Marcus Armytage meets a remarkable conditional female jockey with a university degree — and an unstoppable appetite to make it to the top

On Saturday (10 January), 21-year-old conditional Lizzie Kelly hit the headlines again when she rode her mother Jane Williams’ Tea For Two to a wide-margin victory in the William Hill Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton.

It was a big weekend for the former University of Winchester student — on Monday she had a 5.30am start on the first day of her new job as conditional jockey to Marlborough trainer Neil King.

How did it all start?
When Mum was married to my father we didn’t have ponies so I was taken to a riding school in Kings Nympton, Devon, from the age of two. When Mum and Nick [Williams, step-father] started training I was riding out one lot for them before school aged 13 and four lots at the weekend. I rode about 50 point-to-point winners.

Most jockeys leave school and go straight into racing. You went to university for three years?
Yes. I went straight there from school without a gap because I knew if I didn’t go immediately I’d never get there. I studied event management and got a 2:2, although Mum still thinks I got a 2:1. If I hadn’t gone I doubt I’d have become a professional jockey. It gave me three years of my own time. I rode out every morning and weekends, rode in point-to-points and was able to take holiday jobs with Willie Mullins. It gave me great experience, taught me to fend for myself and to be a bit more selfish.

Was the original plan event management then?
Originally I wanted to work in the event management side of racing. It’s already big and growing. If I could combine the two it would be brilliant. I’m setting up something with my best friend trying to get students racing. It’s something on the side that is a bit academic to keep my mind occupied when I’m riding.

How pivotal was your win with Aubusson in the Neptune Investment Management novices’ hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day 2014?
New Year’s Day was the day it all started. That day I proved to myself I could mix it with the professionals. It was a great confidence booster. He’s a lovely horse and a lovely person. You can do anything with him. At home he’s like an old hunter, he’s the kindest, dopiest horse ever but on a racecourse he means business. Tea For Two is a bit edgier — that’s probably the Kayf Tara in him. He’s another lovely horse, very genuine, a bit trickier at home because he’s lively. Mum’s horses are all part of the family, which is why it means so much when we do have big winners — she worries about them every day.

What’s next for Aubusson and Tea For Two?
Mum and Nick are humming and hawing about Cheltenham. Their horses tend to like the soft and win well in the winter, we all get excited and then the ground turns for Cheltenham. Aubusson will win plenty of races so if he doesn’t go it isn’t the end of the world. It would be hard not to be impressed with Tea For Two — it wouldn’t have mattered if I had been a stone overweight and that is the nail in the coffin as far as handicaps are concerned. What he’d go for is interesting. Would he win one from the top of the handicap? My brother Chester’s input is usually invaluable. He’s only 17 and still at school but he’s a walking formbook.

How did the job with Neil King come about?
He has made a big impression with the start he’s made since moving to Jim Old’s old yard from Newmarket [in May last year] and I had been riding out for him a couple of times a week. It’s one of those strange coincidences. My boyfriend, Danny Burton, is an amateur with Alan King, a field away. I’m very conscious it is important you have a life, and a job has to fit in with everything else. I am the type of person who needs that sort of support off the racecourse to give 100% on it.

Last week you got a two-day ban for flicking a horse a couple of times a long way clear at Leicester. Why was that?
I don’t think the BHA [British Horseracing Authority] is having a great time with its whip rules at the moment what with calling in Aidan Coleman two weeks after the Welsh National (see Richard Johnson, right). I was so far in front the horse started thinking he needn’t do any more.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling in jump racing for female jockeys?
I’ve always tried to ride like a lad. If you look at a race in which Nina Carberry rides you can’t tell her apart from the lads. As for injury, some are lucky and some are plagued by it. So far, touch wood, I’ve been lucky. I can only speak for myself. There are a lot of things in racing in which it doesn’t matter whether you are male or female. You don’t need to be male to see a stride. But I think you should always be aware that you are a girl. There is also a bit of stigma because I’m a trainer’s daughter. There are advantages like ladies’ races and media interest. You can either work with it realising you might not quite get as far as you could if you were a male, or you give up. It’s up to the individual.

You seem very comfortable with the media. Does that come from your mum?
Both my parents are beautiful speakers. I read in church and did a lot of drama at school, so it’s probably a mix of being taught and having a bit of eloquence in the genes. People like to hear what jockeys have to say, they like an insight to the good times, the bad times, behind the scenes. It’s so important a jockey can talk confidently. People always remember Mick Fitzgerald saying after winning the National that it was “better than sex”. It was brilliant, not planned. It’s important that people try to talk.

This interview was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (15 January 2014)