By Emma Berry
Two years ago, Josephine Gordon left her Lambourn base to move to Newmarket to take up an enticing job in the fast-rising stable of Hugo Palmer.
The reigning champion apprentice at that time, with two Lesters to her name in 2016, she hit the ground running in British racing's unofficial HQ, following Hayley Turner in becoming only the second woman to ride more than 100 winners in a year. Gordon's tally by the end of 2017 was 106, but last year she rode 50 fewer winners during a season interrupted in high summer by a hand injury incurred in the starting stalls.
In many ways, this year will be take two for the jockey who cut her teeth pony racing in Devon. She's out on her own now since announcing in February that she will ride as a freelance, and as her new home town shrugs off the last vestiges of winter and prepares for the turf season to burst into life, she too is looking ahead to a bright new dawn.
“My last five months with Stan Moore I was pretty much freelancing anyway, spending three days up here and the rest in Lambourn, and I think that was when things were at their best and really happening,” says Gordon between finishing a morning's riding out before heading to Lingfield. “I have to start over again in that respect and make some new connections and renew old connections, but hopefully this will be the right decision.”
If the 25-year-old has a more reserved nature than some of the other women who have made their names in the saddle in recent years, her talent speaks for itself, even if she finds herself enduring a quieter spell in recent months. Like many jockeys, male or female, she has experienced enough of the tougher times to ensure that when the high days come around again, as they surely will, those moments will bring sustenance with the joy. She did, after all, wait 18 months between her first and second wins as an apprentice, before the rollercoaster started to crank its way up in 2015.
“When things are going well it's brilliant and you're busy, but the game itself is so up and down and it can change just like that,” she reflects. “It all seemed to happen so fast. I loved it but it happened fast and then the first year and a half at Hugo's went really well with group winners, listed winners.”
She adds, “When I broke my hand I wasn't overly worried, I thought it would only be four or five weeks off, but you soon get forgotten about. I don't want to use that as an excuse but I really struggled to get going again. I was getting rides before I broke my hand and I'm not so much now. So something had to change and I'm back working a lot harder again.
“I feel for Bryony [Frost]. She had her big winner at the Cheltenham Festival and now she's broken her collarbone. It just shows that we don't know what's around the corner.”
During the winter, Gordon has been riding out for various trainers in Newmarket, including Ed Dunlop and Gay Kelleway, as well as putting her skills to use in a parallel field by helping fellow jockey John Egan prepare his select team of juveniles for the forthcoming breeze-up sales.
She says, “At the moment I'm riding out for anyone I can really and I'm getting some extra experience riding the breeze-up horses. I've only ever had experience with the breeze-ups when I was with Jo Hughes and it was one horse that I had broken in and done everything with myself, but this has been really fun this winter as it's a different aspect. It's exciting seeing them change and progress. I've just been away for a week and I've seen a difference in them even in that short time.”
She continues, “Riding the babies, you're still learning every day, and every trainer does it differently. When you get into a routine riding for certain trainers you know how they like their horses to be ridden, so I'm learning all that again. There are advantages and disadvantages to being freelance but having the freedom to ride for different people is interesting.”
The increasing success of female members of the weighing-room, in which Gordon has played a significant part, not least in being the first woman to ride and win for Godolphin, means that for the next wave of jockeys acceptance will be granted, as long as talent is evident.
“There are loads of girls coming through now, on the flat and over jumps, so much so that it's not even really a big thing any more. I certainly don't feel there's a barrier being female,” notes Gordon. “I think Hollie Doyle has improved a ton, I think she's very good. We sat down and talked when she was thinking about moving to Archie Watson's. It was the same for me when I left Stan, I didn't know what was the best thing to do. It's not like an office job which you could be in for 10 years. In racing you could be out of a job in six months.”
She's clearly enjoying spending part of each morning riding out alongside Egan, one of the more senior jockeys on the circuit, and has sought advice from her other riding colleagues.
“We have a great laugh,” she admits. “I've really been enjoying riding John's horses. When I thought about going freelance I talked to a lot of the other jockeys to see what they thought. They've been there and done that, the older jockeys, and some of the girls ask me for advice now, which I hope will continue to happen.”
A stop-start winter, which included breaks for equine flu and, to a degree, a short spell of boycotts of Arena Racing tracks by owners and trainers, has been a challenge for a number of jockeys, Gordon included. Now she has her sights set on returning to the heights of 2017, which saw her win a brace of Group 3 victories for Palmer and notch success in a listed race for Saeed bin Suroor.
“It's exciting to see what will happen,” she says. “I'm working extra hard this year to try to change things and there's always a buzz when you know you're about to be riding on the turf. I've just bought a house here. Newmarket is very different to Lambourn but I do like it here and I finally feel at home now. It's all systems go.”