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Turner blazes a trail for female jockeys

By Alysen Miller, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hayley Turner became the first woman to win a Group 1 race on July 9
  • The 28-year-old is widely regarded as the first female jockey in the UK to sustain a career
  • Turner has enjoyed plenty of media attention and has posed for Vanity Fair magazine
  • She is competing at this week's prestigious Glorious Goodwood festival

(CNN) -- There are few sports in which men and women compete, head to head, on a truly equal footing. Horse racing, however, is one domain where they can do battle.

But unlike other areas of equestrianism such as three-day eventing, women jockeys have struggled to make their mark alongside their male counterparts. Until now.

On July 9, English jockey Hayley Turner became the first woman to win a Group One race in the UK. In doing so, she has galloped into the record books.

Widely respected within the racing community for being enthusiastic and down-to-earth, the Briton is not letting her achievements go to her head.

The 28-year-old consented to let CNN spend the day with her as she went about her daily routine ahead of the Glorious Goodwood festival, in which she followed up her Group One victory at Newmarket, with another high-profile success.

Glorious Goodwood: Horse racing's garden party

Horse racing's garden party

It is a life of grueling 4 a.m. starts and riding out for local trainers. Afternoons are spent driving up and down the country wherever she is racing. Often she won't get home to the semi-detached Newmarket property she shares with long-time friend and trainer Amy Weaver until midnight.

"It is stupid hours but I'm not complaining," said Turner. "It's a nice life because I wouldn't do anything else."

Typically modest, Turner is calm about her achievements.

"It was nice to have a big win and tick it off the list. It was a ride I picked up last-minute," she said. "I was quite relaxed about the whole thing, because in my opinion it's no more difficult to ride in the big races than the small ones."

Turner was already something of a pioneer even before her landmark win in the July Cup.

Widely regarded as the first female in the UK to sustain a day-to-day professional career as a jockey, she was the first woman to be Champion Apprentice, in 2005, and the first to ride 100 winners in a year, in 2008 -- a feat that most will never experience in their lifetime. Turner is on course to repeat that feat this season.

In my opinion it's no more difficult to ride in the big races than the small ones
--Hayley Turner
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Nevertheless, when she swept past the winning post in first place on Dream Ahead in front of a home crowd at Newmarket, she also crossed a major threshold in her career. By beating the boys at their own game, Turner has now earned the right to be called simply "Hayley Turner the jockey," rather than her hitherto-overused epithet, "Hayley Turner the female jockey."

Trainer Michael Bell has supported Turner since taking her on as an 18-year-old apprentice a decade ago, and she still rides for him.

"You can't underestimate what Hayley's achieved," Bell said. "There's an inbuilt prejudice against female riders -- the first lady rider only rode on the flat less than 40 years ago -- so she really has been a pathfinder."

According to the latest figures from the British Racing School -- the training academy for aspiring jockeys -- women make up more than 70% of students on its foundation course.

Yet by the second stage of the course, which prepares the students for their racing apprenticeships, the number drops to 39%. For jumps racing the figure is even lower: just 3% of trainee apprentices are women.

Despite this, women make up approximately two-thirds of work riders at most racing yards. Largely because, being naturally smaller, they find it easier to maintain the ideal weight of around 50-55 kilograms.

Surely it is only a matter of time before the floodgates open and more women follow in Turner's footsteps?

Only two other female jockeys currently riding in the UK have come close to matching Turner's achievements: Cathy Gannon and Kirsty Milczarek.

You can't underestimate what Hayley's achieved. There's an inbuilt prejudice against female riders
--Michael Bell

However, Turner's victory in the July Cup eclipses any achievement by a female jockey before her.

"It means I can let my guard down a little bit," she said. "Before I was always a bit defensive about the whole 'girl thing' and tried to play it down. Now that I've achieved this I think people can see that just because I'm a jockey doesn't mean that I can't wear heels and paint my nails!"

Turner appears at times almost embarrassed by her new-found status as a role model. Her success on the track, coupled with her "girl next door" personality, has made her a darling of both the racing and non-racing press.

She has posed for, among others, Vanity Fair, but remains determined to let her riding do the talking.

"I class myself as a better rider than a model! I do get a lot of publicity -- probably more than I deserve sometimes -- but I'd never get lost in the clouds. It's good fun but obviously racing is my priority and I wouldn't let anything get in the way of that."

It remains to be seen whether Turner's success will have a direct impact on the number of female jockeys coming through the ranks.

In the meantime, however, with years still ahead her, you wouldn't bet against Turner single-handedly changing the way we think of women riders in the sport.

"I think it can be done," said Turner. "If they're good enough (other female jockeys) there's no reason why they can't do it. If they work hard and they're ambitious and you have a passion for it, it will happen."