Camilla Swift meets five women taking the reins in the traditionally male-dominated world of horse racing.
Josephine Gordon, 24, is a flat-racing jockey who won the title Champion Apprentice last year – only the third woman to have earned it. She is based in Newmarket, Suffolk.
I was pretty much born on a horse. Mum had a livery yard in Devon, and before I could walk she used to sit me in a basket and put me on top of a horse. As soon as she took me off I’d start screaming.
I knew after my first pony race, aged 12 or 13, that I was going to be a jockey. When I was 16 I went to the British Racing School in Newmarket. After a month I rang my mum and told her I wouldn’t be coming home. When I went back at the end of my course, she had cleared out my room!
I thought becoming a jockey would be easy because I knew how to ride, but it took years to get to where I am now. I worked with trainer Anabel Murphy in Stratford upon Avon for two years after racing school, before having a break. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Then I went to work for the trainer Jo Hughes and then Stan Moore – I was there for two and a half years. He gave me everything – I rode the majority of the horses he was running. People started noticing my name in the paper and it went from there.
Most people have been accepting of me as a female jockey, but I have had comments from punters. People who have backed a horse that’s been beaten will sometimes say things like ‘go back to the kitchen’. Owners and trainers are supportive, though; riding horses isn’t just about strength.
You have to prove to the other jockeys that you can ride. In your first ten races they’ll be all over you, trying to push you out of the way or bully you. But once you’ve stood your ground, they respect you. Now they are like family; we see each other every day and we look out for each other. But when you first walk into a weighing room and there’s a bunch of naked men standing around, you do feel like a little girl.
I’ll always remember when I rode my first winner, in September 2013. Even now if I have a big winner it gives me the same buzz. Every year I set myself new goals. This year, they were to ride a listed [the second highest level of race] winner, and a group [the highest level of race] winner, as well as to get to 100 winners for the year. I’ve managed to achieve all three, but I’m not going to stop there – it’s not yet the end of the year!
On a normal morning my alarm goes off at 5am and I’m at trainer Hugo Palmer’s yard by 5.30am or 6am. I’ll ride two or three horses on the gallops and then I usually go home, have a nap and race in the afternoon. If I have to ride at two different race meetings in a day, I am lucky to be home by 10.30pm. I’m racing almost every day year-round; you get the odd Sunday off, but that’s about it. The only thing I dislike about it is the weather. The thought of riding around Wolverhampton racecourse at 9.15pm in the snow…
My favourite track is Ascot. There’s always a good atmosphere, especially when Royal Ascot is on. I rode there for the first time this year and loved it. I’ve not yet met the Queen, though I have ridden her horses.
Being a jockey is very up and down. Your emotions are all over the place and you never know what the day is going to bring. You have to not let it get to you, because it affects your riding – but that’s easier said than done. If you’ve given a horse a bad ride it can haunt you. You sit there watching it over and over again. You just have to try to forget about it and move on.
It’s a tough job. The days are very long. Even if you’re working as a stable lad, you don’t have much time for a social life. But when a stable has a big winner, you’ll see the lads crying with joy. It’s the same feeling as having a winner as a jockey. All that hard work pays off and the highs make up for the lows. Josephine is sponsored by 32Red
THE TV PRESENTER
Francesca Cumani, 34, is co-host of ITV’s flat-racing coverage and is based in Newmarket, Suffolk. She is the daughter of Luca Cumani, one of the UK’s top flat-racing trainers. His triumphs include two Epsom Derby winners, as well as victors of many of the world’s top-class races.
When I got the call to join the ITV racing team I was quite surprised. It was something I never thought I’d be offered – mainly because I was living in Australia with my Australian husband. I was about to have a baby, we had just bought a house and had decided to settle there, so it took a lot of thinking logistically. But I knew deep down that I wanted to do it.
At the moment we split our time between the UK and Australia. We go back to Australia after Ascot at the end of October. I’m really lucky with this setup as my parents are based in Newmarket, where we live too. It just takes a bit of organising.
It’s hard not to get sucked into racing when you’ve grown up surrounded by it. I got into presenting through knowing my sport. I’ve learnt the ins and outs as I’ve gone along, but I’m definitely still acquiring the necessary skills. Before ITV I had been presenting in Australia and there are a lot of differences in terminology. For example, the starting stalls are called barriers there and a non-runner is a scratching. My colleagues find it hilarious if I slip in an Aussie word by accident!
Working for ITV, in front of camera or behind, you’re part of one big team. There’s an emphasis on having fun. After all, if you watch sport, you do so for entertainment, don’t you? I sometimes feel we haven’t put enough emphasis on the horses though, especially when you get a result like an outsider winning the Derby. But you can do that in a fun way and for me that’s the challenge. When we talk about the horses, we don’t bang on about their form and weight, but try to give people a story. Then when it wins, they can say, ‘Oh yes, that’s the grey horse that’s travelled the world and won thousands of pounds.’
It will be interesting to see what happens in racing when the current generation of powerful owners is no longer around. And what happens when, sadly, the Queen is no longer with us. She is a huge supporter of racing; a lot of people want to be involved in the sport, particularly Ascot, simply because of her.
Although I’m not big into fashion, as the shop-front of the sport it’s important to look good. Racing is a glamorous occasion – I don’t dress up out of vanity, it’s more to give racing the respect it deserves. My stylist Sarah Kate Byrne has a great eye and she finds slightly quirky outfits for me, because normally I’m quite a boring dresser.
I dress to give viewers a guide. If it’s a group-one day [the highest level], I will dress up and wear a hat. If I’m dressed down, viewers know it’s a more relaxed occasion. I’ve heard that people tune in just to see what I’m wearing, which is great. Why not? Hopefully we’ll convert them to racing at the same time.
It’s probably naive of me to imagine that how I look hasn’t helped me to get where I am. There are positives and negatives to being a woman in this industry. Sometimes it’s assumed that you might not know as much as a man, which does get my hackles up. And yes, there are probably still a few barriers to break down in the sport. If there wasn’t the modern emphasis on gender equality on screen, would ITV just have four men on the panel to talk about racing? I don’t know.
I’m all for thinking outside the box to make racing appeal in different ways. Look at the Shergar Cup day [at Ascot] this year, where there was live music – acts included Craig David and All Saints – as well as the racing. It was a sellout crowd, and around 80 per cent of punters were through the door by the first race. Some people are sniffy about the Shergar Cup, but if it’s what brings people to the races, then great.
Rebecca Curtis, 37, is a National Hunt racehorse trainer based in Newport, Pembrokeshire. She has trained four Cheltenham Festival winners – Teaforthree, At Fishers Cross, O’Faolain’s Boy and Irish Cavalier – since setting up her yard in 2008.
I grew up on my dad’s dairy farm in Newport, where the four tiny stables we had were more like bike sheds. When I was 17 I began working for a local trainer, Peter Bowen, and started riding in a few point-to-points. Before then, I thought racing was boring – I was more into showjumping and showing – but that all that changed when I got involved in it. At 21, I moved to California and worked in flat racing, learning about what it takes to train racehorses, before returning home five years later, switching to jump racing and applying for my training licence.
I started my training career with a horse called Mango Catcher. My dad and I paid £10,000 for him in early 2008; he came second in his first race at Kempton that March and won the next one at Chepstow. At the moment we have about 30 horses on the yard, though we have space for 55.
My working day starts at 7am when I arrive at the yard and decide who will be riding which horses that morning. I have seven full-time members of staff and we normally have four or five groups of horses exercising every morning. I’ll watch them work on the gallops, checking on their progress, before I tackle the paperwork – entering horses for races and so on. We start getting our horses fit at the beginning of July, and we aim to have them ready for the first weeks of October, which is when the National Hunt season begins.
I can’t imagine training anywhere else. The beach is at the end of the road and we sometimes exercise the horses there when the gallops are frozen. If horses have sore legs, we might walk them in the sea – the salt water is very soothing. They do enjoy that; it’s nice for them to have a change of scenery.
We shouldn’t be focusing on the Cheltenham Festival [in March], but that’s what everyone does! When you have a horse that’s been doing well coming into Christmas, everyone tends to think, ‘That could be a Cheltenham horse.’ We have definitely been lucky, though. We’re a small yard and yet we’ve had four Cheltenham Festival winners. Some of the big yards haven’t managed one yet.
You have to really love horses to do this job. For stable staff it’s hard: you’re out in the rain and the cold for long hours, often seven days a week. But I try to look after my staff – I’ll take them out for lunch every so often, and whenever we go racing further afield I put them up in hotels. Being a trainer is better as you’re the boss and you can choose your own hours. I did think about other careers – I’d have loved to have had a go at TV presenting – but in the end it always came back to horses.
If you are getting winners, I don’t think it matters what sex you are. It is sometimes a struggle to attract owners; we don’t have any local owners on the yard and I’m probably not great at being pushy with marketing. I let the results speak for themselves. We do have some of J P McManus’s horses and he’s one of the biggest owners in jump-racing, but it would be nice to have more!
Belinda McClung and Deborah Thomson – the ‘Two Golf Widows’ – are the joint owners of One for Arthur, winner of the 2017 Grand National and the second Scottish-trained horse to win it. They live in the Scottish Borders.
Debs and I had been at school and Pony Club together but we hadn’t stayed in contact. We met again at Lucinda Russell’s yard. My husband Fraser and I have a horse in training with her – and it turned out that Debs also had a horse there. After we caught up on our lives, we thought it would be fun to buy a horse together. That’s why we got Arthur.
The ‘Two Golf Widows’ was just a tongue-in-cheek name. Both our husbands play a lot of golf, and you’ve got to call your partnership something. We could have called ourselves ‘Mrs Belinda McClung and Ms Deborah Thomson’, but that’s a bit boring.
We bought Arthur at the racehorse sale at Cheltenham in 2013 – we were shown ten or 20 horses, and he was the one that stood out. My husband preferred another one, but Lucinda and Debs and I were quite insistent on him – so the boys have a lot to thank us for!
The first time Arthur ran around Aintree was last December in the Becher Chase. I was petrified. Funnily enough, I wasn’t as nervous on Grand National day. There isn’t as much pressure in a race like the Grand National, where there are 39 other horses; you can get brought down, fall – anything can happen.
When Arthur won the Grand National my legs were like jelly and my mouth went dry. I couldn’t believe he’d done it. We were pulled from pillar to post by the press – it was a bit of a blur. That night we had a few drinks in the bar, but I felt exhausted by 11pm. For a month afterwards we partied nonstop! Then it had to calm down.
Arthur has taken us on an amazing journey. We recently met Princess Anne at legendary trainer Jack Berry’s 80th birthday, and the previous week Arthur won horse of the season – champion jockey A P McCoy presented us with our prize.
Things were starting to crank up a bit for the beginning of the season when we learned Arthur’s leg had been injured. The best day of our lives was when he won the National, and then we had the low when we were told he had the injury. It’s frustrating, but we both understand it – that’s racing for you. Arthur is only eight so if he were to come back as a ten-year-old, he’d have every chance again.
Strangers do sometimes recognise me. They come up and say, ‘Oh, well done, you own One for Arthur.’ I get a bit embarrassed. It’s changed our lives in a good way, but it hasn’t changed me as a person. I still have to go to work and do the laundry!
When Arthur ran, it was the first time I’d ever been to the Grand National. I used to watch it at home, so it was an amazing experience to have the winner the first time I ever went there. It just goes to show that dreams can come true.
We were a bit gutted when we first heard about his injury, but it’s not the end of the world. Even before the injury we were saying if he doesn’t win anything else, he doesn’t owe us anything. He’s an incredible horse to own and it’s been fun.
Sharing it all with a friend is even better. We’ve had parties and some great days at the races. This way we share the highs and the lows; it’s good to have someone else there.
Lots of people say congratulations to us, but it’s a huge team effort, from Lucinda, who trains Arthur, to the jockey Derek Fox, everyone who feeds and mucks him out to the work riders. We are so grateful to everyone at the yard, because if it wasn’t for them, we would never be in the situation we are in now.