Interview: Lucy Alexander, jockey

Why the long face, horse?:  Lucy Alexander and Northern Flame at the jockey's father's Kinneston Yard near Scotlandwell. Photograph: Neil Hanna
Why the long face, horse?: Lucy Alexander and Northern Flame at the jockey's father's Kinneston Yard near Scotlandwell. Photograph: Neil Hanna
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IT’S an unusually sunny day in the village of Scotlandwell. Instead of the cruel North Sea wind which usually scours the gallops, the hill is bathed in sunshine as a long line of stablegirls exercise racehorses at Fife trainer Nick Alexander’s yard. If the balmy conditions are out of the ordinary, that’s somehow fitting as these are extraordinary times for the yard’s most famous scion, 21-year-old national hunt jockey Lucy Alexander.

Scotland’s first professional female jump jockey is standing in her father’s yard at Kinneston looking decidedly uncomfortable as the photographer gets her to strike yet another pose. Her bashfulness is entertainingly incongruous given that this is the girl whose gritty, forceful performances in the saddle are already carving her a remarkable legacy. Later that day she would be crashing over the fences at Ayr, winning the 26th race of a remarkable first season as a pro that saw her beat the previous record of 22 wins by a female jockey in a season, set by Lorna Vincent back in 1980.

Yet there is a palpable sense that this is merely the beginning for a jockey who cheerfully admits to being amazed at the extent of her achievements this year. A cult hit with racing luminaries such as trainers Sue Bradburne and Ferdy Murphy, and former champion jockey John Francombe, this week she graduates to the big time when she saddles up at Cheltenham for the first time. While Alexander says she’s “not 100 per cent sure what’s running or what I’m riding”, she looks set to ride three horses for Murphy – Charingworth in the Byrne Group Plate, De Boitron in the Grand Annual and Riguez Dancer in the JLT Specialty – and she is also expected to ride Wyse Hill Teabags for Jim Goldie and Red Tanber for Bruce Mactaggart.

A reticent soul who lets her performances do her talking, Alexander stands on the cusp of great things. Murphy, one of her biggest fans and the man who described her as “the best young rider I’ve seen” (he also, bizarrely, described the pretty Fifer as “having size eight feet and hands like an Irish navvy”), has an uncanny ability to turn out Cheltenham winners, with De Boitron starting as joint-favourite.

It’s been a dizzyingly rapid rise to racing’s top echelons. “When I was at school I was desperate to bunk off to go to Cheltenham but we weren’t allowed to – they had to almost barricade me in,” laughs Alexander. “But I’d tape it and watch it as soon as I got home. I’ve had a couple of days there, but if you’d have told me this time last year that I’d be riding at Cheltenham I’d never have believed you; it’s like a dream.”

In the few spare moments of an absurdly busy week criss-crossing Britain to get to race meetings, Alexander has been speaking to jockeys and trainers to try to get a measure of what it will be like to ride at Cheltenham. While she understands just how crazy it will be at the country’s biggest national hunt meeting, she seems remarkably calm about the prospect.

“It’s a fantastic showcase for me; the biggest jumping festival and another level up from what I’ve been doing,” she says. “I appreciate it’s a big deal but I’m not nervous or worried, I’m just looking forward to it. Perhaps if you’ve not ridden there before then you don’t realise how crazy it is; maybe that’s an advantage.”

It is, she stresses, not the only advantage she has enjoyed in her career. The whole Alexander Clan will be in attendance this week, and Lucy knows that nurture has been as important as nature for her. As well as trainer father Nick, uncle Jamie is an amateur jockey who rides out at Kinneston daily, grandfather Cyril was a legendary racehorse man with a race at Kelso named after him, Nick’s stepsister Hazel is the clerk of the course at Hamilton, while Lucy’s brother Kit is a point-to-point jockey. Family get-togethers are dominated by horse talk, and her earliest memory points to an equine obsession that continues unabated.

“As tiny kids Kit and I would build jumps and ride round on our hobby horses,” she says. “My earliest childhood memory is of a frosty Saturday morning in February when Kit and I made the whole family come stand outside to watch us, and they’d stand there freezing and shivering as Kit and I would take our hobby horses over the jumps on an eight-race card.”

She had her first pony at five, rode her first racehorse at 12, was riding out every day by 15, while school was at Kilgraston, the only Scottish boarding school with equestrian facilities. But it was her first point-to-points which hooked her. “At 16 I rode Wiseman, my dad’s horse, who was a brilliant schoolmaster and a great jumper who I just had to point in the right direction. I won my first three races at Alnwick, Jedforest and then [back to] Alnwick. After that there was no way back.”

Alexander was lucky that her father could give her the rides to get her started and noticed, because many young would-be jockeys struggle to get past this point. Yet he clearly knew what he was doing: his daughter was a talented athlete who won every single athletics event from the 100m to the shot putt at school, and she brought those same qualities to the paddock. “The thing that always marked Lucy out is that she is ferociously determined and competitive,” he says. “She never gives up.”

Spells with flat trainers Aidan O’Brien, Kevin Ryan and Sir Michael Stoute – plus two short-lived attempts to start university – followed, as did 20 flat races at venues like Epsom and Ascot which “made me sharp and tight” before she scorched on to the national hunt scene.

There are female jump jockeys in Ireland such as Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh, but the top British women jockeys, such as Hayley Turner and Cathy Gannon, are on the flat. With no female role models, Alexander is a trailblazer yet says it’s been surprisingly unproblematic. “There was a perception that trainers wouldn’t put a girl over jumps in case she got hurt,” she says, “but trainers like Ferdy Murphy and Alan Swinbank have been really supportive, and Barry Murtagh gave me rides as an amateur against professionals, which is unusual.

“As for the jockeys, some of the chat can be pretty earthy, and they wander around with no clothes on all the time, but you get used to that very quickly and it certainly doesn’t faze me.”

If anything, Alexander says being a woman has huge upsides. Surprisingly strong, she is extremely fit and can train without worrying that she’ll put on muscle. “Fitness is so important because if you get tired in a race then your brain goes too. People don’t appreciate just how physically demanding jump riding is, but I’m lucky because I’m not like the lads, who have to be in the sauna every day, who have to do the wasting, who see their weight go up and down, who survive on sugar cubes and coffee. That kills them but I can eat healthily knowing I’ll never have to ride feeling weak or light-headed.”

Not that Alexander is asking for special treatment. “I’ve not had any problems with being a girl. People ask whether I get fed up being treated as a girl jockey, but it doesn’t annoy me because I am a girl jockey! As long as I’m respected for my achievements and treated on merit rather than people saying, ‘oh she’s good for a girl’, then I’m happy. But the only way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to win races and demand people’s respect.”

If the rest of the season is any guide, we can expect nothing less this week at Cheltenham.