Learning to become a jockey...in a month!
For August's Winning Post (watch programme!), I experienced a race day from an entirely different perspective – on board a galloping racehorse as I took part in the Magnolia Cup at the Qatar Goodwood Festival.
Coming from an equestrian background I have ridden all my life but never racehorses which, as I found out, are a completely different prospect…
I started to prepare specifically for the race after been given a serious reality check at the British Racing School in Newmarket about five weeks from raceday. ABOVE!!
I was there to be assessed for the race, to make sure I was safe and more importantly fit enough to take part.
Sport has always been a huge part of my life and, since retiring from the British Modern Pentathlon team, I still try and find the time to train every day. However, ‘running fitness’ is very different to a jockey’s fitness!
We were made to do various strength and endurance tests which are designed specifically for race riding. We’re talking weighted wall squats, a wobble board squat, static push-up and planking! Fitness gurus will understand that last sentence and anyone who wants to test themselves can find the exercises here.
I managed to scrape a pass, realising that I perhaps wouldn’t have a fitness advantage over anyone else and there was serious work to be done!
I needed to find myself a horse to ride in the race and with my competitive juices flowing I was keen to find a trainer who could provide me with a horse fast enough to win!
So, I found myself getting up at 4.30am to get to Lambourn to ride out at Jamie Osborne’s yard. Jamie is an ex-jumps jockey and now Group One-winning trainer. More importantly he’s up for a challenge and he certainly had one with me.
I realised my riding experience counted for very little when on day one I found myself totally out of control not once but twice on horses that were meant to be "safe and sensible". Out of control meant zero brakes on a horse travelling at 30mph. Not a situation I was very comfortable with!
It was a frustrating day but I realised I was adopting the completely wrong position on the horses. My position was telling them to go faster when all I wanted to do was slow them down! Thirty minutes later on the yard’s static wooden horse, I felt I had a better idea on how to control a racehorse.
So then began a month of heading down to Jamie's as much as possible whilst working on my fitness in the gym. My CNN work schedule at this time of year is pretty manic, with not just the European racing season to cover, but also the Longines Global Champions Tour of show jumping. Therefore, my training on a horse was limited but I worked hard to build up legs of steel in the gym!
Like revising for an exam, there is a certain relief walking into the exam hall knowing that it’s not possible to do any more revision. What will be, will be, etc.
Except that I felt completely underprepared! Racehorses rarely train at top speed so I didn’t have the opportunity to see what 45mph would feel like. I also hadn’t ridden the horse I was due to ride in the race. Jamie says I wouldn’t be able to stop him at home on the gallops but I wasn’t to worry as I "didn’t need to have any brakes during the race". I just had to hope he would stop before we got to the imposing wall at the end of the track at Goodwood.
I was pretty nervous in the parade ring and when I got on Outer Space for the first time. There was a huge crowd at the racecourse and I had images of being thrown off before I had even got to the start! Being back in the saddle was strangely comforting though. Familiar territory and I when I got to the start I was focused on riding the best race I could.
We had a reasonable start and I was tucked in nicely behind two horses up until the halfway point. With 400m to race I pulled out to pass them and Outer Space gave me that incredible feeling of speed. No other breed of horse can lower, stretch and gallop like a racehorse and it’s some feeling, believe me!
We tried to catch the winner but alas the line came too soon. Probably not a bad thing as I was certainly exhausted and given how easily Outer Space pulled up, I think he was running on empty as well.
VIEW FROM MY JOCKEY CAM:
After my small insight into a jockey’s life, I’m sure you’d expect me be in awe of them and their profession. Yes, they have to be incredibly strong, fit and brave. But…they get to enjoy the buzz of raceday. Riding down the track at full speed in front of a full grandstand was a real thrill. That would make up for all the travelling, early mornings and light weights that they have to endure.
For me, the real heros are the work riders who risk life and limb to exercise and keep the racehorses fit every day. They don’t get the glory that the jockeys enjoy. Having got up early in the morning, they ride six to eight horses a day. Not your sensible gentle old hacks but racehorses, who are unpredictable young thoroughbreds, bred for speed and fed high-energy rocket fuel. It’s not easy, it’s certainly not safe and I admire their bravery.
I enjoyed the month that I was part of their team. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience but I’ll now leave the racehorses to the professionals!