Sammy-Jo Bell: Jockey on McCoy, winners and taking on the men

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Sammy-Jo Bell
Bell is the leading female rider in the jockeys' championship

Star apprentice jockey Sammy-Jo Bell has a striking amount in common with AP McCoy.

Realistically, Bell, 24, is unlikely to achieve a career total of more than 4,300 winning mounts, but just like the champion jump jockey, her roots are proudly held in Northern Ireland, and her racing life also began under the watchful eye of Irish trainer Jim Bolger.

Plus, confusion over first names applies to both.

While McCoy has been Tony and Anthony as well as his preferred AP, the leading female in the flat jockeys' championship appears on racecards as Samantha, but answers to Sammy-Jo.

And that name has certainly been ringing around flat racing's northern circuit - and beyond - amongst an ever-growing band of admirers, which would appear to include the recently-retired McCoy himself.

"I was nominated for a sportswoman of the month award in which the public can vote," she said, "and I nearly fell off my horse when I saw a tweet from AP on Twitter encouraging people to support me.

"He's just an amazing man, so focused, and such a good role model for me and so many other people in racing. It was a real thrill that he'd thought of me."

AP McCoy
McCoy rode more than 16,000 races and suffered an estimated 1,000 falls in his career

Though missing out on both that honour - to Team GB hockey goalkeeper Maddie Hinch - and on being named Stobart Jockey of the Month for June, when Ryan Moore and Frankie Dettori were her only opponents, she's certainly been making a big noise.

Based with the prolific string of trainer Richard Fahey, located in the Malton racing centre, North Yorkshire, Bell chalked up an impressive 11 successes during June and, midway through the year, has more than doubled her combined winning totals for the two previous seasons.

It's hard not to have noticed how much more honed she looks during races, and stronger in the saddle, displaying what was described to me by one fan as a much greater 'killer instinct'.

Fahey, meanwhile, the provider of most - but not all - of her mounts, has also been impressed with her grasp of the form book, ability to unravel how races are likely to pan out, and then to pass on feedback.

All in all, the five-foot-tall daughter of point-to-point rider Jacqueline McCullough is living the life she's been dreaming about since enjoying a "perfect childhood" in the countryside close to Ballyclare, County Antrim.

Had she been asked at school to write an essay about her ideal early adult life, she believes it would have included details very similar to those actually happening today.

That reality is, of course, unfolding in the supposed 'man's world' of British horseracing where female jockeys, with honourable exceptions, have generally not managed to break down prevailing prejudices against their sex.

Three-time Group One race winner Hayley Turner and 2012 champion apprentice Amy Ryan - along with Nina Carberry, Katie Walsh and Lizzie Kelly over jumps - are among those to have enjoyed headline-grabbing success in recent seasons, but, on the whole, it's been a struggle.

Hayley Turner
Hayley Turner was the first female British jockey to ride 100 winners in a year

As we chatted at Pontefract races - where Bell was lining up in one race having already ridden out eight of Fahey's horses on the gallops - she considered the age-old question of women in racing.

"I think really that if you are good enough you will probably get the rides, that's the long and short of it," she said. "I've got more rides this year because I've improved so maybe I didn't deserve many more rides before.

"I think if you're as good as everybody else, there's no problem with whether you're a girl or a boy.

"Probably girls will never be as strong as boys, but sometimes strength isn't really everything; there's putting your horse in the right place in the race and things like that.

"Maybe we take a little bit longer to get strong. I'm 24 now, and when I was 18 I didn't ride like this, so I've had to wait to get my chances."

Bell records every race she rides in and watches them back several tmes

And Bell believes there's no reason why a female jockey in Britain shouldn't reach the very top, like Julie Krone in the US or Emma-Jayne Wilson in Canada, not least because of the numbers that are choosing racing as a career.

"I suppose initially it was a man's world, but now, especially with the stable staff and stuff like that, there's probably more girls than boys working in racing," she explained.

"There's definitely more than one girl riding every day, there's always a few of us here and there. Anything's possible in the future."

For the present, life revolves around a mixture of riding horses, watching friends ride theirs and talking about each other's experiences while socialising.

Having reached her 20-win target for the year by midsummer, new ambitions centre on a tussle with fellow jockey Cam Hardie at the head of the apprentices' table, and the hope of remaining the championship season's top female rider.

Her mother Jacqueline, meanwhile, has been telling the daughter who's so enjoying life in racing's fast lane to slow down, not, it has to be said, in the saddle but behind the wheel.

The rush gained from a recent winning afternoon at Hamilton didn't vanish on leaving the Scottish track, and a flash from a speed camera on the way home added three penalty points to her licence.

Sammy-Jo Bell is definitely a woman in a hurry.


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