It’s a great story,’ says Hayley Turner, as she makes a pot of tea at her Newmarket home, and how appropriate that little sentence proves to be.
Hers is, indeed, a great story — inspirational, even. She is the daughter of a Nottingham shopkeeper, who had no natural connection with racing but, with talent and ambition, she became Britain’s most successful female jockey, a re-writer of history.
Turner, a fervent Notts County fan, will do that again the next time she rides a winner: her tally for career victories stands at 999 and the 40-year-old will become the first European woman to reach four figures. She smiles when the number is mentioned and is rightly proud. But this is so much more than a cliched narrative about a woman thriving in a man’s world, mention of which has Turner rolling her eyes.
No. The great story that kicks things off involves Storm Babet, a flood, a local pub and the angst of seeing a winner slip away.
Turner had been booked to ride the well-fancied Run Zarak Run at Redcar on October 20 but, as he galloped unchallenged to a commanding triumph, she was submerging 110 miles away.
Britain’s most successful female jockey Hayley Turner has shed light on her amazing career
The 40-year-old has 999 career victories and will be Europe’s first woman to reach four figures
‘Oh God!’ she begins, as her black labrador, Frank, yaps away for attention. ‘So I was driving up north and I got sent off on a diversion up the Great North Road, just after Newark. All the cars were slowing down, because the water was on the road, but they were getting through it, slowly.
‘I thought to myself, “Oh, I’ll be fine” but as I was traipsing through the water got deeper and next thing I know, my car is at a standstill. So I rang Dad. He says, “Why don’t you ring the AA?” I said, “I’m not a member and I don’t suppose they’ve got any boats…”’
Laughing now, she mimics the face of incredulity she knew would be on the other end of the phone. ‘Well, Dad can’t believe it,’ Turner continues. ‘He says, “You’re not a member? Of the AA? Well I think it’s something you’re going to have put on your list”. I’m like, “Dad! There’s a time and a place for this chat!” Anyway, I rang 999 as the water was so high and I couldn’t open the door.
‘I suppose I could have paddled out but, thankfully, a fire engine with two firemen came along. They said, “Leave your car keys and everything in there”. They took me over to the engine but when they went back to the car, everything had shut down.
‘My bag, laptop, iPad, riding out gear, bank cards: everything was in there. The police moved it eventually and took me to a place called Tuxford and there was this one pub — the kind where it’s 3pm on a weekday and everyone is really loud and drunk!
‘So I sat in the corner and thought to myself, “Well, it’s as good a time as any to have a gin and tonic and ring the insurance company”. Then my phone starts buzzing with all these messages. I knew what had happened, so I should be on 1,000. Anyway… it’s a great story!’
There is no need for her to panic. The milestone will come — she has two chances at Newcastle this afternoon — and support for her is huge, not least from Judy Murray, with whom Turner struck up a bond when they worked on the ITV show Driving Force.
‘When you talk to her, she is genuinely passionate,’ Turner says, as we watch a replay of her biggest day, winning the 2011 July Cup on Dream Ahead, on iPad. ‘It’s that feeling you get when you know have got someone’s full support and they think it’s brilliant what you do.’
Turner retired once already – back in 2015 – having become disillusioned by the knocks she kept taking
Turner revealed a moment of sheer panic when she called AA during the ferocious storm Babet
And Turner is brilliant at what she does. You do not last in an industry as ferociously competitive as racing for as long as she has done without having natural ability or steely determination.
There have, of course, been difficult days. She shows the battle scars of injuries and names almost every part of her body in terms of breakages. Turner retired once, in 2015, having become disillusioned by the knocks she kept taking.
‘When I retired, I had to work for a living and I didn’t like that!’ she says. ‘But I was so interested in the amount of bones I’d broken, I wanted to understand it a bit. So I did a diploma in fitness and personal training: I’m actually qualified as a gym instructor now. I’m not retiring again.’
Why would she? This is everything she has loved doing since leaving school, having come in one day to tell her dad, Richard, and mum, Kate, she was going to the Northern Racing College to become a jockey. Her only previous experience around horses had been on her pony, Wallace.
‘They were like, “Yes, dear! You do whatever makes you happy!”’ says Turner, who has two elder sisters, Connie and Gemma. ‘They must have thought, “Here we go again!” I’d never been to the races, never had any interest in racing. But the people at school thought I was quite good.’
Yet her first ride — at Southwell, on March 27, 2000 — could easily have been her last.
‘The horse was called Markellis,’ she recalls. ‘Halfway round, he broke his leg. My parents were in the stands, waiting for me to come back. I had to stay with the vets while they tended to it. I took the tack off and walked back to the weighing room.
‘I saw Mum and Dad and I’m saying to myself, “Don’t cry! Don’t cry!” I walked into the weighing room and couldn’t believe what had happened. It’s mad, isn’t it? But that’s the thing with us jockeys: we are all mad.’
Turner was made an OBR in 2016 and has had plenty of success in the royal silks, which led to conversations with the late Queen Elizabeth II
Perhaps a better way to frame it is she has a zest for life, which is encapsulated in this story about the late Queen. Turner, made an OBE in 2016, has enjoyed plenty of success in the Royal silks, leading to several conversations with Her Majesty.
‘When I first met her, I’d won for her and we had a couple of jokes,’ says Turner. ‘I rode for her the next year, in the same race, and we won it again. We were up on the podium, getting our prizes. She says to me, “Ooh, we’ve done this before, haven’t we?”
‘So I said, “Yes, Maam… you should pay me a retainer!” She looks at me and there is this pause.’ As she relays this, you can still see the terror in her face from the silence.
‘Then she started laughing,’ says Turner. ‘I really thought I’d gone too far! Thank God she did. It’s all been so much fun.’