Hollie Doyle: ‘I worry about taking my foot off the gas. You’re very easily replaced’ | Chris Cook

Hollie Doyle: ‘I worry about taking my foot off the gas. You’re very easily replaced’ | Chris Cook

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he obvious outlier among the nominees for the Sports Personality of the Year on Sunday is Hollie Doyle, being the only woman, the youngest on the shortlist by six years and representing a sport, horse racing, that has mostly struggled for air time on the BBC show. Voters may be surprised by her inclusion, may imagine it to be the result of some kind of tokenism, but followers of racing know better, having seen the irresistible way she has forged through the jockey ranks over the past three years.

Tired but happy is her mood when we meet on Zoom, just days after the latest in a string of highlights that have made up her year. Victory in Hong Kong last week is not the first thing the 24-year-old wants to talk about and nor is the chance to rub shoulders with other sporting stars in Salford this weekend. “I’m looking forward to the week we’ve got off after Christmas,” is her opening line.

To understand the deep significance and oasis-like promise of an entire week off, you have to consider that Doyle last indulged herself with a break of comparable length in November 2019. Her days are full of early starts and long journeys, riding on the gallops in Lambourn before driving to compete at Carlisle or Goodwood or anywhere in between.

“It would be nice to have a longer break but unfortunately my commitments don’t allow me to have much time off. I’ve got to keep up my relationships with trainers, to hopefully give me a good boost into the season.”

This is how a jockey makes progress. The Flat races Doyle rides in are all about speed and she is regularly in the thick of it as equine and human bodies whizz past the post at Lingfield in a blur, but advancing one’s career is more of a grind. Do well on the all-weather and you can hope for chances on turf. Winners in January eventually, with a bit of luck, lead to opportunities in June.

“I’m always worried about taking my foot off the gas. You’re very easily replaced, aren’t you? I’ve built up quite a big group of trainers now that use me and I need to get to that stage in my career where I’m not easily replaced. It’s easier said than done but that’s the target.”

Hence that foreshortened holiday. “We’ll get Christmas and Boxing Day and then we’re going to go for seven full days away. We’ve booked a holiday in St Lucia and we’re just hoping that the travel corridors don’t change. We definitely need it, that’s for sure.”

The “we” includes Tom Marquand, her boyfriend since they were barely teenagers riding in pony races, who has also had a sensational year. Between them, they rode four of the six winners at Ascot on Champions Day in October and the interior of their Hungerford home is presumably lit by the sparkle of trophies.

Their personalities appear complementary rather than similar. Marquand is laidback, sauntering through life, while Doyle is more pensive.

When they end up in the same race, is there any kind of private battle going on? “No, not at all. We don’t get competitive with each other. We’re obviously very competitive people but never with each other.” They would rarely pick over their chances in advance of a race, she says, but she does sometimes use him as an audience on which to vent frustration if she has been a victim of misfortune or someone else’s careless steering.

All jockeys want to win, at least in theory, but Doyle’s drive is so clear from her body language in a race that it can come through the screen and knock you in the eye. Her five-foot frame settled deep into the saddle, her short back a perfect line angled aggressively forward, she drives her mounts to the line.

She was not always so effective and 2014, her second year with a licence, yielded just one win from 44 rides. The turning point came with a decision to take advantage of her light weight and build up some muscle. Even after packing on an extra 14lb she can still ride at eight stones but her coach at Lambourn’s Oaksey House reckons she is now, pound for pound, one of the strongest jockeys with whom he works.

Her unwavering focus on the job means she finds it hard to answer when asked if fame has made a difference. “All I do is go racing and ride out. I haven’t been many other places.” It’s “a big honour” to be nominated alongside Lewis Hamilton, Ronnie O’Sullivan and others, but she adds: “I don’t follow any other sports other than racing.”

Doyle picks her first Royal Ascot success, on the 33-1 shot Scarlet Dragon, as the best single moment of her year but she has kept her name in the headlines by a variety of means. She rode five winners one summer Saturday at Windsor. She has splintered the record for winning rides by a female jockey in a year, which she set at 116 just 12 months ago; she is on 144 but it will probably have gone up again by the time you read this.

She is building on foundations laid by Alex Greaves, Cathy Gannon, Hayley Turner and others but her career is nonetheless a revelation to those who can remember what things were like for female jockeys 30 years ago. Opportunities were hard to come by, unless provided by family members. Chauvinist punters did not hide their feelings and there was always the suspicion that many trainers and owners shared them.

Some pundits still reckon there are limits to what women can achieve in racing but Doyle’s work is a serious challenge to any such reservations. She may not be a natural in front of a camera and is to seek media training in the new year, but her undeniable skill has won her a big following.

“I get plenty of messages and tweets from people. It’s hard to keep up with it all but I try and get back to as many as I can. I’ve had quite a few messages off younger girls, asking for advice. I tell them to work hard. Work as hard as you can and keep your head down. Don’t be using excuses.”

• To find out more about Hollie Doyle’s 2020 season please visit greatbritishracing.com.