Fashion shoot - Emma Sayer at Haydock Racecourse
- Credit: Pics; John Cocks
Farmer’s daughter Emma Sayers is now one of the UK’s top women jockeys. She talks to Martin Pilkington about striving for success and sexism in the sport.
Jockey Emma Sayer doesn’t normally celebrate a win, even though with more than 50 to her credit she has had plenty of opportunity. Last August, however, she punched the air, and later even allowed herself a rare glass of bubbly after riding ‘I Am Not Here’ to win by a length at Haydock. No wonder, the triumph meant she’d won a £20,000 development award that has provided a major boost to her sporting career.
In fact, she needed two first places to scoop the Jockey Club prize. ‘You had to win at Carlisle five days earlier to be in with a chance,’ she explains. Fittingly, it was a horse – Gold Chain – trained by her mother Dianne that gave her that Carlisle victory.
Emma is quick to emphasise the importance of her deep roots in the sport. ‘My grandmother trained, my mother trains on our farm, my father owns a couple of racehorses – it’s a family business. I started at Pony Club when I was three at the Cumberland Farmers Hunt South, competed at Hickstead, The Horse of the Year Show and so on. Then at 16 got my amateur licence and had my first win in my third race.’
Her life is not all champagne and silver cups. ‘I had an accident and broke my neck in a race in France. It wasn’t great spending 14 weeks in a brace.’ Strangely the inactivity helped with one aspect of life that’s a constant concern for jockeys.
‘I lost quite a lot of weight recovering. My mum told me pain strips weight. I got to the lightest I’ve ever been.’ Weight was even more significant during the three years she rode as an apprentice – effectively semi-professional. ‘I was totally disciplined. It was a boiled egg for breakfast every day, salad for lunch, then another boiled egg or, if my weight was really good, some cooked chicken in the evening. I’d go out with friends and just drink water with lemon squeezed into it.’
Having qualified at the Lancaster campus of the University of Cumbria, she now teaches PE at Ullswater Community College, while riding still as an amateur. Juggling the two careers is no mean feat. ‘I ride out most mornings before school, run to keep fit four times a week, and do a workout on my mechanical horse – bought with some of the sponsorship money – most nights. It’s hard to work the muscles needed to ride any other way but in the saddle. I work hard during the week at school, but can race at weekends.’
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As the glamorous shots of her in designer dresses show, the life clearly keeps her trim, but she often hits the course saunas to lose an extra pound before a race, in spite of greater weight allowances for amateurs.
Racing is one of the rare sports where men and women compete, and it’s not always without friction. ‘There’s less sexism from male jockeys than there was a few years ago but the men still don’t really like to be beaten by a girl. If a horse ridden by a girl is unexpectedly beaten you’ll occasionally hear an owner or trainer suggest a man would have been better,’ she says.
Emma counters that for some horses women jockeys provide an advantage. ‘We offer an alternative style of riding. We may not be as strong, though we work hard to be strong enough, but sometimes women get a better tune out of a horse. Maybe we’re more sympathetic – some horses definitely run better for girls.’
She’s very positive about the future for women in the sport. ‘The girls are very supportive of one another, and we’re holding our own. The Women in Racing organisation is helping hugely. There’s a lot of support for women now and the best courses are forever improving how they look after you. At Carlisle, the ladies’ facilities are superb. Here at Haydock you have your own sauna, likewise at York.’
Her £20,000 award has made a big difference to Emma, whose family farm is near Penrith. In addition to that mechanical horse, it’s paying for the three modules she needs to complete to become a trainer, and Emma has invested in new racing equipment. ‘It’s all very expensive. My lightest saddle is just 300 grammes, pretty much a strap the stirrups hang off, and my boots are hand-made.’ Her flat-racing boots look paper thin.
The cash has also helped with the expenses she incurs travelling around the country. ‘It’s a really lonely job, hours by yourself in the car driving from one ride to another. If you’ve had a winner it’s all right, but if you’ve been beaten you go over and over it, asking yourself what you could do better. You’re often hungry from not eating for 24 hours, and tired from exercise and riding.’
So why does she do it? ‘Passion, the adrenaline and the buzz, and I love working with horses, they’re such fantastic creatures. When you are hooked on racing it’s for life – anything can happen, particularly over the jumps. And you live for a winner.’
Hair & Make Up Credits:
• Hair by Andrea at barbara daley hair and beauty barbaradaleyhair.co.uk
• Make up by Faye McAuley @fayemcmakeup
• Dresses provided by Philip Armstrong – British fashion designer based in the North West www.philiparmstrong.com
• The dress worn in the Afternoon Tea shot was by Karl Bowman, a Penrith based fashion designer
• Star of Kalani – looked after by Danielle McCormick