'I don't look at big goals, I just look at the next step forward'
The rising star talks about riding Present Man in the Ladbrokes Trophy
To celebrate the countdown to Christmas, the Racing Post is giving away one piece of paid content free each day. Here, Steve Dennis interviews jockey of the moment Bryony Frost.
Somewhere between the rock climbing, the surfing and the enthusiasm about Saturday's big-race ride, an interview with a jockey turns into an exercise in Zen philosophy. But that's cool. Whatever happens, happens.
Right now it's all happening to Bryony Frost, who is also cool, with her winning combination of barely stifled glee at her startling progress this season and studied indifference about her startling progress this season. You might call it contradictory but with Frost it all seems to make sense. "I'm nothing special," she says. "I'm just me." Cool place to start.
Thing is, Frost, 22, actually is a bit special, having flourished since switching from amateur to conditional in July, winning five races on high-class novice chaser Black Corton and developing a lucrative relationship with Present Man that she is fancied to maintain in Saturday's prestigious Ladbrokes Trophy Chase at Newbury. The glee is closer to the surface, so that comes bubbling out first.
"Dear old Black Corton – I owe a lot to that little chap because he gave me my first win as a professional at Worcester, and now he's winning good races on big days at big tracks. We're going up the ranks together.
"And then Present Man, you feel like the king when you sit on him. He's just the epitome of an old-fashioned chaser, he's the sort of horse you'd see in paintings and photos from 80 years ago, he's got that stamp. He's huge, has a great presence, holds himself like he knows he's good, it fills a rider with confidence. And there's plenty of ability there, he's relentless.
"I have to keep pinching myself, right now I'm living what I want to be doing. I'm just fortunate enough to be riding horses who are good enough to win. I really am enjoying it. I don't know who I am or what I'll be or why I'm here, but it is what it is and I'm kind of like, really cool. When will it end, sort of thing. Let's hope not for a little while, anyway."
Just as the conversation seems to be heading irreversibly towards lively incoherence, the otherwise highly articulate Frost suddenly displays a maturity beyond her years, beyond her experience. She flits easily between the two, now the Zen master with all kinds of time, now the wide-eyed country girl in the tractor beam of celebrity.
"My job is easy, just the last ten minutes on the horse, not the previous eight months that's got him there. I see how much of a massive team effort it is, and I know I'd be nowhere near where I am now without the support and help of everyone else. Maybe now I'm beginning to pay back some of that support. I hope so."
Frost was never going to be anything other than a jockey. Her father Jimmy won the Grand National and the Champion Hurdle, her brother Hadden has a Cheltenham Festival win on his record, her mother Nikki trains successful point-to-pointers. She grew up surrounded by horses and the wide expanses of Dartmoor, reckons she went feral in the summer holidays, out on a pony from first light to twilight, not quite off with the raggle-taggle gypsies-o but certainly in their hoofprints.
School was never her forte – "I hated it because I just wanted to be with my horses" – but pony racing, showing and a spot of horsetrading for pocket money were definitely on the curriculum. With Frost, though, throwaway questions bring answers to keep.
"I was a bit of a loner in school. The other girls were into make-up and cinema and stuff like that – I used to get invited to parties and I'd say 'no' because it was all just a big competition. In the end they gave up asking me and that suited me just fine. I'm quite independent, you know.
"I watched everything, though, and I learned a few things about human nature. I saw the effect nice people can have, I saw the effect bullies and nasty people can have, I try to learn from everyone whatever the situation. If I learned anything from school it's how to treat people."
As soon as school was out Frost began to move through the ranks on the West Country point-to-point circuit, acquiring the winning habit, making all the usual novicey mistakes at a safe remove from the ruthless public eye, eventually riding out for Paul Nicholls. Her job as pupil-assistant to the ten-time champion trainer didn't last long – "I was useless because I was never there, always off riding. Poor [assistant trainer] Harry Derham, I was probably the bane of his life" – but her riding career blossomed, something for which she is frequently and sincerely grateful.
Now the 'female jockey' business is wearily, inevitably brought forth. Frost philosophises her way fearlessly, patiently, Zenly, through the minefield.
"There is a mould, if you like, and I want to break it. People are wary of 'different' and I guess I am different simply because I'm a girl, but I don't see myself as being different.
"I have to be realistic in that I might not be able to move on as fast as a boy might, or get to the heights a boy might. But I don't look at big goals, I look at the next step forward, try to keep going upwards.
"I don't get frustrated, don't worry about things that I can't change. I am who I am, I walk the path I'm walking, wherever that leads me is where I'll end up."
At the moment life is stripped to its basics – "I work, I go racing, I have dinner, I phone home, and I go to bed" – but occasionally there's room for more. If the surf's running on the south Devon coast Bryony would go, and there are other things to climb than just the career ladder.
"Where I come from, you walk out of the door and there's a Tor in front of you. I love rock-climbing, I get a right buzz after completing a climb, bouldering away like a monkey, no ropes. I'm not thinking about the height or where I'm going, just about the next move. Step by step, that's what life is like, isn't it?"
The next move comes on Saturday, Present Man, the big race. Her saddle has more experience than she does – "I'll be on the saddle Hadden used on Buena Vista in the Pertemps Final, and I've also got the saddle Dad used on Morley Street in the Champion Hurdle" – but you'd never guess. Frost isn't diverted for long by the possibility that Present Man might be a Grand National horse one day – "That'd be pretty cool" – because it's not the next step. Her feet are so firmly on the ground that there's only scope for one step at a time.
"I'll try not to think too much about today's race until ten or 15 minutes before it. Then I'll focus. It's my job, I know what I've got to do, it's no different from riding at a little track on a Monday. Ride the horse, not the day. He's a horse, I'm a jockey, it's a race. That's all it is."
Into this state of Frost-induced serenity floats, unbidden, the fervent hope that Present Man can win the Ladbrokes Trophy. Because how cool would that be?
A touch of Frost snr
When Bryony Frost rode Pacha Du Polder to victory in the Foxhunter at last season's Cheltenham Festival, finishing fastest of all was her father Jimmy, legging it up the hill after her in delight.
"It was so cool watching Dad running up the hill at Cheltenham. You live to make memories like that, don't you. I wasn't born when Dad won the Grand National and the Champion Hurdle but I've watched them on YouTube and it makes me tingle.
"If I ever ride half as many winners as Dad [500-odd] I'll be doing well. I'm always asking him for advice, phoning him up while I'm walking the course. He's seen it all, he cheers me up, he sets me straight. He tells me he could have won three Nationals if it had all gone his way but he says 'that's life, it doesn't work like that'."
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