Mrs Oakley returned from her latest book club with an uplifting story. The Mother Superior of an Irish convent was 95 and failing. On her deathbed she asked for a drink and a nun went for fresh milk. Espying the bottle of John Jameson occasionally used by the visiting Father O’Shaughnessy for refreshment, Sister Agnes poured a generous measure into the cup of milk. As the Mother Superior drank, one of the nuns asked her what piece of advice she would leave them with for their lives ahead. Suddenly sitting bolt-upright in bed, the old lady declared, ‘Whatever you do, don’t get rid of that cow!’
That sums up how I now feel about Ascot’s Shergar Cup. I was one of the doubters when Ascot began running the team contest that involves trios of jockeys under the banners of Europe, Great Britain & Ireland, the Rest of the World and the Girls competing on a points basis while still striving as individuals to win the races. Owners and trainers like it because entries are free and the prize money is good. I have become a convert because it brings to the racecourse an entirely new crowd who enjoy the cheery razzmatazz of the contest. More than 29,000 of them came this year. The other pleasure is the chance to savour the style of international stars of the saddle who are rarely seen here such as America’s Gary Stevens or Hong Kong’s Matthew Chadwick. This year I was keen to see S’manga Khumalo, the black South African jockey they call ‘Bling’ on account of his addiction to jewellery and blond rinses. I have never seen anyone who gets so low in the saddle taking a horse to post and he was pretty effective on the way back too, beaten by only a neck in the mile race.
The star this year, however, was Canada’s Emma-Jayne Wilson, the lean, athletic horsewoman who captained the Girls team also represented by our own much-loved Hayley Turner and German trainer’s daughter Steffi Hofer. Hofer is a tiny little figure who, first mounted, looks like a cherry on a cake but who becomes an unyielding ball of willpower in a finish. Sheer determination ensured that she was only just denied a place after her mount swerved at the start of the Sprint and lost five lengths.
Having looked at her rides, I had invested a little at 25-1 on Emma-Jayne winning the Silver Saddle awarded to the leading rider and she was only just pipped by the experienced Olivier Peslier for Europe. Her riding was not just good, it was superb. In the Stayers Handicap over 12 furlongs she timed her challenge perfectly, waiting in fourth and moving up in the straight to lead in the last 150 yards. Even more impressively, in the Mile she rode Don’t Call Me for Dandy Nicholls, who said he couldn’t get a word in as she told him in the parade ring what she intended to do. You wouldn’t have called Don’t Call Me the winner two furlongs out, but Emma-Jayne made up his mind for him with a strong ride and in a battling finish she held off Khumalo and Tom Queally to win by a neck and a short head. As she said afterwards, ‘In the final furlong I’m just as strong as any of the boys out there.’ What I liked even more was her response when asked about being a female jockey: ‘I’m not a woman jockey. I’m just a jockey who happens to be female. I’m a competitor. I’m here to win.’ No wonder she has won more than 1,000 races in Canada. Please bring her back next year, Ascot.
I have banged on for years about the lack of opportunities for women jockeys in Britain. Some horses go even better for a girl and the good women jockeys like Hayley, too level-headed to let the media make her into a symbol for her sex, are as good as the boys. The problem is that few get the chance to become that good because they are denied enough rides by owners and trainers. You have to go 67 places down the championship list to find Hayley as the leading woman rider. The crowds and the punters are happy with women jockeys — look at the numbers who turn up to Carlisle for their annual women-riders-only meeting — but the only girls who get a fair crack of the whip, so to speak, are those who have a trainer for a father, such as Amy Ryan, the champion apprentice of 2012.
This has been a particularly tough season for the women. Hayley has had fewer quality rides since splitting from trainer Michael Bell and suffering an unfortunate series of injuries. Amy has only just resumed riding after serious injury and two of the other top women, Cathy Gannon (shoulder) and Kirsty ‘Milkshake’ Milczarek (neck), have been sidelined with injuries too. The other benefit of the Shergar Cup for me, therefore, was its reminder to those handing out the rides on Britain’s other racetracks that the girls really can do the job.