Journalist to jockey blog: my nerves are starting to jangle

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  • There’s now just under two weeks until the Champions Willberry Charity Derby at Epsom (27 August), and my nerves are starting to jangle. To combat this, every time the race pops into my mind, I quickly try to focus on something else — my thought process being, if I let myself get wound up about it with 13 days to go, I will likely hardly be able to walk come race day, let alone ride!

    I have been heading to ride out at Charlie Appleby’s yard in Newmarket three times a week. I have to pinch myself every time I drive in through the electric gates adorned with the Godolphin logo, and I will be terribly sad when this whole experience is over.

    I have met some wonderful people at Charlie’s and have learnt a great deal. I realised early doors that I couldn’t ask too many questions — the more I could learn about race and work riding, the better. Not to mention the fact that there are plenty of people in Charlie’s team that have ridden at Epsom and in the Derby itself (which is the course I will be racing over), so I have absorbed any advice they have offered on how to ride the track.

    My first lot — a three-year-old who likes to take a hold!

    A real ‘is this really happening to me?’ moment occurred just a couple of weeks ago. As usual, I arrived at Charlie’s to ride two lots at 5.30am. I tacked up my first horse and as a bit of a change to normal proceedings, I was sent down to the main yard’s covered trotting ring where the big guns hang out, instead of staying at up at the yard I was usually riding horses from.

    After a few laps of trot we peeled out of the trotting ring and Charlie said to me “You’re going up the grass today to ride a piece of work. Follow that horse in front of you until the three-furlong pole, then ease your horse upsides him, and then James will join you on the other side of you.”

    That’s cool, I thought — how exciting to be allowed to ride a proper piece of work. Then I realised the James he was on about was none other than James Doyle. This is the same James Doyle who recently recorded his 1,000th career win, and the King George at Royal Ascot in June, not to mention the Irish Oaks last month too. No pressure then.

    I was so nervous about messing it all up, but with Charlie’s instructions ringing in my ear, off we went. It was fantastic. I’ve most definitely never ridden a horse at such speed. I just kept telling myself to “keep straight or you’ll cause a bloody disaster”. The horse I was riding was one I have ridden almost every morning I’ve been at Charlie’s — he is usually on the keen side, but riding at a faster pace definitely made life a lot easier and I could actually fully enjoy the experience.

    My stirrups are getting shorter!

    Upon finishing my morning’s riding out, I soon realised that the day marked two years since the tragic passing of Hannah Francis, the founder of her Willberry the Wonder Pony charity. Although I never met Hannah, I took a moment to remember her and the incredible legacy she has left behind. I am so fortunate to have this one-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I hope all of us can do her proud and raise a huge amount of money at Epsom. Please, please, please, if you can, donate to my fundraising page — all proceeds raised will be split between Hannah’s charity and the Bob Champion Cancer Trust.

    On the equicizer

    In other news, I have secured a great sponsor for the race itself in the form of Velcourt, a farm business management and advisory service. I’m so grateful to them for agreeing to sponsor me and thanks to the wonderful Tom and James How at Racesafe, my Velcourt-embroidered kit is currently being prepared.

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    I have also been lucky enough to have access to an equicizer, thanks to the Thorpe-Codman family, who live locally. Thanks also to the boots and one-stone racing saddle leant to me by point-to-pointing friend Lucy Wheeler, and proper breeches leant to me by my boyfriend Simon (well, I say leant, I don’t think he has fitted into them since his pointing days, so I will claim them as my own now!) I took the opportunity to have a session on the equicizer with all this kit to get a rough idea for how things will feel come race day.

    Dale Peters, a friend and local point-to-point trainer and jockey (the current Midlands area champion), came to give me some advice. I wanted to learn how to ride some sort of finish, as although we aren’t allowed to use whips during the race, I still want to be able to have a positive affect on the horse in the run-in. Dale had me riding normally for a minute before getting to work for another minute — goodness know what I looked like, but I felt the burn — oddly not in my legs, which are reasonably strong, but everywhere else felt like it was going to fall to bits!

    Anyway, the Thorpe-Codmans have kindly said I am welcome to their equicizer any time I would like, so I hope to make good use of it during the next couple of weeks.

    The countdown is on!

    Gemma x

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