britain. At 5ft 2in and 7st 10lb, Hayley is small but never strikes you as minute. Her mother was a riding instructor. She won lots of cups and trophies in local shows but there was not the finance to take it further. In the school holidays she rode out for trainer Mark Polglase at Southwell racecourse. She went to the Northern Racing School. She rode a winner. She was hooked.

But she was already ‘sensible’. “I realised I was way short of standard,” she said on Friday, as her grandmother plied her with soup the way grandmothers do. “I used to cringe when I looked at myself on the video. So I took myself off to America to work at a pre-training centre in South Georgia. And when I came back I thought I ought to go to Newmarket.”

Trainer Michael Bell won deserved plaudits for the calm and open way he handled Derby winner Motivator. But he can take just as much credit for the manner in which he has helped Hayley with her career – no great trumpeting, no premature big-race exposure, but a gradual increase in opportunities –  he gave her 27 rides in 2003, 47 last year, 66 (and 13 winners) this season. “I am not saying she is going to be champion jockey or anything,” was his deliberately low-key tribute, “but she is a good rider and has the application to make a good career for herself.”

It’s an attitude Hayley welcomes. “The guv’nor has been very good to me,” she said before setting out on the Southwell sand, “two winters ago he fixed me up with a job in New Orleans, last year I got to Dubai but this time we agreed that it was important to keep up the momentum that I had at the end of the turf season, to build up my client base. It would be great to ride a Derby winner and everything, but that’s a dream. I want to make a living.” When the Martin Bosley-trained Quiet Reading battled home third in Thursday’s closer, he was Hayley’s 13th race-ride of the week, all for different stables. Momentum maintained.

This far and we still haven’t mentioned the ‘girl’ question. It should not matter but statistics say it does. With 50 winners (compared to Jamie Spencer’s table-topping 177, Hayley is the only female rider in the top 50 and only two others Lisa Jones (with 20) and Kim Tinkler (10) have scored in double figures. When Hayley rode the 95th winner of her career at Folkestone to lose her right to claim the apprentice weight allowance, she was only the fourth woman to do so.

What’s more, this autumn an award-winning academic study for Reading University by former rider Cheryl Nosworthy highlighted the professional prejudice and media sexism which denied female jockeys opportunities. It all seems a million miles away from the brave days of America’s Julie Krone, who became the first woman to win a Triple Crown race when Colonial Affair landed the Belmont Stakes in 1993 and who closed out her career two years ago with 3,704 winners, over 21,000 rides and a whopping $US81 million (£46 million) in money won.

Hayley’s career totals of 107 winners, 1,200 rides and £750,000 may be small beer but there are changes in the wind. Last year Cathy Gannon became the first woman to top the Irish apprentice table, this winter apprentice Emma-Jayne Wilson heads the Canadian list at Woodbine, and, most of all, the mind can easily recall the compact little winner that is Turner in the saddle. She’s neat, patient and impressively powerful in a finish. One day in July, I saw her win on a horse called Skidrow at Beverley, moving off the rail and pouncing at the furlong pole. No one would have done it better.

Hayley’s second ride at Southwell was a fourth placing behind the lucid Dale Gibson, the only jockey as comfortable with a laptop as he is with a racehorse. “She is very level-headed,” said Dale, now in his 20th season, “and universally popular, which is important in our fickle world. She knows where she wants to be in a race and that no one is going to do her any favours.

“We all have a bit of banter,” he adds with very ‘sensible’ understatement about the prettiest face in the weighing room at present caring for two dogs and no boyfriend, “but my guess is that she will be around for a while.”

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