'It's like a dream - I should have turned professional years ago'
Julian Muscat on a rider who has thrived since making an overdue move
To mark the occasion of Joanna Mason riding out her claim this week, we have made this interview – originally published exclusively for Members' Club Ultimate subscribers last October – free to read.
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For many people, the Covid-19 crisis will be remembered for cutting black holes into the fabric of their daily lives, but it has been a very different experience for Joanna Mason.
Mason has the pandemic to thank for a remarkable career transformation. For 15 years she was happy in the amateur riders’ ranks, riding a handful of winners annually while helping her grandfather Mick Easterby at his Sheriff Hutton stables. She also rode in point-to-points, a domain in which her mother Susan excelled when riding horses trained by her father Ian.
Mason had already stopped riding over fences when Covid struck, having broken her back in 2015. But when amateur riders were stood down from riding in Flat races, Mason was suddenly grounded.
She hadn’t so much reached a crossroads as been forced down a cul-de-sac, so she did what she’d thought about doing for five years and turned professional.
Decision made, Mason’s first full year as a claimer has been a revelation, with 36 winners to date and a healthy profit to £1 level stakes most professionals would die for. She is having the time of her life.
“I’d brought the idea [of turning professional] to the table a few times before Covid but I probably lacked self-confidence,” Mason, 31, says with refreshing candour. “I’d got to the age when there was no turning back [to amateur status] if it didn’t work out, so it was a leap of faith. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I should have done it years ago.”
What helped her to jump this time was a shove from Serena Brotherton, with whom Mason shared the Lady Riders Amateur Flat Championship in 2017 and who has been part of the Sheriff Hutton furniture for more than 20 years.
“She told me I’d be stupid not to do it,” Mason reflects. “She gave me a head-shake and a kick in the right direction.”
Brotherton wasn’t alone in pointing the way forward. Mason had been prompted by others at various times since 2015, when she concentrated on riding on the Flat, but it played on her mind that Easterby had kept his counsel. So, too, did Easterby’s son David, now joint-holder of the trainers’ licence at Sheriff Hutton.
“I always thought that since they were the ones supporting me but weren’t pushing me, perhaps it wasn’t meant to be,” Mason says. “My granddad is brilliant but he wouldn’t be one to tell you what to do. Nor is David. As a family we are not very good confidence-givers. You have to work hard for everything.”
Her quandary was also down to circumstance. The trail-blazing Hayley Turner retired in 2015, citing the imbalance of the daily grind against the emotional and financial rewards. Turner’s tribulations struck a chord with Mason – only when Turner resumed did she generate headlines when she ended the 32-year winning drought for female jockeys at Royal Ascot in 2019.
“There weren’t many female jockeys then,” Mason reflects. "There was still the stereotype that girls were weak, boys were strong. That’s not the case now, it’s not about how hard you can hit a horse anymore. Hayley and Hollie [Doyle] are amazing and there are so many girls coming through now. It was very daunting back then but I should have pushed myself more.”
Mason’s words serve to illustrate that the era of female jockeys is still very much in its infancy. Racing stands on the cusp of a quantum leap forward, with Turner and Doyle inspiring the legions that will follow. They certainly played their part in ushering Mason forward, but for which she would have remained chained to the yard without showcasing her saddle talent as a professional.
Those who follow Mason are unlikely to be undermined by a lack of self-esteem, which is surprising in Mason’s case. She is outgoing and bubbly, chatty and gregarious around people, rarely without a smile.
Underneath it all, however, she struggles to escape the legacy of a teenage girl growing up in a predominantly male environment. She can barely believe the impact she has made as a claimer who will shed her 3lb allowance on reaching 95 winners.
Mason is currently 19 short and it may be too much to expect her to bridge that gap by the year’s end, but reaching 50 winners is more feasible. Even so, it’s feat she can scarcely contemplate.
“It’s like a dream,” she says, her face lighting up at the prospect. “I’d never have guessed I’d ride this many winners. Whether that’s down to me or whether I’ve been lucky enough to steer them in the right direction, I don’t know. A lot of them have won easy enough; I’ve just had to push the button and say go, and it hasn’t let up. There were times when I thought I was in for a quiet week and then I’d ride a double.”
The double she rode at Redcar on September 14 was particularly poignant. It came the day after her uncle Richard Clark, who was among her biggest fans, succumbed to bowel cancer after complications that arose during the lockdown.
“I missed his funeral because I was at Ayr but he was the sort to have told me to go and ride,” she says. “When he was well he always rang me when I had a winner. He always followed me and I hope I helped to keep him going a bit longer, gave him something to look forward to each day.”
Clark was one of a large family unit standing squarely behind Mason. Her mother is a pillar within it. She rings at the end of every day when Mason has rides, having tuned in to the family WhatsApp group to keep tabs on how she is faring.
Mason’s parents are surfing the wave every bit as much as she is. It was they who insisted their horse-mad daughter completed her schooling before she embarked on her equine odyssey. Very few jockeys can hold an educational candle to Mason’s Masters degree in sports nutrition, which will sustain her in the unlikely event she ever digresses from the racing game.
It has plainly helped to have her granddad in her corner – although she says Mick and David are among the most critical of trainers to ride for.
“They are tough but things need to be said,” she acknowledges. “Otherwise, how do you learn?”
Yet while they have been her bedrock, Mason is keen to emphasise she has ridden more combined winners for other trainers than she has for the Easterby alliance. Among her strongest allies have been Archie Watson and William Bethell, a pair of up-and-coming trainers in her own image.
Perhaps Mason’s circuitous route to the weighing room was abetted by the years she spent riding as an amateur against fellow amateurs. There was no great expectation and little pressure, which allowed her to build up invaluable riding experience before she rode against professionals.
“There’s definitely something in that,” she says. “I have done it in an unconventional way. I was able to enjoy riding as an amateur rather than becoming an apprentice when I left school, as so many do. And it helped that I had a bit of a name as an amateur. I wasn’t a total unknown at the start of the year.
“You see some apprentices running up against professionals straight out. They can look as if they don’t really know what they are doing, whereas I think I had quite a good grounding.”
There is nothing left of the amateur ethos today. The day before this interview Mason made the long trek from her home in Malton to Epsom, where she finished fourth on her only ride. She returned home more than nine hours later at 8.15pm.
She was too tired to check the following morning’s weather forecast and promptly got soaked when she rode out in regular breeches during a rainstorm. Endless road trips are a less savoury aspect of a jockey’s lot.
“The driving is exhausting, much more so that I expected,” she affirms. “The way of life is intense but you have to be ready to concentrate as soon as you get legged up. You must be ready to go.”
The harsh regimen has all but extinguished what remained of her social life, although Mason says she partied herself out at university. Exhilaration these days comes from riding winners, and proving to herself that she did, after all, have what it takes to make an impact in a domain she was hesitant to enter.
“People tell me I’m the only jockey with a smile on my face when one gets beat,” she says. “And I’m thinking, 'We’re here! We’re getting paid to ride horses!' Others say I’m so smiley when I have a winner and I’m thinking, 'Well, it would be a bad job if I wasn’t smiling then.'”
She pauses for a second before adding: “Maybe I am just a happy person all round.”
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