Sammy Jo Bell: Female jockey poised to reign in Sport of Kings

Story highlights

  • Apprentice jockey is a rising star in racing
  • Co. Antrim girl starred at Ascot's Shergar Cup
  • Bell looking to build on Hayley Turner's legacy

(CNN)She's got a winning smile and is hotly tipped to hold the whip hand over her male colleagues in the not too distant future.

Jockey Sammy Jo Bell may only be five-feet tall but her stature in the world of horse racing is growing by the race.
The 24-year-old apprentice from Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland has been putting male riders in the shade this summer racking up an impressive 23 winners to date.
    Bell's form has made her the leading female in the UK Apprentice Jockey Championship, amassing more than £230,000 ($355,000) in prize money, earning a sizable chunk of those winnings in June as she claimed nine wins in 22 starts -- an impressive strike rate of 40%.
    The feat saw her nominated for a prestigious Jockey of the Month award alongside two of the sport's most illustrious names, Ryan Moore and Frankie Dettori.
    That particular turf battle was won by the Italian legend -- Dettori being rewarded for a string of high-profile wins, notably riding Golden Horn to victory at the Epsom Derby.
    But for Bell the nomination was a small victory in itself, helping promote the idea of women jockeys being equals to men.
    "I think if you're good enough to get rides you'll get them, whether you're a boy or a girl," Bell told CNN's Winning Post.
    "I don't think it makes much difference at the minute. We're on level terms. You put your head down and you get on with it."
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    Currently learning her trade under the guidance of renowned trainer, Richard Fahey at his Musley Bank Stables in North Yorkshire, Bell is unfazed by the early mornings and the social and financial sacrifices she is making now.
    "On a normal day we come in at seven o'clock and we tack up straight away. We ride about four lots before breakfast, then afterwards we ride about three or four after that," she explains.
    After lunch it's back to the yard to brush, feed and water the horses before clocking off around six o'clock.
    "It's like anything in life, you have to work hard to get the results and you have to keep it going for a period of time -- nothing happens overnight -- and eventually you get some rewards out of it."
    Her dedication paid off handsomely at the Shergar Cup in August where she became the first apprentice to ride in the annual event which pits teams of professional jockeys against one another in a series of races at Ascot.
    Drafted into the all-female team at the last minute -- replacing the injured Cathy Gannon -- Bell proceeded to steal the show winning two races and helping secure a first win for a women's team.
    The performance also won her the Silver Saddle -- awarded to the leading jockey.
    "The Shergar Cup was pretty amazing. It was nice to ride a winner, never mind two and to win the Silver Saddle just topped the whole day off."

    Sammy Jo Bell being put through her paced by trainer Richard Fahey. #CNNWinningPost

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    Bell's mentor Fahey was anxious that she might have bitten off more than she could chew at Ascot but he was ecstatic when she proved him wrong.
    "I was really worried for her -- that it may backfire on her -- but lo and behold she ran a winner and then another -- it went fantastically!" Fahey told CNN.
    Bell has impressed Fahey ever since she joined his stables in early 2013.
    "She's very talented is Sammy," he says. "She doesn't complicate things. She's got a great racing brain. She's riding winners -- the horses are running for her."
    Her rapid progress is all the more impressive given the lack of opportunities afforded to most female jockeys.
    "It's tougher for them," Fahey says. "They have to work harder ... I have some owners that won't have girls under any circumstances. There is an issue about physical strength but I do think it's changing.
    "Sammy had a great run a few months ago and owners were actually asking for her."
    While professional male flat jockeys still outnumber females in the UK -- in 2014, the ratio was around 12 to one -- the situation is improving with 82 girls compared to 61 boys being placed in apprenticeships last year at the British Racing School, according the British Horseracing Authority (BHA).
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    "In recent years we have seen the emergence of fine female riders such as Lucy Alexander and Lizzie Kelly over jumps and on the flat Sammy Jo Bell and Shelley Birkett -- who became the first female to win two BHA 'Racing Excellence' series in one season in 2013," BHA's Tessa Smyth told CNN.
    Much of this growth in female rider numbers in flat racing has been down to the success of pioneering jockey Hayley Turner, Smyth says.
    Turner became the first female champion apprentice in 2005 riding a total of 60 winners before making turf history in 2008 when she became the first woman to win a Group 1 race in Britain and the first to ride 100 winners in a calendar year.
    With Turner recently revealing plans to hang up her saddle at the end of the season, the sport will be looking for a new female figurehead and now may be a good time for Bell to take up the reins as old gender prejudices enter the final furlong.
    "You know the stigma is still there, but it's getting easier for a girl. It's getting more acceptable," Fahey concludes.
    Bell won't be drawn too far down the track on her future despite the going looking good. For now, she prefers to concentrate on the ground directly in front of her.
    "Becoming a professional jockey is something I really want to do and I know that this is the time I have to work really hard, putting the hard graft in," she says.
    "I still have a long way to go to get there, but when I do, I'll take it from there and see how it goes."