There will be no female jockeys in the Derby today. However, Josephine Gordon not only wants to ride in the prestigious face at Epsom, she plans to win it, too. She tells The Mixed Zone’s Eleanore Kelly about her ambitions
Josephine Gordon is clear-sighted in her career ambitions. The up-and-coming rider, tipped to be one of the best female jockeys of all-time, is already shaking up the world of horse racing with her growing list of winners. And her eyes are firmly fixed on the golden prize: “I’d like to be the first woman to win the Derby.”
That would be some achievement: only three women have ridden in the 238 editions of Britain’s richest horse race, dating back to 1780, and only one of them has finished better than last. Following the trend, there will be no woman in the starting stalls at Epsom this afternoon; it is a trend Gordon plans to buck in the near future.
Furthermore, she adds: “And what I really want is to be is champion jockey.” She has the pedigree after winning the title of champion apprentice against male and female riders in 2016. In 2017 she became only the second woman, after Hayley Turner, to ride 100 winners in a year
The 24-year-old Gordon displays the same courage and conviction on a horse as she does in her words. This has impressed high-profile racehorse owners, including The Queen, who let her race their horses. Indeed, in 2016, she transcended the boundaries of culture and religion, by becoming the first female to ride for Godolphin, the horse-racing stable of the Maktoum family, the ruling royal family of Dubai.
Many in racing, though, doubt there will ever be a female champion jockey. Champion trainer Paul Nicholls said it was unlikely to happen in jump racing, and the legendary jockey AP McCoy implied the same. Gordon’s response? “Well, we’ve just got to prove them wrong, haven’t we?”
On the other hand, Nick Rust, CEO of the British Horse Racing Authority, has predicted there will be a female champion jockey in the next five years. Certainly there has been a definite shift in the attitude of owners and trainers in putting women up on their best horses. After all, Michelle Payne won Australia’s Melbourne Cup in 2015, and Turner was the first female to win a Group One race.
Gordon says: “When Hayley started, it was harder. But there a lot more girls around now, and more owners and trainers have accepted the ideas of having a female on their horse. You have to be physically tough and very thick-skinned, though.”
And not just in the saddle, but in the weighing room, too. “As a woman you do feel you have something to prove to owners and trainers and the jockeys,” Gordon says. “If you want to fit in with the jockeys, you have to show you’re a bit of a lad to be taken seriously and get stuck in with the banter. I definitely give as good as I get now. There is still banter with the girls, but it is different – we just abuse the boys!” she smiles.
Gordon’s childhood was blissfully rural, but not privileged. The youngest of four, brought up in Devon by a single mother who ran a stables and worked evening shifts to put food on the table. Horses were a big part of their lives, and there was no time or money for anything else. “I was practically born on a horse. Mum was riding out one day and felt it was getting a bit uncomfortable and the next day I was born – two weeks early.”
It was mum, Cheryl, who taught her young daughter to ride. Gordon fell into racing when she was just 12 with a pony who was too highly-strung to jump. “I used to get put up on anything as a kid, which gave me a good feel for a horse. This pony was wild, so we thought, ‘Let’s give pony-racing a go’. I remember after my first ride I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to be a jockey’.
“Mum was strict and wouldn’t let me hang around town with my friends. The first time I was allowed to go out was also the last. I was 15, had only been gone for two hours when she had a phone call from the police. I was caught with a bottle of vodka. And that was it, I was grounded for life,” she laughs.
Today, Gordon is committed enough to her sport that she rarely drinks. Neither is she body-conscious and has never struggled to make weight for a race. “I’ve been very lucky, I eat whatever I want. I love crisps, so I eat plenty of those.”
Though she had barely left Devon before, Gordon moved out of home at 16 to go to the British Racing School. “You have to grow up quite quickly, but I loved it. After two weeks of being there, I said to Mum, ‘I probably won’t come home. I’ll get a job somewhere up here’. When I went home after nine weeks, I went up to my room and Mum had completely emptied it out and put everything in the attic. So she was all for it, too.”
Testament to her talent, Gordon has ridden for more than 200 trainers already. Often she has never even seen the horse before she mounts before a race. “Sometimes it’s a bit scary when you get out to the paddock and you see it misbehaving. You think, ‘I’ve got to get on this’. But it’s your job, isn’t it? I’ve been riding horses since before I could walk and Mum just used to chuck me up.”
Gordon lights up when she talks about her first win. “It was my ninth ride, in July 2013. A filly called Chester’s Little Gem. She was a horrible ride, no one liked her apart from me and I used to ride her out every day at home. It may have been a fluke, but it felt great.
“Then I didn’t have a winner for a year and a half. I was getting a bit frustrated and thought I wasn’t good enough.” At this point she considered giving up on her dreams. But it was a call to Stan Moore which gave Gordon her big break. “I went back to Devon to consider what I was going to do with my life. I thought I’d give it one last shot so I asked Stan if he was looking for an apprentice. It was the best thing. He put me on everything and really got me going.”
Moore had a filly called Verbernum Mare who put Gordon on the map with several good wins in a matter of weeks. That caught the eyes of other trainers. She now rides regularly for 10-times champion trainer Sir Michael Stoute and leading Newmarket trainer Hugo Palmer, as well as travelling to Europe, Ireland and Dubai to race.
Hobbies, shopping, and meeting friends are unfamiliar activities to Gordon. She spends her money on her small dog who usually goes racing with her. Tony is a Chihuahua crossed with a Jack Russell. “She’s very spoilt, like a little princess,” Gordon says, softening from her otherwise tom-boy countenance. “She has her own dog handbag, little pink rugs and bling collars – the whole lot. But that is the only girly side of me; my dog has to be girly.”
There is little time for a love life, either. “Boyfriends – what are they?” she laughs. “Growing up, I didn’t have time for boys. I probably had more friends who were boys than girls, but I wouldn’t have been playing kiss chase with any of them.” Even now, boyfriends have usually been jockeys. “In the racing industry, you literally don’t meet anyone else. So I’ve been out with a few jockeys, but racing will always come first.”
Beneath the bravado and care-free countenance, Gordon gives way to a touching vulnerability when talking about the emotional challenges that come with racing. Particularly the trolling on social media. “I’ve had it through abusive messages from punters – like ‘get back to the cooking and cleaning’. But there have been much worse. My Facebook profile is private, but people can send private messages. If you’ve messed up on a favourite, there’s often a few nasty messages. I try to laugh about it, but if you are in a bad place, you sometimes do take it to heart. I would never cry in public but I do sometimes have a good cry in the shower. And sometimes I do reply to them because I can’t help myself.”
Gordon has met both The Queen and Sheikh Mohammed. She even had lunch with Her Majesty. “Sir Michale Stoute’s missus ring me and said, ‘We’ve got The Queen coming for lunch, would you like to meet her?’ So I went and I just sat there in shock, just staring at her,” Gordon says with girlish excitement. “I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to her. But she is amazing and she didn’t stop talking. She’s really chatty and had loads of stories to tell, and she absolutely loves her horses.
“Meeting the Sheikh was a big deal, too. Godolphin had never used a girl before so there was lots or pressure. It was a positive thing for the sport.” She certainly proved her point, winning at Pontefract on her very first ride for the stables.
The sky is the limit for Gordon. Beyond racing, she has not thought much about the future. “I guess at some point, I would like to settle down and have kids, but women are doing that so much later these days that I think I can get away with this for a while yet. I’ve got to find a man first anyway, haven’t I?” she laughs.
Josephine Gordon is an ambassador for Unibet, official betting partner of the Investec Derby Festival
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eleanore Kelly is a multi-media journalist who competed in three-day eventing at elite level. She runs an equestrian business in Hampshire and still has a burning ambition to compete around Badminton. At present her role as an assistant producer for the BBC has to suffice. Eleanore’s latest articles.