Journalist to jockey blog: I will cherish this forever

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  • Hi everyone,

    First of all, please let me apologise for how long it’s taken me to sit down and write this blog. A few weeks have passed since the Champions Willberry Charity Derby at Epsom which seems mad. Unfortunately in the days following the race, some people who had been key supporters of mine in the run up to and during the race, were involved a serious car accident and it just didn’t feel right sitting down to write about my amazing experience. I can happily report though that they are well on the mend, so the time now feels right.

    So, let’s rewind to 25 August, 48 hours before my race, which is where my last blog left us (this is a long one, so grab a cup of tea and a biscuit, and bear with me!).

    After working Jerry on Mick Appleby’s gallops on the Friday, I bid him farewell as that was the last time I would see him until race day on the Monday. Thankfully this time of year is the busiest for me work-wise, with plenty of events to cover on top of the day-to-day work I carry out for Horse & Hound. In the run up to the race, this very much kept my mind busy and helped prevent me from over-thinking the whole thing.

    Monday morning soon arrived, and with my kit bag packed, we were off to Epsom. Amazingly I wasn’t sick through nerves at any point during the day. The only thing I can put it down to is that I knew I had done all my preparation to the best of my ability, and everyone around me knew this. The only pressure came from myself and what I wanted to achieve, so any jangling of nerves was more due to the fact I wanted to perform as well as I could, and not because I was scared.

    Pre-race team photo with Bob Champion. Credit: David Betteridge Photography

    Unfortunately due to traffic, we arrived a little too late to join in with the Bob Champion coursewalk — an opportunity missed, but something that was out of our hands. So I swiftly decamped and went to walk the course with my boyfriend Simon, who has some race riding experience. He is a brilliant calming influence but also competitive, which suits me very well. We talked tactics, assessed the going and made a plan. I had never been to Epsom before and the terrain and camber that I had been warned about was clear to see. Until you go and walk that course, you really don’t get a sense for just how rollercoaster-like the Derby course is — it’s gnarly!

    It was then onto a smart lunch, which the organisers laid on for the charity race jockeys and their supporters. I was so lucky to have a small army of friends and family come down to Epsom to cheer me on. There was over 20 of us in total and it meant the world to me, so thank you to all of you — you know who you are.

    One half of my support crew! Credit: David Betteridge Photography

    I caught up with Bob at the lunch and we talked through the game plan for the race. Darby Dennis, who we know from home and who is on Epsom’s racecourse committee, who was very kind with his well wishes. Surprisingly (although perhaps less surprisingly to those that know me and my piggish appetite!), I managed to eat the first two courses of the lunch (I’m not a dessert person anyway), no problem at all — no sign of me not wanting to eat due to nerves! There was a fab auction and raffle and we also had a great vantage point in the suite we were in to watch some of the early races. All of the winners were coming stand-side on the home straight, which was my plan when I walked the course.

    Talking tactics with Bob and Spencer Sturmey Credit: David Betteridge Photography

    I then went to meet Laura Morgan, the trainer of my horse Jerry (Gee Sixty Six), and her great lass Kate Hanson. I was and still am so grateful to them for trekking all the way down from just north of Oakham so that I could ride in the race.

    Then, when it was 4pm, all of us charity jockeys went down to the changing rooms to start getting ready, and for me to get into my wonderful Velcourt-sponsored kit. It was a surreal experience, rubbing shoulders with the other female professional jockeys — not for the first time on this incredible journey, I felt like a total fraud! But we all had a chat and a laugh and the general feeling was that of excitement. I then went to the very friendly valet, who sorted out the weight I needed to carry in addition to what I already weighed with all my race kit on. Although I didn’t have to carry nearly as much lead as tiny fellow charity race jockey Georgia King, who carried a remarkable four-and-a-half stone extra to make the 12 stone racing weight, I still struggled to carry everything!

    Jerry beautifully turned out by Laura and Kate before the race

    I weighed out with the clerk of the scales and handed my saddle over to Laura, who then went off to saddle Jerry in preparation.

    It was then time for us jockeys to have a few photos taken and talk some last-minute tactics. I firmed up that I was going to come stand side on the home straight and was reassured by the fact Alex Embiricos said she was going to do the same thing, as she has much more racing knowledge than I do!

    Talking more tactics with Alex Embiricos pre-race. Credit: David Betteridge Photography

    And then it was time. The moment we had all worked so hard to prepare for. I had a tiny twinge of nerves, but honestly I surprised myself in how relaxed I was. I was just dying to get on and enjoy it — I honestly couldn’t wait. We all walked out to the parade ring and it was great to see my friends and family there supporting, and Jerry looking absolutely fantastic — Laura and Kate had turned him out so beautifully, four-leaf clover quarter-marks and all. He looked the bee’s knees.

    Walking out to the parade ring

    I chatted to Laura, Simon and point-to-point jockey and trainer Dale Peters, who had also helped me so much in the run-up to the race. I can’t remember what was said as it was all a bit of a blur, and before I knew it, the bell was rung signalling for jockeys to mount.

    Excited to get going!

    I’m pleased to report that my leg-up went without incident and I didn’t fall straight off the other side — phew! We made sure that I got on Jerry as late as possible so that we could try to keep him relaxed and so we pretty much went straight down to the course (via some very amazing, but also very noisy supporters of mine, hence my cringe worthy sshhh-ing in the video below!).

    All was fine walking down the shoot towards the course — we were at the back, just where we wanted to be, until suddenly Georgia’s horse did some unplanned acrobatics, depositing her the other side of the white rails in the process. Thankfully they were both fine, but this meant I was now in front of her. This doesn’t sound like it should have been a problem, but unfortunately it was.

    I took Jerry to the far side of the course for the trip down to the start, to try and keep him away from the noise and crowds. This worked very well and I had him anchored, but then, completely understandably, as I was only steadily cantering, Jerry spotted Georgia go past. For us, that was the beginning of the end of our race. Going to the start at Epsom was the bit I have always been most worried about — as the track isn’t circular, you have to go the full 1m4f distance of the race to get to the start. We knew keeping a lid on Jerry for this was going to be our sticking point, and we definitely weren’t wrong. He cantered sweetly enough, but we were all instructed to walk the final seven furlongs to the start, as they tend to do in the Derby itself. The only problem for us was that this prolonged the amount of time Jerry had to get wound up. I tried my absolute hardest to keep him settled by not holding onto much rein and reminding myself to keep breathing and chilled too, while all the time talking to him, but he became quite warm and was very on his toes. I think mentally he had already run his race by this point.

    Still, we had to focus on the next part which was the race itself and getting a good start. It had been drilled into me that races can be won or lost at the start, so I made completely sure I was exactly where I wanted to be. To my surprise, this actually happened exactly how I had planned it, and when the starter dropped his flag, we were spot on. We couldn’t have wished for a better start.

    So off we went, not at a mad pace, but just right. I reminded myself to breathe and realise this was it. This is what I have been working for ever since I found out I was going to be riding in the race months and months ago. And boy, was it amazing!

    Jerry seemed quite settled until a couple of other horses came to him and he then took a real pull. I told myself not to panic and to keep my hands down and weight against him. The first seven furlongs is all uphill, so by the time we got there, Jerry had settled back down again. We turned to start coming down the hill towards the famous Tattenham corner. People told me this feels like a rollercoaster, and it did. I did my best to keep a good hold of Jerry’s head to keep him in balance, and before I knew it we were coming out of the bend and onto the home straight. We got to the three furlongs to go pole and I looked up the hill to the finish line — I never thought we were going to make it — it looked so far away! I made my move to come stand side, as did a few others, but the rest stayed on the far side rail. I gave Jerry a squeeze and unfortunately I didn’t get much of a response. This meant I was going to have to debut my rather unrefined ‘riding a race finish’ style — which isn’t stylish AT ALL (see picture, top!).

    Coming up the home straight

    People started to come past me and my heart sank every time they did — the places were slipping away, but I absolutely would not give up. I hadn’t worked this hard to just throw in the towel. So on I kicked and wobbled about a bit, channelling my inner non-existent Ryan Moore. Gorgeous Jerry kept going for me and we finished eighth. NOT LAST!! In my heart of hearts I would have loved to finish in the top four so that we got in the winners’ enclosure, but hey, a couple of weeks before the race, I didn’t even have a horse to ride, so this result wasn’t too shabby at all.

    Georgia and Sula Island seemingly cantered to victory — on the bridle with a very stylish 16-year-old Georgia on board. What a thrill that must have been! Sixty-year-old Lucia Borradaile, who put us all to shame in our fitness assessment in May, was second, meaning the top two were Alan King-trained. While the lovely Spencer Sturmey was third on a horse trained by Jamie Osborne. I saw Spencer just two days later at the first Burghley trot-up, and he had already decided he was going to buy himself a point-to-pointer!

    Struggling to hold my saddle post-race…!

    I got off Jerry once we had pulled up and took his saddle off, which nearly saw me fall over with the weight of it combined with my jelly legs! Everyone came to say well done and the realisation that it was all over started to sink in.

    I said a big thank you and goodbye to Laura, Kate and Jerry, who went back to the stables to get ready to head home, while my supportive gang went to a room where the winning connections head to on normal race days, for a celebratory drink. Simon helped me carry my saddle back to the weighing room and after a quick change I also joined in on the celebrations. It was here that all jockeys received the most fantastic momento of the day — a mini Epsom-style iPad, which had our race downloaded onto it so that we can relive the experience again and again.

    Post-race celebrations with some of my amazing supporters

    At the last count, £88,576.57 had been raised in aid of The Bob Champion Cancer Trust and Hannah’s Willberry the Wonder Pony — a truly brilliant effort by everyone.

    Continued below…

    And so that’s the end of that chapter, although hopefully not the very end of my racing one. I now ride out as much as I can at Dale’s yard, where I will soon be trying my hand at having a go over some fences with his pointers. I decided I want to win a race, and then I will happily retire from it. I can’t settle for one eighth place — I want more! So, perhaps I might be seen point-to-pointing at some stage in the future, but if not, I am definitely going to continue riding out as, aside from really enjoying it, it continues to help my day-to-day riding.

    I knew that this whole experience would be a fun thing to try, but I never in a million years dreamed it would have the affect on me it has. I’ve met some truly inspirational people and some incredible horses on this crazy journey — thank you to each and every one of you. I will cherish this forever.

    Gemma x

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