Author: John Berry
There were two notable feats registered last Friday by female riders. At Chelmsford’s evening meeting Hollie Doyle rode her 100th winner of the season (and then her 101st just 95 minutes later). She thus became only the third female jockey to hit the century in a British season, following Hayley Turner and Josephine Gordon. The same afternoon in London Khadijah Mellah was announced as the winner of the Sunday Times Young Sportswoman of the Year award. Without wishing to downplay Khadijah Mellah’s achievement, the only conclusion one can draw from this is that the mainstream media pay racing no attention whatsoever. Perhaps there is an ‘upper age limit’ to eligibility for the Young Sportswoman of the Year award which might have ruled her out, but by any normal standards Hollie Doyle is still a young jockey.
This is only her first season out of her apprenticeship. That her hundred (and one) winners can have cut less ice with the judging panel than Khadijah Mellah’s victory in a charity race at Goodwood is ‘mind blowing’ not to mention the fact that the Cheltenham Festival winning riders Rachel Blackmore, Bryony Frost and Lizzie Kelly (all of whom are also still young jockeys) also appear to be considered less notable. The difference, of course, is that the Magnolia Cup, the race in which Khadijah Mellah rode the winner, isn’t a normal race. Normal races, even at the Cheltenham Festival, are big events to us, but to the ‘non racing, general sports’ media and audiences, they might as well not exist. By contrast, the Magnolia Cup was an ‘event’ designed to appeal to the wider world.
It takes place at Glorious Goodwood, a racemeeting which is second only to Royal Ascot for its ability to feature in the social pages of the tabloids. (One of the claims to fame of Goodwood, which was merely ‘Goodwood’ at the time, rather than ‘Glorious Goodwood’, because the racecourse only held one meeting per year until 1965, so there was no requirement to specify that any one meeting was any more glorious than the others, is that King Edward VII reportedly once described it as ‘a garden party with racing tacked on’). The race’s riders are, by and large, ‘celebrities’ rather than jockeys. They are ‘strong, inspirational women from the worlds of business, sport, fashion, music and media, who will set aside their day jobs to become jockeys for the occasion.’ (That spiel comes from Goodwood’s website).
Rather than wearing normal colours, these riders wore ‘bespoke jockey silks’ which were ‘designed exclusively for the Magnolia Cup by Greek fashion designer Mary Katrantzou. Mary’s designs feature abstract, flamboyant prints created using cutting edge digital technology and exquisite craftsmanship. Her recent collaborations include working with brands such as Longchamp, Moncler, and Adidas Originals’. (Full marks to the copywriter for the juxtaposition of ‘cutting edge’ and ‘digital’, two phrases which both make it plain that we’re going over the top). You see what I mean? The Magnolia Cup is designed to be picked up by the wider media. And in this respect it more than succeeded. The fact that the winner was ridden by such a charismatic character helped too, and the upshot is that Khadijah Mellah is now the Sunday Times Young Sportswoman of the Year thanks to having ridden one winner.
This is lovely in most respects, other than the fact that it provides us with a rather depressing reminder that nowadays racing is generally incidental to the wider sporting audience and in this instance has only appeared on the general radar for ‘non racing’ reasons. It is absurd that Hollie Doyle’s achievement should be less worthy of recognition. Absurd too that the Cheltenham wins of Rachel Blackmore, Bryony Frost and Lizzie Kelly should have cut less ice than the Magnolia Cup. Even at Glorious Goodwood Khadijah Mellah was not the only young sportswoman to ride a winner: Megan Nicholls also won there (on Mannaal, trained for Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid Al Maktoum for Simon Crisford). It may be that, as senior jockeys rather than apprentices, Doyle, Blackford, Frost and Kelly are not eligible for a young sportswoman award, but there should be no such concerns over the eligibility of Nicholls, who is still an apprentice.
That win on Mannaal was one of 29 winners ridden by Megan Nicholls this year, but wasn’t enough to make her Britain’s leading female apprentice: Jane Elliott, who is apprenticed to Tom Dascombe and who had the distinction earlier this year of riding a double at the Chester May Meeting, has ridden 31. Third in the female apprentices’ table is Eve Johnson Houghton’s apprentice Georgia Dobie with 21 wins this season. Any one of these three apprentices should have been a very realistic contender for a young sportswoman of the year award. But, of course, the wider media pays them no attention at all. I repeat that these observations are in no way intended to denigrate Khadijah Mellah’s achievement. She is a better rider than I was at the age of 18, and I’ll never come close to riding a winner at Glorious Goodwood.
But the problem is that, while the wider world might have swallowed Goodwood’s line about the inspirational women taking part in the Magnolia Cup, Hollie Doyle (not to mention Rachel Blackmore, Bryony Frost, Lizzie Kelly, Hayley Turner, Josephine Gordon et al) is quite inspirational enough for me. These are sportspeople, not merely sportswomen, of the highest order. It’s just a shame that racing is nowadays so marginalised that only people who follow the sport closely recognise this.