Nikki Atkinson is proof that age is just a number and that anyone’s dream of getting into the racing saddle can become reality, regardless of age.
Last April, Nikki donned silks for the first time aged 57 and made her race-riding debut at Edgcote point-to-point in the Challenge Race, organised by Farmers Bloodhounds.
Nikki had got back into horses after a 10-year hiatus – during which time she had worked and lived in London – and went on to train pointers and ride out racehorses, while also competing in team chasing, hunter trials and lower-level dressage.
“I had never ridden over steeplechase fences but I had ridden out and trained three ex-racehorses for pointing, but, of course, that involved legging up a jockey for the schooling and on racedays,” says Nikki. “My excuses were that I was too old and not good or brave enough. But I always had a hankering for it, when watching jockeys galloping horses over schooling fences during the early mornings.
“I had always gone to watch point-to-points and helped lead up friends’ horses. When I watched the Challenge Race one year, I thought ‘I can do that’. The Challenge Race was always the last race of the day and there was no need for a jockey licence – you just had to subscribe and hunt with the Farmers Bloodhounds.”
Nikki was not at all put off by the prospect of 13 fences, including the open ditch, over 1.7 miles.
“As kids, my dad drummed into us that you could do anything you wanted, if you worked hard enough for it,” she adds. “By doing the race, I also wanted to raise funds our local air ambulance.”
The rider had a willing partner in her ex-racehorse Kayf Hill (aka Jack), who is now 12. Once the idea of taking part was planted in her mind, Nikki turned to her neighbour and local point-to-point trainer Chris Loggin for help.
“I asked if Chris would train Jack and I to get round the course, he grunted something and so I took that as a ‘yes’. Although my husband, Michael, thought I was mad.
“It was October and the race wasn’t until the spring, so I had plenty of time to get myself and Jack fit. Each day, I was up at 5am to muck out four horses, then I was in the saddle for 7am and off cantering around the nearby fields. I didn’t want to get jelly legs during the race so I did as much spinning and running as I could before starting work,” adds Nikki.
She describes the first time of galloping over chase fences as a “thrill” and she was like “a kid in a sweet shop.”
She says: “In February last year, I had my first go over the smaller schooling fences on my own. Then Chris’ niece, Sam, joined me and we jumped them together – a few days later we had a go at the bigger ones. My first time upsides over the big fences was an immense thrill and so exciting.”
‘I saw the ground coming towards me’
Raceday arrived for Nikki and Jack, who was clearly feeling well.
“I could barely hold Jack going down to the start and remember thinking ‘oh well, live or die,’” reflects Nikki, who managed to injure her hand during the race.
“Flag down and we were away, I have no recollection of going over the first fence, it was that quick. I only remember the second fence as Jack pecked on landing, and I saw the ground coming towards me. I remember thinking ‘I am not falling at the second fence’ and pushed myself back. It was at that point that I injured my hand, although I only noticed later on that evening when my hand started to swell.
“The rest of the race was magic. I had been told to sit back before the dip in front of the ditch, but Jack jumped it beautifully and I thought ‘this is what it must feel like to fly.’ I had the time of my life with so much adrenalin flying around my body. I now realise why all jockeys are hooked on this amazing sport.”
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Nikki also raised an impressive £1,500 for the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance.
“Thankfully I didn’t need them,” quips the rider, who is now hooked on the sport and wants more race-riding experience.
“The coronavirus pandemic will result in a very different world for everyone but hopefully a better place perhaps. Regardless, the noble and beautiful horses we love and cherish will keep us sane and grounded, as they always do.”
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