First among equals

Josephine Gordon looked up to Hayley Turner but now she is the first lady of the weighing room

When you set your heart on becoming a jockey you wrote a ‘must do’ list: ride in a race, ride a winner, ride abroad and ride on TV. Now you’ve ticked them all off, what’s on your new list?
Last year the aim was to ride 100 winners, but now I am after quality rather than quantity. I want some nice winners, big handicaps and Group races if possible, preferably on ITV.

I believe now that I have joined Hugo Palmer’s stable he can take me to the next level. Hugo has got the ammunition, some really nice horses that will give me a good chance of realising my immediate ambitions.

Growing up in Devon, can you recall when you decided you wanted to become a jockey – and who was your biggest influence in pursuing that dream?
At the age of 12, after completing my first pony race, I got off and said, ‘I want to be a jockey’. The new experience was enough to tell me where I would be heading. I’d done a lot of showjumping and dressage, which was exciting, but it was the speed of racing that gave me the real thrill.

Gordon experienced a tough start but is now reaping the rewards

Whenever I’ve ridden horses I have been excited but the pony racing was a completely different feeling. I have always been a mummy’s girl. As soon as I finished school we’d be out with the horses until 7.30pm-8pm and sometimes even before I went to school in the morning. Mum has always supported me and there was a bit of tough love when I started in racing.

After nine weeks at the British Racing School I was placed with Anabel Murphy at Stratford-upon-Avon and after a couple of weeks I came home for the weekend and didn’t want to go back. I was very homesick. Mum drove me, kicking and screaming, all the way back to the job, chucked me out of the car and drove off without saying goodbye.

But it was for my own good and very much tough love on Mum’s part as she meant nothing but good. I texted her the next day and said, ‘Thank you, I needed that’. I was 16 at the time and spent two years with Anabel, who was brilliant and took me in as if I was her daughter.

From riding no winners in 2014 to an amazing total of 87 in 2016, landing the apprentice championship, was a monumental leap from the doldrums into the limelight. How do you account for your dramatic change of fortune?

I remember that long, winnerless period, having to keep my head down and attempting to do my best on every ride. To be honest, it was disheartening turning out day after day with nothing to show at the end. But I am not complaining because I have always loved the job.

Now, looking back, I feel I have done it the right way and learnt to race-ride properly, though of course I am still learning. When I moved to Stan Moore in Lambourn he kept putting me up and my name was in the papers. Then I got an agent, Phil Shea, who I often talk to four times a day. He was a big help and always on the phone to trainers – I began to get outside rides and started making new connections.

After that elusive next winner – Shamrock Sheila at Bath in June 2015 – I started to get more rides and the winners just came along. I kept getting busier, things never slowed down after that, and I thought this is the normal jockey’s life. Even though it had taken so long to ride the winner that set me off, I felt it all happened quite quickly.

How did you cope when the winners did not arrive at that early stage in your career?

If I’m honest, I was frustrated, angry and on the verge of giving up. I was seriously thinking of completely changing course, going off to America or Australia to ride track work and scrapping my dreams of becoming a jockey. I’ve seen other jockeys going through those barren periods and you realise what a rollercoaster we ride.

Now I appreciate how you’ve just got to try and come through the other side with a few pluses and then make the most of everything. Looking back, my lean spell acts as encouragement and tells me I mustn’t let myself fall back into that situation again. Riding 100-1 shots teaches you a lot, trying to get them placed and finishing well. Being on a good horse is much easier; it’s the bad ones that can take some riding and you learn from that.

What are your biggest strengths and in what areas do you need to improve?
I like to think I am good on two-year-olds and horses running for the first time. Also giving connections feedback, which is important. You don’t come in after a race and tell the owner and trainer what they want to hear, you tell them what can be done to benefit the animal and hopefully help its chances in future races.

In a race I am always aware of what’s going on around me and I like to try to follow the right horses and find the best position for my mount. I have spent a lot of time on the equiciser trying to improve my use of the whip. My left hand was bad but has improved to the extent that it’s now better than my right. I spend every week in the gym on the equiciser, all the time trying to improve with the whip.

When I was in Lambourn John Reid was my jockey coach and he was brilliant. When I started he would have me practising five times a week and I’d end up absolutely shattered, but it paid off. You can drop a text to John asking what he thought of a ride and he’d be straight on the phone to offer advice.

I like to think I am good on two-year-olds and horses running for the first time

Now in Newmarket, Richard Perham, of the British Racing School, and Michael Hills, who also rides out for Hugo Palmer, are a big help. I have never modelled myself on anyone, but I’ve always admired Hayley Turner and Cathy Gannon, the first girls I’ve really watched.

After four years in Lambourn you moved last winter to Newmarket after accepting a position with Classic-winning trainer Hugo Palmer. Has this massive vote of confidence given you more confidence in your own abilities?
Of course it has. Hugo is a very good trainer with some very nice horses and big owners. I believe he will be champion trainer in the next few years. For him to want me to come aboard means the world to me.

Where I have worked before, the yards have been made up of about 50 horses, but Hugo has anything between 150 and 200. The organisation is amazing, sometimes with six people on the ground making sure certain horses are doing the requisite exercise or training. A big operation that needs to be, and is, run very well.

How different is life and riding out in Newmarket compared with Lambourn?

Newmarket feels much bigger. The whole operation here is different. In Lambourn you’d be riding out six lots a morning with 40 minutes a horse. Whereas in Newmarket you could be on your horse for an hour to an hour and a half, giving you even more chance to get to know it.

I think it is busier in general here, but I do miss Lambourn. You just have to go where the work is and I also ride out for Saeed bin Suroor once a week and have been into Sir Michael Stoute’s. Obviously, Hugo, with his two yards, keeps me very busy.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career, and in what way?
Hayley Turner, who has set the bar so high for us girls. We all look up to Hayley because she is the first girl who has competed with so much success. She has been there and done it at all levels. I’d love to achieve half of what she has done. She has been a real eye opener for the rest of us, the standard bearer who has given us all a goal to aim for. Hayley is a proper role model.

How disciplined are you with your lifestyle and diet?
I am lucky because I can eat what I want and still do bottom weight. Every so often it is good to go out and let your hair down, but at the same time you mustn’t get out of control, though I might have a glass of red wine. If I had to sweat every day and watch my diet it would be much tougher.

A jockey’s life is hard graft and requires huge dedication. What is the hardest part of trying to become a top jockey and what does a 23-year-old have to sacrifice in order to focus on a jockey’s life?
The hardest part is proving yourself, which requires a very strong work ethic. I was lucky with the trainers I worked for because I always felt if I was first in and last out of work they’d give me chances.

Jo Hughes was very good in that respect. She made me feel that if I kept up with the work I would eventually get the opportunities. Driving to the races becomes a chore, even for us younger ones, and if I am racing far away like Newcastle I would have a driver.

I once thought I should have gone to college, where all my friends were. But I don’t regret sacrificing education for the riding experience. You do have to give up a social life to a degree, though I have lots of friends in racing and we enjoy ourselves.

You were critical of the French authorities for bringing in a 4lb weight allowance for female jockeys, calling the move “offensive”. Do you still feel the same way?

Yes, I do. I think it is the most sexist change that could have been introduced in the sport. Obviously, when the news first came out from France I was very angry. I am a bit more relaxed about it now and if they brought it in over here I’d accept it. But it is an insult when you consider how long I spent riding out my claim and here they are handing it back.

I don’t approve, but at the same time it is only going to help me ride more winners so I am not going to say no. You are either good enough to ride out your claim or you’re not. It’s hard work and if you’ve done it, you’ve done it and you shouldn’t have to ride with an allowance again. There are a lot of 5lb and 3lb claimers among the girls and we all feel insulted by the concession.

The weighing room is known for its unique atmosphere and camaraderie among jockeys – what is it like for a woman?
I was 17 or 18 when I walked into the jockeys’ room and it was a bit of a shock. I felt like a little girl. Now I am pretty much one of the lads, we have a laugh and I like to think I am part of the set-up. I usually go to Adam Kirby or George Baker for a bit of advice.

They are brilliant and always happy to help. I have been out to Barbados for a riding holiday with the lads and we had a great time. I also get on really well with all the girls, including Hollie Doyle and Lulu Stanford.

Do you see part of your responsibility to speak up for women jockeys in the media? Are you happy in front of the cameras?

I think all the girls can speak for themselves – they all have their own opinions. When I spoke out and said the 4lb claim was offensive they all gave me a tap on the shoulder and said, ‘Well done, at least you spoke up’. I never used to be happy in front of the cameras and went in for some media training to try to improve.

Gordon partners Wall Of Fire to success in the Malard Stakes

Interviews are something we have to take in our stride as jockeys, because we all get microphones stuffed in our faces at some stage. It’s better for us, and the image of the sport, if we can handle the media.

Jockeys often take a hammering on social media when things don’t go well in a race. How do you cope with criticism?
Constructive criticism I can accept. But it’s not a very nice thing to see on social media. I realise when people have a lot of money on a horse and it gets beat they are not happy and we get abused. I suppose it does go with the territory.

But at the end of the day we all go out there and give it everything we’ve got, which makes it harder to swallow when the public shout us down. Don’t forget, we’re on animals that have minds of their own. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

Realistically, how do you rate your chances of riding 100 winners this year? Or even going for the title?
After riding 87 winners in 2016 the immediate aim for this year was 100. But I have since decided to try and go for a Listed or Group winner rather than quantity, as I mentioned earlier.

And I think that is possible now I have the support of Hugo and his owners. Though, of course, I wouldn’t say no to 100! As far as the title is concerned, that would be amazing but I don’t think I am ready yet and, let’s face it, I still have a lot to learn. I need a few more years’ experience.

Can you give us a horse or two that you are really looking forward to riding this season?

I won on To Be Wild at Ffos Las and Doncaster last year. There were a few problems with him because he was such a big horse but this time he has filled into his frame and is an exciting prospect.

Architecture, second to Minding in the Oaks, is quality compared with what I have been used to in the past. I remember working her at home, getting off her and Hugo laughed, telling me I had exactly the same excited expression on my face as Frankie Dettori when he rode her. Architecture felt amazing to me.

Where would you like to be in five years’ time?
Working for Hugo Palmer as champion jockey.

Latest Features