Hayley Turner is bidding for her third winner at Royal Ascot
Credit: Geoff Pugh
Jockeys tend not to linger long in celebrating victories, even those achieved at the grandest of meetings, such as Royal Ascot. They are too busy preparing for their next race.
“We’re very competitive,” says Hayley Turner, who knows a bit about winning, having crossed the line first on more than 800 occasions in her 21-year career. “No matter how well you do, you want more. There’s no time to reflect on a win, it’s on to the next one. There’s plenty of time to look back when you’ve retired.”
But there is a moment in every successful jockey’s working life when they can relish the victory. It is when, immediately after they have won, they are making the walk back from the course to the winner’s enclosure atop their triumphant horse. Surrounded by excitement, with ecstatic punters shouting their thanks for winning them a few quid, with the trainer and owner beaming at success, with the television interviewer shoving a long-handled microphone into their face, it is a few seconds of adrenalin-fuelled delight. And over lockdown it has been missing. The racing may have carried on, but that collective rush has been entirely absent.
“Of course you miss the crowd, so badly,” says Turner, speaking on her way to race at Newbury. “It’s strange your relationship with them. As riders, you don’t digest they’re even there until after the race. You’re so focused on what you’re doing on the horse, you’re kind of locked into the present and you block everything else out. But when you go in after winning, then you do. That is fantastic. Making your way back in through the crowd after winning, nothing beats that, what a buzz. It’s the thing all of us have missed behind closed doors.”
Though she adds there has been something oddly memorable about making her way back to the winner’s enclosure in silence.
Hayley Turner rode Onassis to success at the Sandringham Stakes at Royal Ascot last year
Credit: Getty Images
“I’ve had a Royal Ascot winner with crowds and one last year when there was nobody there. Make no mistake, even with no one there, it’s still a massive thrill. And winning there under lockdown, you kind of felt like you were part of a bit of history: I can tell the grandkids that I won at Ascot that weird year when no one was there. But I tell you what, one year is enough. We’re going to really appreciate having 12,000 people there this year.”
And the 12,000 people will appreciate having Turner riding for them. Because when it comes to Royal Ascot, the 38-year-old from Nottingham has been making history for a while now. In 2019, she became the first woman jockey to win a race at the meeting since Gay Kelleway crossed the line first in 1987. When she repeated the feat last year, she wrote another line in the history of the meeting as the first woman to win there twice. Given her growing insistence on collecting landmarks, the wise punter might be advised to back her making it a hat-trick when she rides in the Duke of Cambridge Stakes tomorrow.
“It would be wonderful if I could,” she says. “But, wow, it will be difficult. You don’t want to jinx it by even suggesting it might happen.”
Though she accepts the prospect of her winning has grown ever sharper over the years.
“I do seem to do well at Ascot,” she says. “Particularly in the light weights, I’m beginning to get a good choice of horse. I like the track there, it gives you time to let your horse find their comfort zone.”
After years of just missing out, of finishing second or third but never crossing the line first, everything changed when she won the Sandringham Stakes there in 2019 on Thanks Be. It was not a win she saw coming.
“I really didn’t think it was going to happen, so I made the mistake of taking my car there and had to drive myself home. So, no chance of a drink afterwards,” she says. “But then again, it was nice to get back to Newmarket that night and head off to the pub to share the victory with the yard staff, the grooms and people who put in groundwork, who were too busy working so couldn’t be there to watch it happen on the course. That was a lovely moment, being with them to celebrate the win.”
In 2020, she was back at Ascot to win the same race again. This time she was on Onassis, a 33-1 outsider.
“I think, psychologically, it’s good being an underdog,” she says. “If you are on the favourite, there’s a bit more pressure, there’s a lot of people invested in you winning.”
In that victory, Turner developed a significant bond with the then three-year-old filly and they won again at Goodwood last October.
“It’s an odd relationship you have with a horse,” she says. “The hands who ride out on them every day get to know them very well, all their characteristics. Jockeys have to quickly work them out. After all sometimes you don’t actually meet them until you are in the parade ring ahead of the race. So when you get the chance to ride them a few times, you develop a better understanding of their strengths.”
Not that Turner was expecting to ride Onassis again this summer. Despite, or rather because of, her stellar year, it appeared the mare would be heading to breeding grounds last autumn. Turner even joked after her win at Goodwood that it was far more likely the leading stud Galileo would be engaging with Onassis than she would. But here the pair are again.
“It’s wonderful to be back together. Charlie Fellowes, her trainer, was fully expecting her to enter the breeding programme. But the owners had so much fun with her last season they decided they’d rather give her another run out. I went out for a ride on the gallops with her on Friday and she looks in great shape. She’s gone up a class this year, so it won’t be easy. But she has everything going for her.”
As does her jockey. Turner is something of a pioneer on the Flat racing circuit, a woman creating firsts at every turn. A mark of how quickly things are changing in her sport comes in the statistics of the number of women competing at Royal Ascot. In 2016, there was only one ride by a woman in the entire meeting. Last year there were 27. And this year, given the success of others like Hollie Doyle following in Turner’s wake, there will be even more.
“I am 10 years older than the next oldest female jockey, so I can’t escape the fact I’m the senior figure,” she says. “I’m lucky enough to have ridden through a decade that has gone from pretty much no women riders to many. I’m so proud to see how well they are doing, how standards have risen.”
One of the things she has really enjoyed is seeing the numbers grow around her.
“It’s getting fuller,” she says of the female weighing room. “It’s so nice to get in there, it’s the start of the process of getting your head together. At a meeting like Royal Ascot, there is so much going on that attracts attention. But you have to focus on the job in hand, not what everyone’s wearing. For us, it’s not a fashion show. The weighing room is the place where you can be apart from that, a bolt hole for the jockeys, where everyone has got their own space, where they can relax, have banter, get themselves in gear.”
And as the elder stateswomen of the weighing room, what advice would she give to any of the dozen or so women jockeys heading to Ascot in the attempt to add to her roster of victories?
“Lot of girls do ask me questions, some of the lads do as well,” she says. “I certainly don’t preach, but if anyone did ask me what I think would help, I’d say this: I know it sounds corny, but concentrate on being the best you can be. Racing can be very frustrating for a jockey, no matter how good you are or how well you are riding, sometimes it can seem as if the best rides are going elsewhere. There’s nothing you can do about that, so don’t get hung up on it. As long as you’re doing your best, that is all you can do.”
And if anyone knows about the rewards that can come from doing your best, it is Hayley Turner.