It’s safe to say that until last year I’d never imagined that I might ride in a race. A real race, on a real racehorse. But then I met the BBC Radio 2 DJ Sara Cox, who correctly identified me as a ‘bit of a nutter’. She’d ridden in a ladies’ charity race at Goodwood — the Magnolia Cup — a few years before and thought it might be up my street.
It had all sounded like a bit of fun when I’d signed up in December, joshing with my soon-to-be fellow jockeys about how we were in it to win it. But walking the five-and-a-half furlong course on a sunny July morning and seeing the huge grandstand come closer, everything was suddenly deadly serious. Hayley Turner — Britain’s most successful female jockey — and Colin Brown, famous for riding Desert Orchid, gave us tips: don’t push your horse too much on the downhill; save its energy for the upward climb towards the finishing post; start pushing when there’s a furlong and a half to go… but it was impossible to take it all in.
What was I, a typical weekend rider, doing here, about to race in front of a stand full of thousands of racegoers? It’s a good question, but the truth is, it was sheer luck. When Sara introduced me to the Goodwood team, I never thought they’d let me ride — but they did. The 12 riders were a mixed bag: Charlotte Hogg, chief operating officer of the Bank of England; Dido Harding, CEO of Talk Talk; two other journalists; a milliner… all of us amateurs united by our willingness to ride at full pelt. It was only a short course — just over 1km — but that didn’t make me any less nervous.
Goodwood may not be the most famous racecourse. It doesn’t have the Royal cachet of Ascot week or the hustle and bustle of the Derby. What it does have are stunning views of the Sussex Downs and a reputation for the most smartly-dressed spectators in the country. No need for an Ascot-style dress code here.
In fact if Goodwood didn’t exist, I think Jilly Cooper might have to invent it. Top to tail, it is incredibly glamorous, mostly thanks to Lord March, who has taken the estate from strength to strength. The night before my race I found myself at his Regency Ball; an occasion in itself. As we drove through the gates of Goodwood House, 18th-century ‘serfs’ doffed their caps while horse-drawn carriages ferried guests to the door. After supper came a midnight re-enactment of a 1802 race between the Duke of Richmond’s horse, Cedar, and the Prince of Wales’s favourite, Rebel. On any other night I’d have been having the time of my life. But there was one thing at the forefront of my mind — the next day’s race.
Among the 12 riders, levels of experience varied massively. A couple had taken part before; others, like me, were total novices for whom the last few months had been a crash-course in flat racing. Since March I’d been hopping out of bed at 4.45 a.m. two or three times a week, jumping straight into my car and heading down the A3 to Epsom and the stables where trainer Roger Ingram had agreed to let me ride out for him.
I slowly adjusted to riding thoroughbred racehorses as they sped up the gallops, and I had the bruises and aches to show for it. (Before the race a radio interviewed asked me, ‘Where does it ache?’ ‘Everywhere,’ I replied.) Afterwards I’d hop onto the equiciser — a mechanical horse for working on your jockey technique — before heading to the office, stinking of horse. In May came my first real test, at the British Racing School in Newmarket. This was the make-or-break moment for all 12 women. If we were not fit enough or good enough, it would be game over. Fortunately, the training had paid off and I passed. There were still two months to go, but suddenly the time flew by. The EU referendum came and went, the early mornings and evening jogs continued, and before I knew it, July was here.
Each rider had been kitted out in unique silks by a female designer (mine a beautiful print by Beulah), so we all looked the part. My friends and family were in the parade ring, cheering me on. I had my horse, Nelson’s Pride (aka Nellie), whose owner Cathy had kindly agreed to let me ride. The cameras were on us. And I was petrified. Riding down to the start line, I had no idea what Nellie might do. She’s what they describe as ‘a bit quirky’, so with me on her back, I wasn’t convinced she would behave. Luckily, she cantered beautifully down to the start, taking the crowds in her stride. We were first at the line so circled round and round, waiting for the others. ‘Ladies, please stay behind Miss Harding,’ warned the officials. We all knew that a false start was the worst thing that could happen; restarting the race would be nigh-on impossible.
Finally, everyone was present and correct, the flag was dropped, and we were off! Nellie and I didn’t have the best start bunched in behind the others, but I spotted a gap between two horses up ahead and she squeezed through perfectly. Now we were thundering along at the front of the pack. What was I supposed to do now? The only thing I could remember was someone telling me to shout at her. So I did. ‘Go on, Nellie! Get on!’ I yelled.
I saw the final furlong marker approaching; we were going uphill now and I could feel her slowing. I shouted louder. To my left I saw two brightly coloured silks, engaged in a two-man struggle: ‘Come on, Nell!!!’
I could hear someone behind me; then another on my right. The roars got louder and we were there, over the finish line. Done. I had no idea where I’d come, only that some were in front, and some behind.
‘Don’t relax when you cross the line, whatever you do,’ Hayley Turner had advised us. It wasn’t over yet. If I let my muscles relax the lactic acid build-up would turn my legs to jelly. That meant I’d probably fall off. Not ideal. Focus, focus… I leant back, putting my weight against the horse.
And that was it: over. We trotted back to the gate to the unsaddling area, greeted by a gang of supporters. All I could do was grin manically in delight. ‘Take your goggles off!’ the lad who’d led us up laughed, as I beamed at the camera with my orange goggles squashed wonkily under my helmet. We’d come in fifth, it turned out; the two tearing up on the inside had been Izzy Taylor, an eventer, and Dido Harding, with Izzy just managing to scrape into first place to win the Magnolia Cup.
Never mind — what’s that they say about it’s the taking part that counts? That’s at least partially true in this case; I know that just by taking part we raised huge amounts for two charities: Best Beginnings and World Vision. And I don’t really need a huge trophy on my mantelpiece. ‘It’d only collect dust,’ I told myself.
But if Goodwood invited me back, I’d be there like a shot. Before Easter, I’d gone to a racehorse parade organised by a friend’s syndicate, Kennet Valley Thoroughbreds. I got chatting to a girl who’d ridden in charity races. ‘Be careful,’ she warned. ‘You’ll catch the racing bug’. ‘But I can’t afford any more horsey hobbies,’ I laughed back. Now my only question is, ‘When’s the next race?’ and I’m on the gallops twice a week. It seems like the bug has been well and truly caught.