Remarkable journey from serious illness to healthy success for rising star
Alastair Down talks to the young jockey riding high after her Grade 1 success
Came the day when Bryony Frost was running a touch late getting to Taunton to ride one for dad Jimmy. In she rushes to the weighing room, whips off her clothes, leaps into her jockey's kit, then the helmet goes on and, having picked up her whip, she bounds outside. Phew. Made it.
In the race, she recalls, "I was fourth trying hard to be third to get a few quid for Dad. Then out of the blue the stewards called me in."
We can paraphrase the exchange quite simply.
"Now Miss Frost, we need to talk to you about your use of the whip."
"But I only hit him four times!"
"Yes, indeed Miss Frost and thanks for that. The only problem is that it was a hands-and-heels race."
She laughs: "It should have been a ten-day ban but I pleaded ignorance and everything else I could think of and it was reduced to seven. They were very good about it."
It is likely the Taunton stewards were powerless to resist the happy force of nature that is hurricane Bryony. Nobody else can.
At 22 she fizzes with enthusiasm and energy. If you could harness her to the national grid, power cuts would become history.
She first burst to prominence when giving Pacha Du Polder a notably ballsy ride down the inner to win the Foxhunter Chase at last year's Cheltenham Festival.
"Mum was bawling in the paddock and Dad and my brother Hadden were charging up the horsewalk leaping about. Hadden got there first as the handicapper has clobbered Dad with a few more pounds round the hips – mind you, he has put on a couple of pounds as his diet used to be just an apple a day."
Victory in Saturday’s Classic Chase at Warwick on Milansbar, following on from the Badger Ales Handicap Chase on Present Man and the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase with Black Corton – on whom she has scored six times – has maintained the surge. Black Corton’s success at Kempton put Frost alongside Lizzie Kelly as the only women to win a Grade 1 over jumps.
But it is the impression she has made after winning a race that has marked her out as something more than a young athlete on the up.
It is the difference between still and sparkling water. She has fizz, frankness and a fine facility with the spoken word, although she confesses disarmingly that spolling is not her string point.
She says: "As soon as I could walk I was put on my donkey Nosey and told that if I got off him I couldn't get back on him. Mum and Dad weren't going to spend the whole day legging me up endlessly, so on him I stayed.
"We went everywhere together. Dad's mum, Granny Glynne, is a legend. Nosey and I would wander into her kitchen if I wanted a biscuit or a piece of toast. It's a great place with peacocks, poorly chicks staying warm on the Aga and lots of guinea fowl.
"I even used to sleep on Nosey and Mum says he was the cheapest babysitter ever."
Bryony is a good runner, a big climbing fan and an avid surfer. And beating hell out of the breakers had an unusual legacy. Often, even in deepest Devon, it is customary to inherit a little something from your granny but Bryony has already bequeathed a gift in the other direction.
She says: "Granny has now got my old car, a bright red Peugeot 306. But as a result of my surfing days it's covered in big stickers for Sex Wax, which has nothing to do with sex by the way – it's stuff you put on your surfboard.
"What people make of a grandmother parking her car with Sex Wax written all over in the Buckfastleigh Co-Op, I really don't know. But it doesn't bother her."
Rumour has it that in the early months of Granny Glynne being behind the wheel of the Peugeot she couldn't work out how to disarm Bryony's CD player, so her travels round Buckfastleigh must have been to the backing track of a thumping bass note. Bye-bye clip-clop, hello hip-hop.
Back to Bryony's young life, which continued to follow the archetypal rural idyll. "I had a 10hh pony called Rosie who would jump anything. Occasionally we had a disagreement, not least because I could be an ill-tempered little thing.
"I love my hunting and hounds. Later on at school I would get that rare disease Hunteritis every Tuesday. Aged four, I asked at the meet if I could go off with the field and they said 'if she can keep up with us she can come'. So across the moor I went.
"There were always loads of ponies about but I bought my first one for £800 when I was eight." With a slightly sheepish smile, she reveals that she sold him on for £8,000.
She says: "I'm very family orientated and was taught from an early age to respect money. Many a time I had to sell ponies before they had reached their full potential.
"I did plenty of pony racing and show jumping and had quite a lot of time with Nick Skelton – learn, learn, learn."
She adds that at one stage it was a "throw-up" between racing and show jumping but we decide "toss-up" would be a better description. One is a marginal decision, the other a post-pub rite of passage for over-thirsty youngsters.
Frost says: "Dad and I love our lurchers and we were always out lamping. My lurcher Marie brought down her first six-point roe deer the other day. I've always loved being outside and when I was small I would leave the house at seven in the morning and not be back until nine at night.
"That's why they got me a mobile aged six, so they could find me. And l knew two pushes on the green button would get me through to Dad straight away.
"Dad stopped riding in 2002, so I don't remember him in action, though the videos of his Champion Hurdle and Grand National got watched endlessly. He used to do what we call 'Jimmy wriggles' going into a fence. God knows what he was doing but when you watch the videos it's bloody funny."
Then at 15 she fell off and the sky fell in. "It was a schooling accident and I was knocked out for ten minutes. When I came round Dad was leaning over me but I thought I was still in bed and was asking him not to send me off to school.
"I could see ten hedges instead of one, the grass was a funny colour and I was talking absolute rubbish. So I was taken into hospital and had MRI scans. The conclusion was that I'd bruised the membrane around my kidney.
"I was let out but every time I went surfing I was in terrible pain – I've never known pain like it. So I went back to hospital and they said I must have pulled a muscle and I told them that the pain had to be more than that.
"Eventually it was found that I'd put a kink in my ureter, which is the tube that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder, and I was filling up with all sorts of stuff. It was agony when I was surfing because my body couldn't process the saltwater I was swallowing.
"I can take pain now because it's nothing compared with what I felt then. I was back in hospital and then septicemia set in.
"When it got to my lungs I was basically rotting. I was put on a morphine pump but wasn't pressing the button often enough because deep inside I was desperate to get out.
"So they put me on a morphine drip for a fortnight. In all I had 12 operations, mainly keyhole surgery, and six different stents inserted into my tube.
"Getting me off the morphine was a massive problem. I reacted very badly to tramadol and other drugs intended to wean me away from it. So they told me I would have to go cold turkey for three or four days and that was what tripped my mind.
"My skin felt like it was crawling with ants and spiders and it played havoc with my emotional state. I'd taken a teddy bear in with me – a very old one with beans in his bottom, which had gone very saggy. After one two-hour op the bear was gone and I couldn't take that.
"The nurses and Dad ended up going through all the hospital laundry – a disgusting job, but that's what fathers do for daughters. Dad wasn't great at running things with Mum away and managed to flood the kitchen with water and bubbles.
"There was a fish tank on a ward that I used to sit and watch and I loved one of the fish because he looked like Nemo. Of course he died one day and that set me off again.
"After one op I came round being wheeled on a trolley with a wonky wheel. I was giggling for some reason and complaining that my trolley had a wonky willie, which is not much use.
"The whole experience taught me a lot about pain and made me harder. I went in at 9st and came out at 7st."
Perhaps the bleak time then was a brutal apprenticeship for the massively exciting now.
She got her conditional licence in the summer with Paul Nicholls and says: "That was rock'n'roll time. But I don't see it as being about my career because at Ditcheat we're all in it together. I love being part of it and seeing the emotional bond everyone has with their horses. It's awesome to have a life where you can be so proud of your horses and the people you work with.
"Paul has been more than a boss. I turn to him for everything and he has looked after me perfectly. He's found me the right horses at the right time and had the backbone to put me up on horses and fought my corner, telling owners 'she'll show you what she can do'. It's all about repaying that faith and I know I can.
"I wouldn't be talking to you if it wasn't for Paul and Clifford Baker, who is simply class. You learn a lot just watching them. They tailor everything individually to each horse, changing little things nobody else would see.
"I've only had one Nicholls bollocking. So far! I messed up the start at Fakenham on a favourite and when I rang him on the way home he said 'there was no point in effing talking to you this morning as you weren't effing listening'.
"You have to be a good sponge and soak it all up. As a jockey I'm stronger than ever and my racing brain is sharper. It's all about experience.
"I love going round with Clifford at the end of the day when he's turning out the lights. He will soon tell you if you f*** up but if you listen to him you'll learn and he wants to teach.
"The other day I said to him 'my family gave me the tools and you've taught me about the work to use them on'.
"'Where the hell did that come from?" he asked.
"'I don't know, it just came into my head,' was what I said."
"Ditcheat is a wonderful place. There would be no me if there wasn't a we," she adds.
Usually with shooting stars there is an element of green eye. She has great charm but it is genuine and not of the calculating sort. They love having her force and vitality about the place and the girls in Nicholls' office describe her as "fantastic". And you can tell they mean it.
She has bought herself a "bolthole" in Shepton Mallet and hopes to have another by the end of the year. When she won her first £10,000 race she bought Mum a new Aga. "Now she wants a wooden floor in the kitchen," she laughs.
She has been to London just three times and was not over-impressed. "I can read a hill," she says, "but not a signpost." Her trajectory will mean she has to get used to it. She will, as nothing fazes her.
That old cliche about breaths of fresh air does not begin to climb the foothills when describing Frost. She is simply uplifting and everything a 22-year-old should be with the world at her feet. But without the slightest side to her.
She says: "What's the point of living a life if not to create memories?"
'She began to close down, she was fading away'
Nikki Frost was on the front line during Bryony's illness, spending two months by her side in hospital trying to hold it together while undergoing the scarcely describable ordeal of watching her daughter fighting to survive before her very eyes.
She says: "When she got septicemia she began to close down. It got into her lungs and she couldn't breathe. She was delirious and hallucinating. Basically she was fading away and all you can do is sit in a chair and watch.
"It affects you in ways you don't understand. One day I popped out to Sainsbury's to get her some toiletries and things. When I came out I couldn't for the life of me find the car. I was just wandering hopelessly around going 'where is the f****** car?' It took ages.
"My father, who's no longer with us, insisted on seeing if she was a match for his kidney so he could donate one to her but it wasn't possible.
"Eventually the doctors said there was just one more antibiotic they could try and that I should get Jimmy to come down to be with her as well. We had reached that stage.
"The five holes in her tummy are from the keyhole surgery as they tried time and again to mend her kidney.
"It was awful. The first time we got B into the shower she was horrified and said 'where's all my muscle gone?' She hates not being in control of her own body and had worked so hard to make herself a physical athlete.
'Happily now she's fine and fit again and she's still very much a girl."
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