To appreciate where Hollie Doyle is today, it is important to remember where she was just 18 months ago. Back then, the flame-haired jockey weighing less than eight stone had just broken Josephine Gordon’s record for winners in a season by a female rider. It was a notable landmark in its own right, yet it would pale into insignificance by the end of 2020.
Doyle’s dizzy ascent started at Royal Ascot, where she rode her debut winner at the fixture. She won her first Pattern race the following month, courtesy of Dame Malliot in the Princess of Wales’s Stakes. Two weeks later she was wooed by Imad Al Sagar, the prominent owner and breeder who put her on a retainer.
Doyle was on a roll. In October she rode a double on Champions Day, when she also claimed her first Group 1 victory aboard Glen Shiel. That led to her winning the accolade of Sportswoman of the Year from The Sunday Times before she finished third in the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year. And to round it off, her fourth place in the jockeys’ championship was the highest- ever by a female rider.
“To be honest, I didn’t realise what a big deal it was at the time,” the 24-year-old reflects. “It was a dream come true; everything I have always strived for. I still don’t know whether I thought I would ever get to that level but now it’s about staying there.”
Inevitably, given the scale of those peaks, her professional life has returned to a semblance of normality. For Doyle, however, the new normal is a place among the riding elite in Britain. At the time of writing, she sits fifth in the jockeys’ championship, although she has ridden more winners than anybody else in the calendar year. She eased to her century on July 14, well ahead of last year’s schedule. Yet one detail irritates her.
“I still don’t know whether I thought I would ever get to Group 1 level but now it’s about staying there”
“It’s been really good numbers-wise but I haven’t ridden a Group winner, which is a problem,” she says. “I’ve been getting some good rides but keep coming up a bit short. I’m under no illusions; last year was exceptional. I can’t expect it to happen every year, but I want more. People have one good year and it doesn’t happen again. You see that all the time in racing.”
That Group winner is finally on board thanks to Doyle combining with Alan King to capture the Group 1 Goodwood Cup in fine style this month.
Doyle shares the restlessness so redolent of leaders in their field. There can never be too much. What happened yesterday is academic, solely of passing interest. It’s today and tomorrow that count.
In Doyle’s case, however, achievement comes with strings attached. Any jockey boasting her recent CV would be more than content, yet Doyle must cope with the ‘first woman ever’ strapline that rests uneasily on her shoulders. Like Hayley Turner and Rachael Blackmore before her, she doesn’t resonate with the sense of wonderment her deeds have aroused in those beyond racing’s parish.
Asked to explain why not, she is entirely matter-of-fact. “When I was an apprentice, I worked alongside four or five other [male] apprentices,” she says. “I was never treated any differently, I did the same job as them the whole time, rode the same horses as them from day one. There was no difference between me and them.
“That’s why I sometimes get annoyed about the whole girl thing,” she continues. “I don’t know why people keep comparing me to other girls because I looked up to jockeys like Ryan Moore and AP McCoy. Yes, Hayley [Turner] inspired me when I was young, but I wanted to ride like Ryan.”
Even though she isn’t willing to embrace it, she accepts that the gender mechanic exists. Nor does she rail against it: she says she is comfortable with her role as racing’s public face and is happy to project it if it means others will follow in her footsteps. Yet she does so with the firm conviction that being a jockey is a wonderful career, period.
There is a marked contrast in the Doyle we see on television and the person herself. In the former sphere she comes across as a shade hesitant, a little uncomfortable answering questions, a touch embarrassed to be the focus of attention.
Even though she admits she is not greatly enamoured by the media aspect of her work, it’s still surprising to find that when she sits before you, she is engaging company: observant and eloquent into the bargain.
It isn’t hard to reconcile the paradox. When Doyle is interviewed on television it invariably involves being asked about a woman’s lot in racing. She has tired of the tedium of the same banal inquiry about which she never had much to say in the first place. There is a pleasing symmetry to the fact that her achievements are gradually rendering this repetitive line of questioning obsolete.
But there is an added hook for the media where Doyle is concerned. She is engaged to Tom Marquand, her Pony Club sweetheart whose own riding career is also upwardly mobile. ‘Racing’s golden couple’ are inundated by requests from lifestyle magazines, although such approaches are more easily rebuffed since they have precious little lifestyle outside the saddle.
“I don’t know why people keep comparing me to other girls”
They live as much inside their cars as their house. Theirs is a decidedly unglamorous existence mitigated by being figuratively joined at the hip.
“I couldn’t imagine being with somebody who didn’t understand my job,” Doyle says. “It couldn’t work, could it? We both understand what the job entails and we push one another to be better. Other people would find either of us extremely competitive to live with, but we find we can help one another.”
Those competitive fires always ignite on skiing holidays, when Doyle is obliged to play catch-up. “We go flat out everywhere,” she says. “Tom is pretty good; he’s been skiing since he was a kid. I still can’t beat him but I’m getting faster from chasing his tail for the last few years.”
Skiing is one of the few annual occasions when the couple are together for more than a day at a time. “The fact that we never fall out or get in each other’s way is probably because we’re not with each other all that much,” she says.
“We’re both hungry and driven; we both know how much hard work is involved, and we tell each other everything. It’s good to have someone who knows what you’re on about.”
For all that, the pair take different approaches to their professions. Doyle is more analytical, more prone to review videos, more inclined to peruse the form book.
“Tom is relaxed about that but I do like my routine,” she says. “He also has to spend more time sweating. We talk quite a lot about riding but not so much about what he or I may have done wrong in a race. I know straight away when I do something wrong. I can pick faults for myself; I don’t need anyone to tell me.”
Doyle’s career has reached the stage where she is comfortable in pretty much any situation. It is frequently lost on the unversed just how steep is the learning curve for aspiring jockeys. Everything happens in the blink of an eye. In these circumstances jockeys ride by an instinct refined by experience, which in itself is hard to acquire. Needless to say, experience in Group 1 races is at a premium, not to mention the most valuable saddle commodity.
Doyle maintains that riding in Group 1 races does not make extra demands on jockeys. “It is not more competitive because every race is competitive,” she avers.
“I always feel more confident in big races because I know I am riding a good horse. I suppose the difference is that I don’t get nervous any more.
“In the past I used to overthink everything. I now know how certain jockeys ride and the running style of each horse, whereas before I was still learning about those dynamics.”
“I couldn’t imagine being with somebody who didn’t understand my job”
She continues: “It comes more naturally to me now. It’s a great feeling, because I trust myself. In the past, if I did something in a race it was because I felt I should have done it. If something unexpected happens now, I can take my own action to make things work for me. It’s a confidence thing; awareness as much as anything else.”
All told, then, Doyle finds herself in a good place. Her Champions Day double obliged some who doubted her to see the jockey in a different light, while her retainer with Al Sagar brought her into the orbit of trainers for whom she had never previously ridden. To mid-July she had ridden for an astonishing 146 different trainers, securing winners for 45 of them.
As much as anything else, it pays tribute to her insatiable work ethic. “It’s still a game of graft for me,” she reflects. “When you’re an apprentice working in the yard you think it will get easier as a professional jockey, but it doesn’t. It gets twice as hard, but that’s where I always wanted to be.
“I’ll do whatever it takes. Riding is very relaxing; it’s by far the easiest part of the job. I have chilled out quite a lot in the past year. I think I’m more mature as a person, which should help me to keep going forward. There’s still a long way to go.”
That much may be true, although Doyle’s resume will surely require several rewrites by the time it runs its course.
‘I like her bravery – Hollie has made a big difference’
For Imad Al Sagar, proprietor of Blue Diamond Stud, appointing a retained jockey became something of a priority at the start of last year. Nevertheless, his decision to embrace Hollie Doyle generated some surprise.
“Because I breed 90 to 95 per cent of my horses, I needed a consistency I wasn’t getting from having different jockeys,” explains Al Sagar, a Kuwaiti national who part-owned the 2007 Derby winner, Authorized, and has more than 30 horses in training. “I felt strongly that a retained jockey would overcome these negativities, and from the first day with Hollie I felt it was the right decision.”
A keen horseman who rode frequently as a teenager, Al Sagar watched Doyle for some time before making his decision. “I developed an admiration for what Hollie was achieving,” he says.
“I could see that she had a talent with horses. She is a very dedicated jockey with many dimensions. She rides all my horses in their final workouts, so she knows before the race what she is sitting on. She has made a big difference.”
The effect on Doyle’s confidence was immediate. She rode a Group-race double for Al Sagar aboard Extra Elusive soon after her appointment was announced last summer. And she was again on the money for Al Sagar in June when partnering Amtiyaz to win the Copper Horse Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Al Sagar relates of that day: “John Gosden said to Hollie, ‘You know the horse and how to ride it, you don’t need any instructions. Go out and do what you think is right.’ And I thought she rode a great race.”
Initially, Al Sagar was taken aback to hear that his choice of jockey was not universally acclaimed. “When I appointed Hollie there was different criticisms from different sources,” he says. “I believe some of it was because of her gender, but now we have quite a few good female riders.
“Hollie is now becoming used to riding in Group 1 races. She is only 24 and I think she is already one of the best. She has great opportunities ahead of her.
“It is not impossible for her to become champion jockey one day. The way she is going, with her numbers and the way she is riding, she is flying. I am very happy for her.
“What I like is her bravery, and she has the ability to position a horse in the right place from the start of a race. She is very quick at making decisions, which is what you need in a jockey. And outside the saddle she is a really nice person. I sincerely hope she will ride for me for many years.”