Way back in the 1990s when I was training racehorses and my children Sophie and James (Doyle) were growing up in a life steeped in ponies and fed a daily diet of racing, more National Hunt (jumps) than flat in those days, I could never have foreseen the life I was gently nudging them towards.
Although my partner at that time was a jump jockey (Sean Curran), we lived in a different era, one where a late or even all-night party was interrupted for a day of work, driving to the races, and riding maybe as many as six horses in an afternoon before whizzing back to Lambourn for Happy Hour in The Plough.
It was an eat-sleep-repeat method of living and working and one that no jockey today should ever consider unless they wish to have a very short career.
Sophie and James’s lives were embedded in early mornings, hard work, long days and longer nights (nannies were not always reliable where we lived).
They watched great riders enjoying the glory of winning at the Cheltenham Festival or Royal Ascot and maybe sleeping on our sofa that night, needing a nudge from them to shimmy on back to Cheltenham or Ascot as they ran out for the school bus.
It was a fun life, if rather unorganised, and I must admit that I am quietly amazed that they were not both scarred for life.
Fortunately, they are made of strong stuff (Norwegian/Irish blood will do that) and they both knew better than to follow in some very famous footsteps, instead leaning towards the likes of their hero, the classy John Francome (brilliant jockey, teetotaller and dedicated).
Their own dedication and work ethic are what I admire most in my children, alongside becoming thoroughly nice human beings. But I have occasionally questioned my wisdom, as life as a jockey is so tough. The demands are both physical and mental, but I will not go too much into the latter here.
Gone (or they should be) are the days of partying and acting the clown, a jockey’s career can be short-lived, and it should be well-lived.
Jockey coaches have helped educate our youngsters on the need to be supremely fit, diet conscious and preferably non-smoking.
Nutritionists abound if they can be persuaded to listen to them, gyms with excellent trainers are plentiful and we are finally getting a bit of a system in place to deal with mental health issues, though again they will need a lot of persuading to go there.
In the 1990s social media was not even a twinkle in some tech genius’s eye, fast-forward to 2022 and we see the horrific criticism of all sports people, generally from those who have not got a clue what they are talking about, but I know how tough-skinned a jockey must be to rise above it.
Imagine if in your job as a teacher, nurse, builder, accountant or whatever that every day you could see your profile being defiled in the public eye via social media, yes, I’m guessing you would pass on that.
The flip side is, of course, euphoria, praise beyond measure, “brilliant, GOAT (greatest of all time), better than Steve Cauthen or a Lester Piggott and so it goes on.
Sadly, there are some riders who believe both sides of this coin when it is directed at them, my advice has always been to ignore, laugh and never focus on praise or criticism that is slanted.
Starvation, flipping, sweating and dehydration used to be the jockeys’ normal way of life but thankfully we have more nutritional knowledge nowadays and understand the science of fitness, body fat and how to reduce it.
Much as a racehorse would not be able to perform well if fed a diet of low protein, high carbohydrate, and processed foods, neither can jockeys compete and hold their own form on a similar menu.
We can get away with a host of mistakes when we are very young but to attain longevity at a high level and avoid unnecessary injury, repair well if injured, calls for a high level of nutrition and a low level of toxins. That helps the greatest machine on earth, the human body, to function at its maximum for as long as possible. One should be aware that the fitter the body the sharper the brain, a good reason that Formula 1 (F1) drivers survive the dangers of their career. Mind you, even top jockeys are earning a fraction of what Lewis Hamilton and his peers command when they go racing.
Perhaps, in hindsight, which is always beautiful, I should have taken Sophie and James to the Grand Prix instead?
The author is a former Derby-winning trainer