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Birkett looking forward to Abu Dhabi

Author: Mark Jackson


We featured in a recent edition of Al Adiyat the phenomenal first year success story of the UK’s top female apprentice Shelley Birkett. Since that article appeared Birkett has received the trophies and prizes for her successes, ridden more winners, been entrusted with a ride in the £250,000 Cesarewitch Handicap and rode a 50/1 outsider into third place at Ascot on Champions’ Day, despite a bad draw in a 27 runner field. Shelley, whose brother Ross worked for the Dubai Racing Channel in each of the last two seasons, has just arrived in the UAE in readiness for Abu Dhabi’s meeting on Sunday and Al Adiyat took the opportunity for an exclusive breakfast interview with her.

Q : Welcome to the UAE Shelley. Is this your first trip?

It’s my first visit as a jockey but a couple of years ago I had a working holiday where I mixed sunbathing and shopping alongside riding work at Meydan. It was awesome to ride at such an amazing racecourse even though it was at dawn and often I had only birds for company.

Q : You’ve had a very successful first year as a professional jockey.

What has given you the greatest pleasure?

I think it’s simply that I’ve achieved every target I set myself for my first season as an apprentice – even those that initially looked ‘high wire’. At the beginning of the year my agent John Ford and I sat down for a few hours to chat about my goals and objectives and we came up with a shared picture of ‘what would success look and feel like’. I am extremely target oriented, I demand a lot from myself, I don’t go for ‘airy fairy’ wish lists and every week (and sometimes more frequently) John and I review my progress. We get on well and the reviews are totally open and direct. Sometimes I need to be pushed, sometimes I need to be less self critical and perhaps the most useful input to our reviews are the comments from trainers for whom I have ridden. Obviously I report back to trainers after every race but on top of this John phones each trainer the following day and specifically asks for their feedback about me. John then tells me exactly what the trainers say. Nine times out of ten the comments from trainers (who also tell John what owners say about me) are very positive, even flattering, but I’m a great believer that I’m only as good as my last ride and I take on board all constructive comments and advice.

Q : How have you celebrated your big, wide margin, successes such as the two UK Racing Excellence Championships, being the top UK female apprentice etc?

I’m probably going to sound an awful bore, but I’m not a great party lover, I prefer soft drinks to alcohol and my celebrations are quiet, private, events with my family. My ‘reward to myself’ for my successful season was a new car - but even that is tempered with the practicality that I need a thoroughly reliable vehicle to drive the many thousands of miles from my Newmarket home to racecourses.

Q : Who have been the major influences on your riding career so far?

My family have been hugely supportive in all respects throughout my life and I have to single out mum (Julia Feilden who trains at Exning on the outskirts of Newmarket). She was a very successful amateur rider, an instructor at the British Racing School for many years, has strictly made me ride ‘properly’ and maintain standards from a very early age, has been a fabulous role model for dealing with owners and other trainers and also provided my first winner. I couldn’t have asked for more. I have been helped by many trainers (including John Hills and David Simcock) and owners who have trusted me with outside rides in valuable handicaps. I watch Ryan Moore ride as much as possible - especially his tactical skills and positional acumen in races. It’s also useful that Hayley Turner, the doyen British female jockey, has always offered me advice and encouragement - despite being a competitive rival on the track!

Q : What alternative career would you consider?

Since I was a toddler no other career has gone through my mind. I did though continue my education and gain qualifications, as insurance, in case health, injury or lack of opportunity prevents me continuing as a jockey. Any other career would be sport based: perhaps a sports therapist of some sort and I am increasingly interested in the benefit of motivational techniques. Even though I’m trying to answer this question honestly, my brain keeps saying ‘I just want to be a top jockey’!

Q : Many good apprentices have fallen by the wayside despite great starts to their riding careers.

What are you doing to avoid this happening to you?

There are so many ways I could try to answer this. I take myself and my career very seriously (though I also try to keep a balance with my friends who have no racing interests) and I try to be very professional. So at one level I do the basic things properly. I work very hard, rest a lot, eat healthily, keep fit (I love running anyway), watch my weight and the like. I don’t resort to saunas or wasting diets. We don’t take rides below my comfortable minimum weight because I know I ride a strong race over any distance at my published weight. I know - I’m sounding a bore again! I have mentioned my need to have proper, hard, targets as my goals not wish lists or daydreams. I’ve covered the targets that John Ford and I agreed for this year and which I’ve met. We also have objectives for three and five year windows. Only John and I know these (even mum is not privy to these details) and I don’t want to share them because they could become a burden that people may try to pin on me. They all relate, in many different forms, to gradual but sustained improvement. They are not all quantitative, some are qualitative. There are contingencies for illness/injury, the odd suspension (which John has recorded as ‘Shelley on the naughty step’), they recognise the barren spells. We know I’ve done the easy bit of riding out my 7lbs claim and recognise it now gets much harder - and will get harder still when I fledge as a full jockey. There’s one specific event within the last month that greatly excites me and certainly will help to improve my riding skills in every dimension. Philip Robinson retired two years ago after a long, successful, international career as a jockey. He has kindly agreed to give me a fixed amount of time every month and act as my mentor. Our first sessions have focussed on watching videos of my rides and Philip has spotted a couple of areas for immediate improvement. Next he will join me on the gallops, riding upsides, behind and ahead of me and also further develop my stalls exits. I’ve been successful on front runners - a skill at which Philip, who was one of my jockey heroes, excelled - and I truly feel so privileged that he sees potential in me that he is prepared to spend time developing.

Q : Is there anything else you want to say Shelley?

Just two things please. Firstly I’m so proud to be selected to represent Great Britain and I’m really looking forward to riding at Abu Dhabi on Sunday in the ladies’ race. Secondly, thank you for breakfast! So that is the UAE’s first insight into Shelley Birkett. A calm, modest, 19yo, with her feet firmly on the ground yet with a steely determination to succeed. We think we’ll see and hear a lot more of her over the years.

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07 Aug 2018
Issue Number: Issue 647
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Dubai playing a key role in British racing, says Jockey Club boss
Busybody Tadhg looks to scale mountains after climbing Hills
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