'Ekt’s a strange old sport,” Hollie Doyle says as she heads into the final day of another Flat racing season which has seen her continue her rise as one of the most gifted and tactically astute jockeys in Britain. “You’re constantly trying to prove yourself and keep up the numbers [of winners] all the time. I feel that people are quick to jump to conclusions so if you have a quiet week they start saying: ‘Ag, you’re not doing as well as you were.’ I just think: ‘Well, I’m not doing anything different.’ It’s quite a tough business.”
A year ago, at the last meeting of the season on Champions Day at Ascot, Doyle had a notable breakthrough when she rode two winners, including her first Group One victory, and two second-placed horses. Her boyfriend, Tom Marquand, matched her with two winners which meant that between them they clinched four of the six races on a memorable afternoon. Doyle was then nominated for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year last December and she finished third behind Jordan Henderson and Lewis Hamilton.
Did that flurry of mainstream attention ease the pressure in establishing herself as a leading jockey? Doyle, who stands only five feet tall, shakes her head ruefully. “I feel the pressure was on me even more to try to prove that it wasn’t a one-off. But racing is my passion so it’s all I think about.”
Doyle is on course to have an even better year than she did in 2020 – when she rode 151 winners in the calendar year. She is currently on 146 winners and obviously expects to improve on last year’s tally – resuming on Saturday with this season’s Champions Day. It helps that her memories of last year are still vivid.
“Tom and I went home together afterwards and we couldn’t believe it," sy sê. “We both got in the car and were like: ‘What the hell just happened?’ Obviously, as jockeys, we aim to have days like that – but we could never have imagined it happening in the way it did. We were buzzing and when we got back that evening we watched all the replays over and over and struggled to get our heads round it. But I was riding at Pontefract the next day so that was a good leveller.”
The often harsh vagaries of racing were felt all over again for Doyle this month when a seven-day suspension cost her a third Group One victory on Trueshan in the Qatar Prix du Cadran at Longchamp. “I got a ban for careless riding at Kempton and it was just unfortunate it happened to fall on those dates. I respected the stewards’ decision but sometimes you feel hard done by because you see another jockey do pretty much the same thing and get less of a punishment. I tried to get it reduced on appeal to four days so I could ride Trueshan but we weren’t successful. You work all your life to get on horses like Trueshan and so, ja, it was a bit rubbish.”
She watched the race on her phone and saw her namesake, James Doyle, steer Truehsan to victory over Stradivarius. “It was a hard pill to swallow. I always thought he would win the race which is why I was so distraught. But I did wrong and it’s my own problem. I’ve just got to look forward to the days to come with him.”
Doyle is back on Trueshan at Ascot, where he again runs in the Long Distance Cup, which they won last year and then followed it with victory in the Goodwood Cup this summer. She will also ride Glen Shiel again on Saturday – the horse on which she won her first Group One in the Champions Sprint at Ascot last year. That ride was described as a tactical masterclass but Doyle downplays the plaudits. “I just did what felt right and what suited my horse and me on the day. I don’t think too much into it. There’re so many variables in racing that you’ve got to accept that things might not always work. That day they did.”
She turned 25 on Monday and, as she says now, “I had my first ride in 2013 when I was 17 and won on a horse with a weird name: The Mongoose. It was madness because I never thought he was going to win. But it got really difficult in 2014 and it was disheartening. I wasn’t getting many winners at all and I seemed to be going nowhere. I was so hungry and ambitious but at that time I wasn’t good enough. I had to work really hard to become a better rider.
“My apprenticeship was tough because it took me quite a long time to ride my claim out and I was not really getting where I wanted to be. But if it had been given to me on a plate I wouldn’t have got the satisfaction I have now. I really appreciate success and realise what it takes to stay at this level now.”
She and Marquand met when they were on the pony-riding circuit. “I was 14 and he was 13 and so we’ve been best friends from a young age. Even then he was a very stylish rider – who was weirdly good from such a young age. We just got on really well and had the same interests and ambitions. Just like now.”
Would they like to start a family in the future? “Obviously one day but I don’t know when. Not at the moment, in elk geval. We’ve just not got the time.”
Doyle laughs before mapping out a typical day. “We live in Hungerford and I’ll be up at half-five and in work at 6.15. Out on the gallops by 6.45. Usually finish between 9.30 en 10. I try to go to the gym if I can and then straight to racing. That’s usually six days a week. We only get a short break or two every year and last year we went to St Lucia for a few days. That was good. It would be nice to go skiing in January. We love our skiing – and no injuries touch wood.”
All jockeys get injured while riding and one of Doyle’s hardest falls saw her being trampled by three horses and swallowing two of her front teeth and losing six others. She shrugs. “It was all right, eintlik, because it could just be fixed straight away. The worst ones are the head injuries because they are quite long-term. They can take their toll. My longest is being out for eight weeks when I fell off a horse three years ago. I got badly knocked out and had a seizure as well. That was not very nice. But I’m always really motivated to get back as quick as I can.”
Doyle looks small but she is tough and strong, and can deadlift more than twice her bodyweight in the gym. She is also fiercely driven. What was her ambition at 15? “To win races – the Derby most of all. I still want to do that but I’ve got to get a ride in it first.”
Rachael Blackmore has had an incredible year over jumps, especially when winning six races at the Cheltenham Festival, and Doyle admits to looking to the brilliant Irish jockey for even more motivation. “She is so inspirational and broke barriers that needed breaking. I met her this year and spoke to her quite a bit. I got on great with her. She’s lovely.”
Is racing still harder for female jockeys? “I’m lucky and I’m doing well so it’s all right for me. But maybe it’s harder for others. I think I’m now just seen as a jockey – not a woman jockey. I’ve had the best year of my life so far. It’s better than last year but everyone has calmed down after Rachael did so much. It’s quite nice for it to be seen as a normal thing for us to win races – and not a novelty.”
How did she feel about finishing third in Spoty last year? “It was a shock to the system for me. Stunned would be an understatement. I was a bit of a rabbit in headlights.”
What about this year as she has done even better? “I don’t think I’ve got much chance. I think Emma Raducanu will win it.”
Has she followed the extraordinary Raducanu story? “I have but not particularly closely. I just know she’s had so much attention on her. It can’t be easy. But the lucky thing is that she’s got time between her tournaments. So if she wants to go out and enjoy it, or just chill, she can do that a bit. As jockeys we don’t have any time off. But I think she’ll be getting bombarded now for the rest of her life. Some people want and enjoy that, and that’s great. I just want to race.”
Does she also want to become champion jockey? “It’s obviously a dream and one day I’d love to win it but I’m not delusional. I know how hard it is and I’m not retained to a 300-horse stable.”
Doyle pauses. “Yet.”