Talking Horses: is it Hollie Doyle’s time to become champion jockey?

With the football season all but over and the World Cup shunted off towards Christmas, the stars have aligned for racing to enjoy an unusually high public profile over the next few weeks. First, the Derby will take centre stage during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations and then attention will turn to Royal Ascot in mid-June, when the Queen is expected to have several fancied runners.

And while it might seem to be tempting fate to suggest it, there are early signs too that when the pomp and ceremony of Ascot is done for another year, the race for the Flat jockeys’ championship could keep the sport in the wider public consciousness through the summer months and on into the autumn.

Hopes were high 12 months ago that Hollie Doyle would follow up her third-place finish in Sports Personality of the Year in December 2020 with a serious tilt at becoming Britain’s first female champion jockey. With Tom Marquand, her partner, also expected to be in the running, the PR potential for the sport was immense.

As it turned out, Doyle’s challenge barely left the starting stalls. By the end of June, when Oisin Murphy and William Buick, the eventual winner and runner-up, had 46 and 51 wins respectively, Doyle was already well adrift on 32.

In the first three weeks of the 2022 campaign, however, Doyle has hit the ground running. She rode 15 winners in May 2021 but is already up to 18 so far this month, two behind Buick – who remains the odds-on favourite for the title – and three in front of Marquand. Ben Curtis also has 18 winners but former champion Silvestre de Sousa, a 20-1 shot for the championship, has just nine and some catching up to do.

It is also interesting that Doyle has been the busiest of the likely title contenders in the opening weeks of the campaign. Nikki’s Girl, the first of her seven mounts at Wolverhampton on Monday afternoon, was her 100th ride since the title race began on 30 April. Buick and Marquand had taken 91 and 84 rides, respectively, before Monday’s cards, while Curtis had just 68, and owed his current second place in the title race to a highly impressive strike rate of 26%.

It will be all but impossible for Curtis to maintain that level of success through the summer months and even at this early stage – and before suspensions or injuries start to intervene – this year’s title could be coming down to a three-way go between Buick, Doyle and Marquand.

Buick, of course, is an outstanding jockey and remains the strong favourite for the title. His strike-rate has scarcely wavered from around 22% over the last two seasons and Charlie Appleby, his main employer, could have his strongest team yet this year.

While none of Buick’s rivals can hope to match the depth of quality in his rides, though, Doyle can also look forward to some high-profile engagements, and potential landmarks, in the weeks ahead. Nashwa, an impressive winner at Newbury earlier this month, is 5-1 second-favourite to give Doyle a first Classic winner in the Oaks at Epsom next month. Her old ally Trueshan, meanwhile, who is due to run at Sandown this Thursday, could start favourite for the Gold Cup, the feature event at Royal Ascot.

Inside the racing bubble, it can sometimes grate just a little when the outside world suddenly wakes up to the fact that it is the only major spectator sport in which male and female athletes compete on equal terms. On that basis, Doyle, like Rachael Blackmore over the jumps, is a highly successful and talented rider who just happens to be female, and her gender should have little or no relevance to her achievements.

But everyone loves a “first”, and the simple fact is that a first English Classic success for a female jockey would attract attention and air-time in a way that little else could. So too would a sustained challenge for the jockeys’ championship, and this time around, it might just turn out to be the story of the summer.

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