The daughter of champion National Hunt trainer Paul Nicholls talks to Madeleine Silver about her surprise move into the Flat world – and why she’s optimistic for the future of female jockeys
There was one Royal Ascot when a then-teenage Megan Nicholls answered the phone to her father, but instead of Paul, jockey Hayley Turner had been put at the end of the line to greet her.
“I remember not knowing what to say, I was shell-shocked,” laughs Megan when we catch up soon after post-lockdown racing has commenced. “When I was growing up, Hayley Turner was queen. She has set the standard for female jockeys for sure.”
Fast forward nearly a decade, and Megan, now 23 years old and 14 winners off her claim, is a weighing room colleague of her childhood heroine.
“I get on with her really well and if there was ever anything I needed to ask or if I was worried about something, I know that I could ring her,” she says.
Hayley might be considered the empress among female jockeys, with a career spanning 20 years, but Megan is now firmly in the growing crop of women proving to the betting public that they are equally as capable as their male counterparts. Last summer, she landed the biggest win of her career at “Glorious Goodwood” on Mannaal, and for three years on the trot she has taken the top spot in the Silk Series, a race series launched in 2017 for female jockeys.
Her combined Instagram and Twitter following is nearing 40k, which means that the baton is in her hands to help inspire the next generation of girls in the saddle – and she paints an alluring picture. Take away the photos of horses, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking her for any number of model-like Instagram star; nights out in Dubai with enviably tanned limbs, Barbados with “#mygirls” and sunset walks with her boyfriend and fellow jockey Kevin Stott that wouldn’t be out of place in a preppy clothing catalogue.
“Some people are against social media, but I’m all for it if you use it correctly. You have to showcase what we have in racing, and encourage girls who might be pony racing to go down the same route,” she says.
Attitudes among trainers towards female jockeys are changing she says, but that’s only thanks to the rise in the standard of riding. “I don’t think they’re afraid to use the girls who are good enough,” she says.
So, it’s not a disadvantage being of the fairer sex?
“Personally no, I don’t think it is,” she says. “For anyone as an apprentice coming through it’s not easy and not everyone makes it. You forget that there’s an awful lot of boys that get their apprentice licence and don’t go through the ranks.
“It just becomes more apparent with the girls because there are fewer of them and therefore a bigger deal is made of the fact that they may not get the opportunities. But the girls who have been good enough and worked hard have earnt their rides.”
A pony-mad little girl
This is perhaps the sort of admirable confidence that comes with growing up surrounded by success; a deep-rooted belief that hard work pays off. By the time Megan was a toddler, her now 11-time champion trainer father had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup and King George VI Chase with See More Business, and she was still just a pony-mad little girl when the likes of Kauto Star and Denman were making headlines for the Somerset yard.
She remembers sitting on Ditcheat’s champions and wandering round the yard – “you knew that they were special because of the fuss made over them,” she says – but mainly she was too busy “causing carnage” on her ponies, later joined by her younger half-sisters.
“Dad used to try and keep us away from the racehorses when he could, but we liked to join the back of the string and get involved. I was mad keen – I think it was harder to drag me off the ponies than get me on them.”
Hunting as a child with the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale – when she used to follow around with showjumper Harriet Nuttall – armed her with a thick skin. “The ponies had more control than the rider, that is for sure,” she laughs. “I just went where I was taken.”
But it is only now that she has started to appreciate how much time Paul managed to make for her and the ponies.
“When Dad could, he was jumping in the lorry and driving us here, there and everywhere. And when he was busy racing, I did a lot with my grandad and cousins.”
There was also Paul’s “exceptionally quick” head lad Clifford Baker on hand as her secret weapon.
“He used to be the gymkhana pro – he’d throw me on and we’d be unbeatable,” she remembers fondly. “So, a lot of people went out of their way. I was very lucky.”
Front-row seats at jump racing’s biggest theatres were also at her disposal – not that it was always comfortable viewing.
“I used to love going racing with Dad and I still do, but my nerves are worse when I’m watching than when I’m riding. I walk round at a million miles an hour, spin in circles, jump up and down. I’m a nightmare, so I think Dad tries to stay away from me,” she laughs, reeling off a list of family highlights that reads like an encyclopaedia of National Hunt’s silverware.
Pony racing quickly caught her imagination as a child, with the help of What A Risk – “an absolute dude” – and schoolwork swiftly played second fiddle. And as soon as her parents relented to her desperate pleas to leave school (in the end only after she’d done the first year of A levels) she was at the yard full time.
A trajectory into National Hunt racing looked set; in her first season pointing she had 17 winners, with “some great horses”. But having geared up for the next season, she had a change of heart.
“Once that first pointing season was over, I rode as an amateur on the Flat, had a few winners and loved it – it gave me a different buzz,” she says. “And that’s when I dropped the bombshell that I wanted to be a Flat jockey.”
It’s no secret that her father was surprised; he told a newspaper reporter at the time that his then 17-year-old daughter needed to “get it out of her system”, that “there’s no point in pushing her”.
“Oh yes, it didn’t go down too well,” says Megan now. But six years on, and with her success growing and no sign of her enthusiasm waning, Paul is on board.
“Eventually, obviously, Dad’s been hugely supportive of my decision and I think he’s glad of it now. We’ve had some luck together; he’s had some winners on the Flat and he enjoys watching me riding.”
And what about the blurring of boundaries when you’re riding for your father? Does she have to assume a professional persona?
“When we’re on the phone we’re normally talking about horses anyway,” she says. “And it’s great, the horses are always really fit and I know them all.
“Dad tells me how he wants them to be ridden and as long as you make a conscious effort to do the best at that, then he’s happy.”
It was when she was riding for Simon Crisford, last summer, that Megan was offered the chance to go to Dubai with his string of horses at the end of November.
On her return, having landed a job riding for owner John Dance, she headed north to Thirsk to get to know the horses that he and his syndicate Titanium Racing have spread across trainers in the area. But just as momentum was building for her to make her mark this season, it all came to a juddering halt when lockdown descended. And her new relationship with Kevin Stott – which had blossomed in Dubai – was put under the spotlight as they isolated together.
“We managed to survive!” she laughs. “Being able to do [lockdown] together made a big difference; it was good to have someone who understands exactly the same issues, and we were both still riding out for Kevin Ryan in the mornings, so that broke the day up. But there were several days when I was completely minced and my head was about to explode because I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
She even succumbed to the lockdown cliché of making banana bread – “we’d had that many smoothies that we needed a change” – and their road bikes had a dusting off.
Post lockdown, Kevin landed his first Grade One at Royal Ascot, swiftly followed up by a second winner in his own Super Saturday.
As Kevin rode into the winner’s enclosure, ITV’s commentators couldn’t help name-dropping his girlfriend; a reminder that her father’s status may always mean Megan captures the public’s interest. Having a champion trainer as a father might have made her more media savvy than most, but there are other lessons that she’s more grateful for.
“Like many people, I wanted everything to happen yesterday and Dad’s always taught me to be patient,” she says. “I used to get frustrated and be like: ‘For God’s sake Dad,’ but now I completely appreciate everything he’s done and how hard he’s worked. And he is right, you do have to be patient, keep your head down and keep working. Things don’t happen overnight, and he’s evidence of that.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 27 August 2020