No go-slow for champion Jo Go since riding out her claim
Nicholas Godfrey interviews last year's leading apprentice
It is a truism about life as a jockey: everyone struggles when they lose their claim, don't they? Well, maybe not if your name happens to be Josephine Gordon, because last year's champion apprentice appears to have taken a notoriously tricky transition period entirely in her stride.
With 47 winners already this year from 340-plus rides – high-profile Victoria Cup success on William Haggas’s Royal Ascot contender Fastnet Tempest and a first Listed success on Unforgetable Filly at Musselburgh on Saturday among them – the rider nicknamed Jo Go is showing no signs of becoming Jo Slow.
She’s already more than halfway to last year’s total, she’s moved to Newmarket for her new job with Unforgetable Filly’s trainer Hugo Palmer, she’s become one of Godolphin’s work-riders and had a handful of winners for Saeed Bin Suroor, and she’s also ridden for the likes of Haggas, Roger Charlton, Ed Dunlop and John Gosden (once).
In short, things could hardly be going better for a rider who now looks every inch the natural heiress to Hayley Turner.
"It's still early days but I couldn't ask for it to be going any better really," she agrees. "Obviously it went through my head it might be tough – a lot of people were saying I'd struggle without my claim.
"But fortunately everyone who used me as a claimer is still using me and I seem to be getting more rides than ever and the opportunities are bigger – I'm riding more in Class 2s and I've even had a few Group rides now, getting chances on Saturdays."
Gordon, 24, is riding out in Newmarket every day, having left her mentor Stan Moore, the man she credits with kickstarting her career, to join Palmer's powerful operation at the end of last season.
"As much as I loved Stan I needed to take that next step forward and he was so happy for me because it's a brilliant opportunity," she explains.
"It's also been a bit of an eye-opener riding in bigger races. You do really notice the difference and I'm learning a lot. They're proper horses – you think you're in top gear and you're not, you've got another three gears to go. The races are run a lot faster because the horses are better quality and you're also riding against the best jockeys more often."
Given that two years ago Gordon had barely ridden a winner, at first glance her ascent looks an overnight success, but if that's the case, then it is one of those overnight successes that has been a while in the making.
Her mum Cheryl runs a livery yard in Devon, and Gordon started off in pony racing aged 12, after which she was determined to become a jockey.
However, after a spell at the racing school, a nascent career was almost over before it started when she seriously considered chucking it in when a first winner on the Jo Hughes-trained Chester'slittlegem at Bath in September 2013 was followed by a drought; she had to wait until June 2015 for a second winner.
"A lot of jockeys have had dry spells, disheartening periods; they've all got stories to tell," she reflects. "At the time I started to think I was hopeless, but in that year and a half I did get an education, riding 100-1 shots out the back in Class 7s. But I was looking for a job abroad so I was lucky to get that second winner when I did – another week and I'd have been on a plane to somewhere else."
Gordon's second winner came after a move to Moore, who was quickly putting her up on a multitude of the stable's runners; a link-up with agent Phil Shea also helped matters.
"If you'd told me then where I would be now, I would've laughed at you and told you to shut up," she says. "When my agent said we'd go for the apprentice title, I laughed in his face."
A prolific winter on the all-weather in 2015-16 was the catalyst for last year's apprentice title challenge.
"I started getting more outside rides and my name was in the paper more often," she says. "People realised I could do light weights and I rode a few winners. I do remember one week, when I had a ride every day, thinking crikey, it'll slow down soon. But it didn't, and I suddenly thought – this is the jockey's life now! I'm still going on that rollercoaster."
She also feels she has got better with experience.
"At one point I thought I hadn't improved that much compared to when I was getting no rides but now I can see a big difference in my riding," she says.
"If you go back and look at my first ride you'd never give me another ride again. It was brutal – it was about ten wide around Lingfield. For the first 40 rides I didn't have a clue what to do in a race – I sat and hoped for the best! I think I've improved since losing my claim again – you've got to keep stepping it up."
Gordon has also had to revise her list of ambitions, having fulfilled all her initial goals.
"I've always done the list since I was a kid," she explains. "When I started race-riding, it was riding in a race, riding a winner, riding abroad, riding on television. I've got them all ticked off so I've got a new list."
At the start of the season, partnering 100 winners in a calendar year was at the top; Turner is the only female rider ever to have achieved the feat in Britain. However, Gordon has already realigned her sights.
"Of course I wouldn't turn down riding 100 winners but I sat down with my agent and decided it's more important to get some nice rides and we're aiming more for quality than quantity," she says. "What I'd really like is a Group winner. Whether they win or not, I'd like to be riding on the bigger stages on Saturday and stuff – big rides on the big days."
They don't come much bigger than Royal Ascot, where she has never ridden.
"Even just going there for a ride would be good experience as the quality of horses is amazing," she says. "Hugo's not just going to be taking one or two there, so hopefully there will be opportunities.
"I can do bottom weight as well – that's how opportunities like Fastnet Tempest came along because I'm a lightweight jockey and there actually aren't that many around who can do 8st now."
But while a Group winner is Gordon's immediate ambition, if you really push her, there is an even bigger target hovering in the margin waiting to be inked into her list – and that's becoming the first female champion jockey.
"Obviously it would be absolutely brilliant, but I need to get a lot more experience and hopefully we'll get towards that in the next few years and it will be on my list," she says.
But even if it isn't her, Gordon is confident it won't be too long before a woman breaks through that ultimate glass ceiling.
"I've always idolised Cathy Gannon, and Hayley's set the bar for us girls, so if I do half as much as her I'll be thrilled," she says. "But it's not just me – there are a few girls coming up through the ranks and we'll see a lot more over the next few years.
"One of them is going to give it a bash at being champion jockey. If it's me, then that would be great."
French allowance is sexist and self-defeating
It remains a fact of life for any female jockey that they will have to answer questions about being a female jockey. Emphasis, sadly, on the female rather than the jockey – and yes, guilty as charged.
Josephine Gordon, it must be said, seems to have few issues on that score – although she is outspoken when it comes to the recent introduction of a 2kg (4.4lb) gender allowance in France.
"I think it's extremely sexist," she says. "If they brought it in over here of course I'd take it, but I think it kind of defeats the object. I spent so long trying to ride out my claim – it's a privilege to do that, and you shouldn't be handed back another one.
"I don't know what the girls in France think of it, but of all the girls I've spoken to over here, not one of them has agreed with it."