On 4 April 2009 Sara Morgan, 30, a Nursery School manager and teacher could be lining up aboard a racehorse at Aintree – – to race in front of the Grand National day crowds and television audience…
And all because she had a wild impulse to follow her childhood dream of being a jockey… she entered the John Smith’s People’s Race:
How did you hear about the race?
I was at Aintree races back in November and it was just in the programme. I was with a group of friends so we were discussing it, and I thought actually I would really love to do that…and then I thought: I wonder if I can do it!
Have you ridden horses before?
When I was younger I rode a lot – I did show jumping, eventing and Pony Club, and I’ve ridden out a few point to pointers now and then. But I didn’t think I’d qualify – obviously it is the People’s Race, but I have never raced a horse so I thought I would apply and see what happened.
So how did you apply?
I filled in the form on the website and then had to just wait until the closing date. So that was beginning of December and then on 22 December – really close to Christmas – I got a call saying “You’ve been selected to the final 32”! I was invited to go to Doncaster [The Northern Racing College] for two days’ assessment, to test riding ability and fitness.
Had you done a lot of fitness training before you went?
I tried to get in as much fitness training as possible but I wasn’t sure it would be enough. We had to take the bleep test – shuttle runs – and had to reach level 7 to pass; I got to level 10 so I passed that bit!
What riding test did you have to do?
We spent the first day trotting in the indoor school – on proper horses! – in jockey position, and then we went out on the gallops, so you had to be able to have some riding ability. Then we went on horse simulators to test our fitness and style and at the end of those two days we were told whether we had been selected into the final eight from Doncaster – there was another group of eight at Newmarket [The British Racing School] too.
Were you confident you would be selected?
Not at all. The ability of the other riders was very good – it was very competitive. They were supposed to take eight of us but they in fact invited 10 of us back to come to a second selection day, because we were so competitive and I guess they couldn’t quite choose between us.
So then we had to come back the following week for further assessment, which consisted of harder riding – we had to go up the straight gallops and we had more difficult horses to ride. And then they had to tell two of us they hadn’t got through.
It was like the X-Factor, we were all sitting in a room after the final test and they said “We will tell you here and now because that will be easier,” so two people’s names were said and it was really horrible, I felt so sad for them.
What was the next stage?
We were given trainers so I am with Donald McCain in Cholmondeley. We are now in the proper training period, so you just go and ride out as often as you can, keep yourself fit, go to the gym every night, do circuit training and I have the use of an Equiciser which is great. Then I went back a couple of weekends ago to Doncaster to do more intensive training, to learn things like group manoeuvres – such as how to move a horse up through the field from the back.
Is it very different from ‘normal’ riding?
Oh yes! It’s completely different – nothing you might have learned in other types of riding helps you really, only your balance, because your stirrups are very short, the way you hold your reins is different, the position that you are in is different and obviously the speed that you are going is a lot quicker, so it is another type of riding altogether.
Is the speed scary?
I don’t find it scary!
How does the training fit in compared with your day job?
It’s hard to fit the training in with work because I am a teacher, I work in a nursery, and with class ratios there are days and times that I absolutely have to be there. So for the training I ride out three times a week. I have to be at the stables at 7.30am so it’s not too bad. I get up at 6am and have breakfast, then go to ride. Then I go to work and some days I go to the gym after work as well, so it can be a long day but it’s all worthwhile.
Were you nervous about being trained by Donald McCain, son of Ginger McCain who is famed as the trainer of Red Rum – and obviously therefore has played a major part in the history of the Grand National?
I was really nervous, I didn’t know what to expect. They’ve got 105 horses in training so it’s a big yard and I ride out with all the other stable lasses and lads. They are really fantastic and Donald’s been really helpful too. He’s been giving me tips, about my riding style and holding the horse more than anything, like: never straighten your arms because then you’re doomed so you’ve got to keep them close in. And his Head Girl Simba is sweet, she has been really helpful and encouraging and supportive and friendly.
Have you met Ginger yet?
I only see him on the top of the gallops so I haven’t spoken to him but I’ve heard him – luckily he wasn’t shouting at me… at least I don’t think he was!
So have you had a practise race yet?
No never, we’re not allowed. The first time we go at full speed will hopefully be if I hit the track on Grand National day. We work the horses on the gallops but we never reach top speed – you are not meant to in training so if we did we would be told off – no going too fast!
That means the People’s Race itself will be the first time I have ever done a race, so I think it will be completely different.
Do you know which horse you will ride?
Hopefully I’ll have a horse from the McCain’s yard so that will depend on whether an owner will let me have theirs. It would be nice to race one I have built a relationship with – yes I have a favourite, his name is Vicario but I don’t know if he’s available for me to ride. I think he belongs to Donald actually but I don’t know if he will let me ride him! Hopefully he’s fast enough, he does well in his races and he’s a National Hunt horse. I like him because he really tries for you. I’m not too sure if he’s raced at Aintree before.
Do you have any special race tactics?
To win!! Depending on the horse I ride and how he runs the race, I’ll think about the race and think about my position but probably I’ll tuck in until the last couple of furlongs and then push for it. The race is only 9 furlongs so it’s going to go quick, it’s probably going to go so fast that all tactics will be totally forgotten!
Who else has helped with your coaching?
I was very fortunate to ride out with Jamie Spencer, the Champion Jockey – I was invited down to Newmarket. Obviously I am used to riding older horses, so when I arrived at the yard and he said “You’re on a 2-year-old colt” I thought ‘Oh dear’! But he was a sweetheart, you just had to encourage him but not fuss too much. Riding at Newmarket you ride through the town to get to the gallops – we went up Warren Hill. We were in a string and I was riding behind Jamie and he came back to check I was still there and when we finished each piece he would give me tips – the main tip was about changing my hands and then he was saying that at the end of the race less is more so you don’t unbalance the horse – that was really helpful actually.
<;span style=”color: #888888;”>Back at McCains I tried out the hands and it made a difference!
Are the McCains feeling competitive about this race too do you think?
I think they probably are – they want me to get into the final ten for the race itself.
Of course they have horses entered in the National this year, do you see much of them?
When we go out exercising they’re often in the string of horses so that’s really exciting just watching them work ride or go over the fences at home. It’s amazing for me because I love racing anyway – I have always followed it, and I used to want to be a jockey when I was younger, so I am now living my dream!
What’s it all in aid of?
Each rider in the race ‘wins’ £5,000 for their chosen charity and if you win the race itself the prize is £50,000 for the charity. I am riding in aid of the ‘Imagine’ Appeal for Alder Hey Children’s Hospital – I used to be a nurse on the High Dependency Unit there so obviously it’s very close to my heart. I worked there for two years, before moving on to run my own nursery school. But I kept in touch with them and still know a few nurses who work there, so it’s a really good incentive for training, I am so much more determined and if I have a bad day I just think ‘come on, think of them’.
The nurses at the hospital are all really behind me and supportive. When I found out I had got through to the first round of assessment and selection, the children at the hospital made me a good luck card to take with me. So now I carry that with me as a good luck charm every time I go somewhere – for good luck and motivation, so for the final selection day it will be there.
Alder Hey, Europe’s largest and busiest children’s hospital, provides family-focused care for around 250,000 young patients every year and is responsible for the health of more children than any other hospital in the UK.