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Racing's golden girl is back in the saddle - but not for good

Hayley Turner speaks to Nicholas Godfrey about her preparations for the Shergar Cup

By royal assignment: Hayley Turner meets the Queen after carrying her colours to success at Newbury in April 2013
By royal assignment: Hayley Turner meets the Queen after carrying her colours to success at Newbury in April 2013Credit: Mark Cranham (

Let no-one say she was not given the opportunity to unburden herself, so come on, Hayley, now's your chance. Everybody's thinking the same thing, so tell us the truth: you're coming back full-time aren't you?

“No!” insists Britain's most successful female jockey. Or perhaps that should read Britain's most successful ex-jockey, for Ms Turner is another lady who it appears is not for turning, despite the compelling evidence of her presence in her beloved Girls team at Ascot on Saturday in the Shergar Cup.

“Really, I'm not,” she says. “I think everybody is reading a bit too much into this, thinking I've got some kind of gameplan but I haven't. The reason I'm riding is only because they asked me to do the Shergar Cup. I've always loved it, and I only got on the team last year because someone else was injured. I was gutted, but then I was on the team again and it was fantastic; it's always my favourite day of the year. They asked me to do it and I'm not going to turn it down, am I?”

Furthermore, the woman who shocked the racing world about 12 months ago when she announced her retirement does not even issue any proper caveats on the subject, so I will have to do it for her. Turner is taking this avowedly temporary comeback seriously indeed, via an intensive fitness regime – mainly to rebuild upper body strength not covered by her daily routine of running and cycling – and she is riding out on a near-daily basis at James Fanshawe's yard, just over the garden fence from the Newmarket home she shares with her dogs Dave and Vinnie.

Clearly, then, there is nothing physical to prevent her from a proper return to race-riding, which is why the rumour mill has gone into overdrive, but Turner is pretty convincing: if she is assaulted nightly by demons taunting her about what she has lost, then they are kept well hidden.

“I love riding and I do miss it and like everyone else I love the big races particularly and sometimes I do watch them and think, 'Oh, that'd be nice',” she admits, before being shamelessly led on by her interrogator.

“Okay, if somebody offered me a big job then of course I'd come back but otherwise there is no reason for me to keep on riding,” she grins. “I'm doing less work and earning more money!”

That said, one-off events like the Shergar Cup – and any other offers that might come her way, plus charity races and the like – may continue to figure on Turner's agenda. “I don't mean to sound like a diva by just picking the good days,” she adds.

“But if they're going to offer them and I get paid for it then it's a good job to have, isn't it? People might frown upon it but if I'm lucky enough to pick and choose, I'm not going to turn it down but there's no plan for a major return unless Sheikh Mohammed wants to sign me!”

Riding was 'full-on'

Glad we cleared that up. The next question, then, is why one of the sport's most recognisable faces – the epithets fly on to the page: this is racing's ‘golden girl’, the cheery, chatty ‘girl next door’ – chose to call time on her ground-breaking career at the end of the 2015 season. After all, Turner is still only 33.

“It's just so full-on,” she explains. “The big days are great but there's so much in between that you have to do to get to the big days. I've said before – it's not just a job, it's a lifestyle. I've done it for 15 years and I've enjoyed it – but when you stop enjoying it so much, it becomes a lot more difficult; if you're not thriving off it, you need something else.

“People close to me like my mum, my nana, my sisters, weren't shocked at all,” adds Turner. “My family aren't from a racing background and they've supported me throughout but when I said I was thinking of stopping, they said why not go out on a high and do something different, do something that makes you happy.

“That was how I started in the first place, doing something I loved. I was thinking, I'm getting a bit bored with it now, it's getting a bit repetitive, so why not try something new? I just feel I got the best out of racing riding-wise and it was time to try something different.”

At least she finished on her own terms, having overcome the troubling aftermath of a fall at the St Leger meeting in 2013 in which she broke a pelvis and three vertebrae. “Actually, that's one thing I didn't like, when people thought I'd given up because of my falls,” she says. “In a way, that's why I had to ride out last year to the end – that was probably more for myself than anyone else.

“I didn't want people to think I'd given up because of that fall at Doncaster. I had no plans to give up then but it did affect my confidence and you could see it in my riding for a while. In my head I just wanted to get back and get my confidence back, which I did. Then I started having more winners again but I started to think, actually I don't feel like doing this any more.

“It's weird,” she muses. “It did just happen – I just thought: that's enough now. I had never thought it would happen – even at the beginning of last year I was thinking I was gonna ride forever. People still ask me every day why I did it, and when am I going to come out of retirement,” – guilty as charged, m'lud – “but it's nice. I've been so flattered with the interest people have shown. As soon as they stop asking me questions, I'm in trouble!”

New opportunities

As well as a punishing schedule featuring daily interval training and arduous weights sessions in the gym with Paul Turner [no relation], her personal trainer, Hayley is now road-testing on a range of new work opportunities to see what she likes and what she's good at. Chiefly, this means media work – contracted for 60 days a year as a pundit with At The Races, her performances have improved on a weekly basis; she especially enjoys the Get Up show on Saturday morning – plus hospitality and PR.

Turner was Epsom's ambassador at the Investec Derby meeting; last week she was brand ambassador for sports exchange Matchbook at Goodwood. She has hosted a BHA seminar; she coached the women riding in last week's Magnolia Cup; she was team manager for the international girls team at the inaugural meeting at Bro Park in Sweden in June. Then there was an appearance alongside Test cricketer Chris Woakes on Matt Dawson's team on the BBC's long-running flagship quiz A Question of Sport.

“I'm pleased with how it's gone so far and I'm learning a lot of new stuff but I do find it really hard to explain my job title as such,” she admits. “I suppose it's only been a few months and I have to thank my agent Johnno Spence, who found me a few things to earn some money while I figure things out.”

Ludicrously, though, she evinces a sense that she feels she is not working hard enough. “Well, I've been rushing around like a nutter for 15 years, and although I am still doing stuff, it doesn't compare to when you're driving and riding every day. I've been feeling guilty when I've had an hour to spare. I don't want anyone to think I'm being lazy because I'm not!”

As if to illustrate the point, Turner uses the time before my arrival for a chat at Newmarket's Bedford Lodge hotel for yet another hour in the excellent fitness centre. “It's taking a long time to snap out of that mentality of being a jockey and then becoming a 'normal' person again,” she says.

“I do a lot of walking, which is good.” It is also necessary, as her driving licence has been rescinded. “I got done on the totting up for speeding,” she reveals. “I totally deserved it, to be fair, but it's easy to do when you do 50,000 miles a year. I won't be speeding again. I learned my lesson.”

Remarkable achievements

While Turner is now taking the Shanks's pony express around Newmarket, a less helter-skelter schedule has at least given her time to reflect a little on her achievements in the saddle – admirable in any respect, startling considering her gender. (You knew that was coming, didn't you?)

A former champion apprentice, Turner called time with well over 750 career winners, among them a few memorable Group 1s – Dream Ahead, Margot Did and I'm A Dreamer in Chicago. More significantly, she is the only woman rider in Britain ever to come close to earning properly equal status in the upper reaches of a male-dominated environment.

“The more you step away from it, the more you realise what you've achieved, more than you do when you're in the bubble riding,” she says. “You don't appreciate it until you return to normal. Time changes things.”

Maybe not, but an OBE in the Birthday Honours List must have helped clarify matters. “Oh my God!” she says. “I do think how lucky I am to able to do what I've done and look back on that, but the OBE was the icing on the cake. I thought, what I've done has been recognised. It doesn't matter if I never ride again; I feel content with it.”

As she should. What is more, Turner is also aware that she has become a role model for a generation of would-be female jockeys – a responsibility she wears lightly, it must be admitted. “Well, I hope that it's helped the girls coming up to see if they put enough work in, then it is possible to be successful,” she says.

“Trainers and owners have seen that a female jockey can be good but I do think sometimes girls can use it as an excuse. It's getting the opportunities that matters – they've clearly got the ability but it's the same process the lads have to go through and there are a lot of talented guys who don't get on as well. The girls should say they want to do better than me – that would be a better way for them to think about it!”

Turner seems taken aback when I ask her if she thinks she could have been champion jockey – if she'd been born a man. “It was never on the agenda so I've never thought about it,” she says. “But then again, I never thought I'd ride a Group 1 winner, or ride a winner for the Queen – I sort of got there without realising it.

“Girls do have to work a bit harder than the men with their training,” she says, as far as she is prepared to go with this one. “You need to be stronger – that's why I'm doing all these weights for the Shergar Cup whereas one of the lads could probably just jump on a horse and get away with it.”

Exercise regime paying off

Mind you, the exercise regime seems to be having a beneficial effect if her practice rides on the July course are any sort of barometer. “My first day back I had three rides and I thought I was going to be knackered but I didn't feel as bad as I thought,” she says. “I had kept fit, as much for vanity reasons as anything else, and I like having a challenge, something to aim at. I don't want to let people down.”

Yet if Turner's appearance has injected much needed box-office appeal to this year's Shergar Cup, it has also provoked a degree of adverse reaction, especially on social media (where, admittedly, Mother Theresa of Calcutta could provoke an adverse reaction).

“A lot of people have been negative about me doing it, saying they should look to the future, not the past,” says Turner. “People tweeted stuff. I just wish they'd lighten up. It's meant to be a fun day and Ascot were pleased – they were trending on Twitter the day the news came out.”

Chief plank in the argument against Turner's being involved seems to be that leading apprentice Josephine Gordon should have been asked instead; ironically, both women will now figure alongside Canada's Emma-Jayne Wilson after the latest in the luckless Cathy Gannon's litany of injuries.

“I feel gutted for Cathy,” says Turner. “She's a legend – we have a lot of banter on Twitter but we have a lot of respect for each other. I'd really, really like to see her having a big winner – she totally deserves one. But we do have a supersub for Ascot in Josephine Gordon.”

While Turner knows precisely where she will be in five days' time, the same cannot be said for five years' time as she considers future options: social media, fitness coaching, public speaking. “I'm trying things out but I’ve got no idea!” she says, wide-eyed.

“I don't know where I'm going to be this time next year! I'm just working it out. I've always been like that, just looking at the next couple of months, doing the best at what I get thrown at me. I am ambitious but I think if you look too far ahead you end up bothering your mind. I'm just working out what I'm good at, what I enjoy. As long as I keep paying my mortgage, that's the main thing.”

Hayley Turner on . . .

The Shergar Cup
Someone's always going to grumble – there are some miserable gits about! Come on, it's a spectator sport, let's make it interesting. It's really good fun, especially to introduce a non-racing audience. It's something different and keeps them interested all day. I've always loved it – as the day goes on, if we're in with a shout, it can be really exciting. You need all the points you can get. I don't know how competitive the lads are but maybe they're more subtle than we are about it. I can't wait – all my family will be there and I'm well excited.

A Question of Sport
I don't think I disgraced myself – other than getting my ‘home’ question wrong. The question was: which horse won the 2,000 Guineas and Derby in 2012. I rode in the Derby and I said Australia; the answer was Camelot! That was bad but I redeemed myself on a few of the others. Quite a lot of snooker and boxing which I know a bit about. They're pretty slick and they do four shows in one day – [boxer] Carl Frampton was there and I'm quite a big fan of him. I was like: 'Hi, I'm Hayley, I'm one of your fans – proper geek!'

Her non-racing background
I grew up in Nottinghamshire and there's no family racing background but my mother was a riding instructor and my sisters and I all learned to ride ponies. They were more into fashion and boys but I just followed mum around. I wasn't particularly academic – I just got by – but when I was at school I was in the same year as Adam Pogson, whose dad Charlie is a trainer near where I lived. Adam said he was going to the Northern Racing College at Doncaster so I went on a taster course and jumped on a course as soon as I could. Then off I went.

Published on 5 August 2017Last updated 10:14, 5 August 2017