The golden girl of racing talks to Martha Terry about smashing records and dead-lifting 125kg, her partner in crime and enjoying anonymity off the track
Hollie has already finished as the highest-ever woman in the championship rankings – fourth, ahead of former treble champions Frankie himself, Silvestre de Sousa and Ryan Moore. That’s just one of the records Hollie has smashed this year. Fastest female to 50 wins in a season, most winners by a woman in a calendar year (117, beating her own record), first woman to land a five-timer – and now, a nomination for Sunday’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) award (20 December, #votehollie), alongside another record-breaking speed merchant, Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton.
A female champion jockey is now a realistic prospect – the first since records began in 1840.
“It’s an honour for someone as prolific as Frankie to say that,” Hollie says. “I’d love to be champion, but it’s not something I’d considered as I didn’t think I’d be good enough.”
Her talent is not in question. The second half of 2020 passed in a blur for Hollie as she sped from one monumental first to another: her first Royal Ascot winner (Scarlet Dragon); first Group winner (Dame Malliot); then first Group One winner (Glen Shiel) – attracting the interest of Derby-winning owner Imad Al Sagar, for whom she has been retained since August. Following a Breeders’ Cup debut in Kentucky in November, her latest accolade was becoming the first female to win at Hong Kong’s International Jockeys’ Championship last week.
It’s an incredible wave she’s surfing, but as we speak on the phone mid-morning shortly after she’s landed back home from Hong Kong, she’s experiencing a rather less welcome first.
“I’ve never had jet lag before, but this was my first time in Hong Kong,” she says cheerfully. “I slept 10 hours on the flight, but it still feels like it should be night time…”
International travel is unlikely to be a novelty for much longer. Although
Hollie seems to have burst into prominence in the past 18 months, at 24 she’s been in the game for over a decade. Hollie was born into racing, with dad Mark a point-to-point trainer and former jockey, and she cut her teeth pony racing via the Radnor and West Hereford branch of the Pony Club.
“Dad used to have breakers in too, so there were always horses around,” she says. “I did all the Pony Club stuff, especially mounted games because Mum was the instructor, and I loved showjumping, too. I never did dressage – it wasn’t fast enough for me; I’ve always loved speed.
“Once I started pony racing, I got the bug quickly and put all the other Pony Club stuff to one side.”
Hollie still has her first pony, Jerry, but her enthusiasm was in spite of, rather than because of, him.
“He only jumped two clear rounds in my entire childhood,” she says. “He’s 12.2hh, but because I’m so small, I never grew out of him. I even started racing on him, but he came last every time.”
Next up came Charlie Brown.
“I was obsessed with that pony,” says Hollie. “He was one of the best ponies in the Pony Club, but we couldn’t afford to buy a pony of his calibre and were lucky enough to be able to lease him for two or three years.”
Hollie then bought an undersized thoroughbred mare for £500 – “who never won” – before another loan pony came up trumps. The 13.2hh Balfour Hillsong did the rounds with a few future jockeys.
“Balfour Hillsong was a legend and won quite a few races for me,” says Hollie. “It sounds like I had a slow start, but I didn’t care about winning in those days, I just liked doing it.”
Hollie envisaged she would head down the National Hunt path.
“I’ve never ridden over jumps but I thought I’d be a jump jockey because of my family background, but I never grew so the Flat made more sense,” says Hollie, who is just under 5ft.
Building up her tiny frame has been pivotal in Hollie’s ascension into the top flight. Besides riding out two or three lots before an afternoon’s racing, Hollie goes to the gym three times a week, where she has been focusing on increasing her strength.
“Most jockeys can’t afford to bulk up, but because I’m naturally so small I can, and I enjoy it,” she says. “I do a lot of dead-lifting weights and can really see the benefits.”
Hollie lifts a maximum of 125kg, well over double her weight, underlining how strong she is in the saddle. This strength is an asset she’s put to good use this season on her Royal Ascot winner, Scarlet Dragon, who happens to be something of a tearaway.
“He’s the horse I owe the most to, even though he’s a quirky old b****r,” she says. “He was my first big handicap winner as an apprentice, so to get my first Royal Ascot win on him and for Mr Ponsonby [owner] is great.
“I used to find him incredibly keen, he was one of the reasons I knew I had to strengthen up. I don’t always have the measure of him. He’s strong and if he wants to do something, he will. He’s run off with me at the races before.
“That Ascot win was my best ride of the season, although I don’t like saying that about myself. It just all fell right – and probably will never happen again!”
She sounds like she’s pinching herself, but the dream kept going all summer long, as one ride after another rocketed past the winning post. “It just fell right” is looking distinctly like a gift for tactics and timing.
Another driver behind Hollie’s success is her long-term partner, fellow up-and-coming star Tom Marquand, who finished one slot ahead of her in the championship, having secured his first Classic victory this year. The couple met on the pony-racing circuit when she was 14 (he’s 18 months her junior) and were an item a year later, both going on to be apprentices at Richard Hannon’s yard. Now they live together in Hungerford and their individual successes spur one another on.
“We’re not competitive against each other, but if one of us is doing well in one aspect, it drives the other one to try to get better, too,” she says. “We’ve grown up together and this is the life we’ve always known.”
Familiarity with competing alongside boys is standing Hollie in good stead. Although women account for just 5.2% of rides, with the majority holding amateur licences, Hollie is oblivious to any perceived bias.
“The so-called male domination has never put me off,” she says. “It’s never even crossed my mind. Perhaps because I was brought up in the racing industry, it’s just seemed normal to me. I just haven’t thought about it and it’s never held me back.”
Some female jockeys admit that certain owners would prefer to put up a male jockey, but Hollie has simply never encountered any discrimination.
“I don’t think it’s ever happened to me – and hopefully I’ve proved there’s no difference now,” she says.
Nerves don’t bother her either.
“I’m never nervous about the actual race, just perhaps when I’m on a new track and in a new country, I feel a little apprehensive about their ways, but as soon as I’ve had a ride I’m OK – I just want to please everyone,” she says. “I used to get anxious about travelling, though. If you’d told me 18 months ago I was going to Hong Kong, I’d have been fretting, because at that stage I’d only been to France. Racing has enabled me to see more of the world, and now I’ve grown up and experienced that racing’s the same everywhere, I’m more laid-back.”
The refreshing thing about Hollie is how grounded she is. Besides the SPOTY shortlisting, she’s already been crowned The Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year and been nominated for four of the industry’s Lester Awards (22 December). For one – Flat Jockey of the Year – she’s pitted against Tom, plus reigning champion Oisin Murphy and William Buick. That could be interesting in the Doyle/Marquand household…
“I was brushing it all off, but these award nominations have built up,” Hollie admits. “I haven’t really had time to stop and reflect as I’ve just kept riding.”
A return to a dark and wet winter of all-weather racing back in England followed the glamour of Kentucky and Hong Kong.
“Once you’re doing well, you want to keep it going or it might be hard to get the momentum again, so I’m still racing seven days a week,” Hollie says. “But I’ll take a week off after Christmas and we’ll go away if we can.
“I haven’t thought about the increased publicity. No one recognises me outside racing and I hope they never do! I just do my thing, and it doesn’t feel like anything’s changed.”
But that’s where she’s wrong, and if she can defy the odds to become the first jockey since AP McCoy in 2010 and the first woman since Zara Tindall in 2006 to hold the SPOTY trophy, her incognito days may be over. And if Frankie’s prediction comes true – a female champion would change perceptions in the sport forever.
Ref: Horse & Hound; 17 December 2020
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