Soon Hollie Doyle will explain how a series of cracked bones, courtesy of Jerry the Thelwell pony, set her on the path to becoming a jockey. First, though, comes a story about her unbreakable spirit.
Doyle is a rising star in Flat racing, a 24-year-old who has been rewriting records. She set a new benchmark in 2019 for most wins by a female rider — 116 — but is on the cusp of beating that total. It could even happen tonight at Kempton Park, where she has nine chances.
There is more to her rapid rise than numbers. This summer has been laced with glorious days, from a first Royal Ascot success in June to the stunning feat at Windsor in August, when she rode five winners for five different trainers. She has also landed a retainer for Saleh Al Homaizi and Imad Al Sagar, the powerful owners whose colt Authorized won the 2007 Epsom Derby.
Hollie Doyle’s faultless win on 33-1 shot Scarlet Dragon at Royal Ascot put her in the public eye
Ask her to talk about a highlight and she struggles. Taking compliments is also something with which she is not comfortable. Doyle would prefer to talk about an episode at Chelmsford — during her days as an apprentice — that shaped her destiny.
‘I won’t mention any names,’ says Doyle in between sips of tea. ‘This one day at Chelmsford, a few years ago, I couldn’t steer my horse and he was running wide off a bend. I had the favourite on my outside and my lad just carried the favourite with him and someone came up our inside to win. This guy, a top jockey, said to me, “You are ****ing useless! You’ll never be any good. You’re too small. You’re too light”.
‘I was mortified. I wanted to cry. But it made me more motivated and driven. You can take it one way or the other, can’t you? I don’t remember praise, only negative things. Look, it’s said very often and I wasn’t being singled out. But it was probably the best bollocking I have had as it made me think, “Yep, maybe he’s right”. I had to sort myself out.’
Doyle is a rising star in Flat racing, a 24-year-old who has been rewriting records
She smiles as she tells the story but not as much as when she talks about the love of her life, Jerry, who is now 30 and ‘fat and furry and looks like an old goat’.
Jerry was the recalcitrant steed who would fling her to the ground, or plant himself when she wanted him to run. ‘We used to go to pony club and I swear the whole class used to dread me being in their group,’ she says. ‘If we had team showjumping it would be, “Oh for God’s sake, Hollie is on the team!” He would never do as he was told. I was eight when my Grandad bought him. He cost about £600.
‘We’d go to shows and I’d always be last. My dad (Mark, a former jockey) would say, “I’m going to get rid of him. I’ve had enough”. So I’d go running, crying, to Grandad. “Dad says he’s going to sell Jerry!” He’d say, “He’s not selling anything, I bought him”.
Doyle has enjoyed a first Royal Ascot success in June and a stunning feat at Windsor in August
‘Looking back, I think it helped me, mentally and physically, to toughen up from a young age. I broke my arm, my leg and my wrist. Dad always drilled into me the need to work harder than everyone else to get what you want. I’ve tried to do that.’
Those words are not hollow. We meet at Bedford Lodge Hotel in Newmarket, shortly after she has spent a morning riding out for Sir Michael Stoute. The early starts and the three-hour commute from her base in Lambourn do not faze her in the slightest.
Doyle is almost apologetic when she discusses how her life is so devoted to horses, but it was during a discussion about her daily routine — and how she marked the 899-1 five-timer at Windsor — that she gives an insight into her unrelenting quest for self-improvement.
Doyle could set a new record at Kempton Park on Wednesday, where she has nine chances
‘Nothing has been a sacrifice, really, because horses are all that I have known,’ she says. ‘If I’ve got a day off, I will go to the gym. I feel bad if I don’t go. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have that feeling. When you have a day off, you need it to recuperate, because you are competing every single day.
‘But I genuinely feel bad. What did I do after Windsor? Had some dinner and went to bed early. It’s sad, isn’t it? Our job is so full-on, how could I have celebrated?’
She is driven but Doyle — whose boyfriend Tom Marquand is also a leading jockey — is aware of how her progress is being cherished. The win on 33-1 shot Scarlet Dragon at Royal Ascot was faultless and put her in the public eye. She is a role model.
‘I went to Ayr the other week,’ she says. ‘I flew to Glasgow and got a taxi to the course. The driver said, “Oh my God, I’ve got Hollie Doyle in my cab!” He started talking to me about the races he’d watched. I thought, “What is happening here?” I couldn’t believe it.’
Doyle at home with boyfriend Tom Marquand, who is also a leading jockey
We conclude by discussing the retainer with Homaizi and Al Sagar and the prospect of capping what has been a life-changing spell at Ascot on Saturday, where she will ride Glen Shiel in the QIPCO Champions Sprint.
‘It was a bit of a shock,’ Doyle says. ‘I don’t like playing on the female jockey thing, but not many of us get retainers. For someone to want to retain was like, “Woah — people actually do want to put me on their horses!”
‘With Ascot, it’s ambitious but you never know. Glen Shiel travelled the best he ever has at Haydock last month and he’s improving. That would be a great end to the year, wouldn’t it?’
QIPCO British Champions Day takes place at Ascot on Saturday. For more information go to: britishchampionsseries.com