Sophie's choice

Sophie Doyle is a successful female jockey making a name for herself in the United States after moving from Britain

Sophie Doyle is enjoying her life in America, on and off the racecourse – Photo: Jamie Newell

You spent two winters as an exercise rider in America before taking the plunge as a jockey over there. Before that you had been a leading apprentice in England, so what was the attraction of racing stateside?

I had spent a holiday working for Rod Simpson in Dubai, went back again and rode in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I enjoyed those breaks and, the way my career was going at home, decided that I wanted to try America, ride track work, gain more experience and learn about the clock, which is so important in the States.

I spent two spells in America and enjoyed the lifestyle. It was very different to England; none of the long hours of day-to-day driving to different courses and not knowing where you were going to be every couple of days.

You are now in your sixth year of riding in the US and recently passed the 200-winner mark, your mounts earning $5 million. Can you put your finger on the reasons for your career blossoming?

I spent a couple of years finding my way and testing the water – I have been riding here full-time for four years, having made contacts in California and Arkansas. The high points have been on Fioretti, winning a $75,000 race at Churchill Downs and a Grade 2 at Keeneland. She put my career on the map.

I didn’t have anyone to help me and had to make my own contacts

I also rode her in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland and that was fantastic because my brother James and mum Jacqui were there with William Buick. They made Breeders’ Cup day a very special occasion because the biggest sacrifice and hardest decision I’ve had to make was leaving my family and friends behind in England.

At one stage I had even thought about going to Australia to ride but that would have been too far away from my family. I am a home bird, really.

Was it tough trying to make contacts and establish yourself in the States?

It was very tough – I didn’t have anyone to help me and had to make my own contacts. I was at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in California and got in touch with trainers and told them I wanted to continue my career as a jockey.

I wanted to work for as many trainers as possible and would walk through the barns talking to trainers and their staff, trying to establish relationships. When I was growing up I was very shy and mum used to say to me if you’re not going to talk to people you can go and sit in the corner.

I now realise how much her encouragement helped me. And, as a result, I have been able to come out of my skin. I must say it was quite intimidating walking through those barns and approaching trainers I had never met before. But it had the desired effect. I eventually ended up riding as many as 14 on breeze mornings, jumping off one horse and straight on to another.

How big a part does your agent and former jump jockey, Penny Ffitch Heyes, play in your success?

Penny has played an enormous part. Agents in America play a different role to those in England – Penny would come out to the barns trackside and talk to the trainers and make face-to-face contact all the time. Penny was agent for Randy Romero and I used to ask her what was the secret behind Randy’s success.

She said he would go out believing he could win on every horse he rode, whatever the odds. He simply believed in himself and had a great work ethic. Not a bad example to follow and Randy has become a very good friend.

You have enjoyed plenty of success riding at Arlington Park in Chicago. Is this where you are based?

I have been based at Arlington for five months from May to September. Then I’ll ride at Hawthorne for a couple of weeks before moving to Fair Grounds in New Orleans for five months through the winter. When I spent four months working for Kellyn Gorder, who had 60 horses in Kentucky, I found riding work at Churchill Downs was a great learning experience.

Sophie Doyle’s perseverance has seen her become established as one of the leading riders at Arlington in Chicago – Photo: Jamie Newell

Riding there in the mornings taught me a lot about which part of the track to be on in particular races there. I rode my first US winner at Churchill on Jazz N Tap.

I then moved to Hawthorne and have ridden at Fair Grounds, Santa Anita, Arkansas and Keeneland, among other tracks. I am the third leading rider at Arlington this year; I had my sights set on reaching 50 and I achieved that goal.

Is it harder for a female jockey to be successful in Britain, compared with America, based on your experiences?

It is equally hard anywhere you go. You have to work twice as hard to be a professional female jockey, in England, America, or anywhere in the world.

Persevere, believe in yourself and at some point it will pay off. There is a very good saying, ‘Hard work can overcome talent.’

Female jockeys have realised they have to work just as hard and be as fit as the next one, female or male.

Jockey coaching and strength and conditioning classes at Oaksey House and Jack Berry House in England have been a fantastic help. The accent on fitness is just as strong in America for the females. The hard work has to be done if you’re going to make it – female riders realise that more than ever now.

How long do you plan to stay and what are the big lifestyle differences between the US and Britain?

I plan to stay as long as I can and I’m about to renew my visa again for another five years. I shall also apply for my Green Card, which would give me ten years’ employment.

When you are racing at one track for several weeks you are in the one place and not having to drive all over the place, like in Britain.

At Arlington Park we race four days a week and have every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday off, but we do work horses every morning, though I try to have Monday mornings off.

Away from racing I like to join my boyfriend, Chris Davis, who trains at Arlington, and go fine dining or wine tasting together. We may go out in a boat for an afternoon or even jump on a plane somewhere.

Persevere, believe in yourself and at some point it will pay off

I also have a horse of my own – Jazz N Tap, who gave me my first American win at Churchill Downs. I go off and ride him for pleasure, sometimes dressage, showjumping and cross country. That’s when Jazz N Tap, who is now seven, is not ponying horses on the track. He gets the best of all worlds.

Can you explain how you have adapted your riding style since moving to America and why the changes have been necessary?

First of all, I have to be very sharp on my times, both in the mornings at work and of course in the races. I also have to adjust to each track because they ride differently.

All the dirt tracks vary; some are more sand-based, some are more clay-based and you have to adapt accordingly depending whether you are on a dry track or a wet track.

In the saddle, I have had to be more solid in my legs and keep still; not so much movement with my legs, stay closer to the saddle and keep my elbows in.

I took up boxing classes and did a lot of shadow boxing and learnt jabbing and upper cuts, which keep my elbows in and helped to strengthen my shoulders. I need a stronger upper body.

I have been on Mike Smith’s mechanical horse, Kenyatta, and Mike even took me up Mount Wilson near Santa Anita several times. We’d run three miles up steep gradients; Mike taught me a lot and has become a good friend.

Your mum Jacqui Doyle is a former amateur jump jockey and trainer. Does she still play a part in guiding your career, even though you are separated by the Atlantic Ocean?

Yes, she does. Mum is my number one fan! She is a huge influence. For any parent to sit up and watch every race you ride, particularly with a six-hour time difference, is amazing and a wonderful boost. When I come in from racing she has messaged me: ‘Well done… could have gone better… don’t worry… keep your chin up’. Knowing she is there all the time is just fantastic.

If it wasn’t for mum neither my brother James nor I would be in the position we are now. She made a lot of sacrifices to support us and encourage us to become the jockeys we are today.

She is involved in racing as a horse lighting therapist and writes about racing for Gulf News in Dubai during the winter.

Younger brother James has been enjoying a terrific season at home. How often do you talk and what would it mean to you to compete against him at this year’s Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs?

We text a lot of the time and chat on WhatsApp. When I first started he gave me a lot of advice but not so much nowadays.

I remember when I first got a ride in a Graded stakes I asked him if I needed to do anything different. He told me, ‘It’s just another race, so go out and ride as great as you always do. Never worry about how much it’s worth.’

It would be amazing to ride against James in the Breeders’ Cup – or anywhere for that matter

Do you need to be more of an athlete to perform at your peak in America?

You might ride six to eight horses in the morning and you could be riding ten races a day, so you need to be fit.

After riding in the morning I’d have a quick lunch, take a nap and then go to the gym for a workout of an hour and a half.

Jockeys push themselves as hard as ever nowadays because they are professional athletes – if you want to be up there with the best of them, then you have to keep up with them.

Doyle in action at Arlington Park in September – Photo: Jamie Newell

How has life in America changed you and how has it affected your outlook on life?

It’s changed me a lot. I left home at 26 and I’ve had to learn how to be independent and think for myself. I have learnt from a lot of mistakes too.

I don’t think you learn in life if you haven’t been aware of your mistakes and put them right. Don’t blame other people; at the end of the day it’s always down to you. That’s the bottom line.

I am the one writing my story and I must stand up for myself, be myself and not worry about what other people think. And at the end of it all you have got to be happy.

What would it take for you to move back to Britain?

A very big retainer from one of the top trainers would make me give the move a lot of thought. It would have to be in my heart to move back home.

It would be amazing to ride against James in the Breeders’ Cup – or anywhere for that matter

But right now I have a great career; I have established my life here and I am enjoying myself.

America has so much to offer, ski-ing, swimming in the ocean and many friends; always lots going on and so much culture.

When I was in California I hiked up the mountains or went down to the sea.

What would you like to achieve in your career – and where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

I am 32 and what I have been doing seems to have been an inspiration to other people. They message me about what they want to do, either being a jockey or travelling abroad.

They tell me that what I have done has encouraged them to pursue a similar life, either riding or experiencing other parts of the world. They say I have shown them there is more to life than just being at home.

During my riding career I would like to win as many Graded stakes as possible and perform on the biggest stages. In other words, be recognised at the highest level.

Looking ahead five years is interesting; I’ll be close to 40 and saying to myself I had five years getting my career going, then five years establishing myself.

After that, perhaps I’ll be thinking about being happily married and having a family.

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