When Hayley Turner was made, she wasn’t just given a competitive spirit, a sensitive pair of hands and excellent balance. Somebody screwed her head on the right way too. Profiled by the Racing Post after becoming the first woman to ride a Royal Ascot winner for 32 years on Thanks Be, she was embarrassed to take the limelight away from trainer Charlie Fellowes, who was also recording his first Royal Ascot success, and swift to urge her interviewer not to go down the feminist-icon route: ‘Maybe it’s going to help the girls in the future, give them another goal, but that’s it, full stop. There’s no need to keep going on about it.’
She’s right. We don’t any longer have to make a fetish of feminine success in the only elite sport in which women compete on equal terms with men. Josie Gordon has already followed Hayley in riding 100 winners in a season. Over jumps Bryony Frost, Lizzie Kelly and Rachael Blackmore all rode winners at this year’s Cheltenham Festival where women won 14 per cent of the races from only 9 per cent of the rides. Although half the country’s trainers still haven’t put up a woman rider, a new Liverpool University study pointed out that, over jumps at least, women riders offer punters better value than men and at Windsor last Saturday I sat on the weighing-room steps in the baking heat with an advancing female rider who could prove the best one yet. Nicola Currie comes from the Isle of Arran and her matter-of-fact manner and readiness with the right word reminded me of no one more than Willie Carson.
Having started in show-jumping, Nicola was introduced to racing at the stables run by Lucinda Russell and Peter Scudamore, as good a grounding as any could hope for. When she determined to become a jockey rather than a stable girl, they helped her with introductions and she moved to Jamie Osborne in Lambourn: ‘I was there 18 months but I wasn’t dedicated enough. I didn’t know the ins and outs of how hard you really have to work,’ she chides herself now. ‘I realised that if I was going to make it you’ve got to knuckle down.’ There followed three years with former champion jockey-turned-trainer Richard Hughes whom she calls ‘a fantastic tutor’. He put her in touch with jockey coach John Reid and agent Phil Shea, two men who had helped to shape the career of her good friend Josie Gordon. Nicola says gratefully that she rings either for advice at any time of day or night, as she does Newmarket trainer John Berry for whom she rode an eye-catching winner on Kryptos on St Leger day. Her apprentice claim ridden out, it was back to Jamie in Lambourn. ‘I know how he works and I ride 99 per cent of the horses. He’s expanding a lot and hopes to double the numbers next year. It’s a great team and we have a good laugh.’
Is it harder for girls to get rides? ‘It’s not just tough for girls, it’s tough for everyone. But if you show you can ride as well as the boys you’ll get opportunities. A lot of trainers who wouldn’t use females a few years ago do now. Anyone can go quiet for a month and then you get a good winner and a trainer takes you under his wing for months. You just have to keep going. I hadn’t had a winner for nearly a week and it gets into your head — why is this not happening? — and then you ride three winners in a row.’ With the worries about mental health in racing, it was good to hear from Nicola that there is a group of jockey friends in Lambourn, including Hollie Doyle, Charles Bishop, Rob Hornby and champion jockey-in-the-making Oisin Murphy, who go out for a meal and switch off together. ‘If one of us has had a bad day, we sit down and listen to each other. I adore sitting and listening to Oisin — his knowledge of form and breeding is unbelievable.’
Nicola rides plenty for George Baker, for Phil McEntee and for John Berry. Lately she was pleased to win on her first ride for William Haggas and on her first for Roger Varian, so that’s two Newmarket powerhouses likely to come knocking again.
Highlights among her 138 winners include three trebles, but the best memory so far was her Ascot victory on Jamie Osborne’s Raising Sand: ‘Raising Sand just loves being a racehorse, he’s a happy, happy animal. He has ability and he tries and you can’t say that of all of them.’ When I asked her what kind of race she most enjoys, Nicola’s response was: ‘I love staying races on a hold-up horse when you’re looking for gaps and coming through.’ But it took only a moment’s reflection for her to add: ‘I also like making the running. If you learn to get a clock in your head, it feels really good if you’ve timed it right and nicked it.’ Happy, happy jockey.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free