Editor’s Note: Aly Vance is a former member of the British modern pentathlon team and host of CNN’s Winning Post. You can see more of Aly’s training on August’s show, which airs (GMT): Aug 19: 1730, Aug 20: 1230, 2230; Aug 24: 1030, 1730; Aug 26: 0730, 2230; Aug 27: 1730.
Coming from an equestrian background I have ridden all my life but never racehorses.
This month, that changed. I experienced a race day from an entirely different perspective – on board a galloping horse as I took part in the Magnolia Cup at the Qatar Goodwood Festival.
The Magnolia Cup is a charity race between 12 women across sport, business and media and it offers a glimpse into life in the saddle.
I stepped up my preparations after been given a serious reality check at the British Racing School in Newmarket five weeks prior to race day.
I was there to be assessed for the race, to make sure I was fit enough for it to be safe for me to compete.
Sport has always been a huge part of my life and, since retiring from the British Modern Pentathlon team, I still try to find the time to train every day.
However, “running fitness” is very different to a jockey’s fitness!
We went through various strength and endurance tests designed specifically for race riding. We’re talking weighted wall squats, a wobble board squat, static push-ups and planking!
Fitness gurus will understand that last sentence and anyone who wants to test themselves can find the exercises through this link: www.brs.org.uk/courses-and-training/fitness-test
I managed to scrape a pass. I realized that perhaps I wouldn’t have a fitness advantage over my competitors and there was serious work to be done!
Next, I needed to find a horse. With my competitive juices flowing, I was keen to find a trainer who could provide me with one fast enough to win!
So, at 4:30 in the morning, I arrived at the yard of ex-jumps jockey and now winning trainer Jamie Osborne.
I quickly realised my riding experience counted for little. On day one I found myself totally out of control – not once, but twice – on horses that were meant to be “safe and sensible.”
Out of control meant zero brakes on a horse travelling at 30mph – not a situation I was very comfortable with.
It was a frustrating day, although I realized I was adopting the completely wrong position on the horse.
My position was telling them to go faster, when all I wanted to do was slow them down.
After some time on the yard’s static wooden horse, I had a better idea of how to control a racehorse.
And so began a month of heading down to Osborne’s yard as much as possible while working on my fitness in the gym.
My CNN work schedule at this time of year is pretty manic, with not just the European racing season to cover, but also show jumping. So my training on a horse was limited but I worked hard to build legs of steel in the gym.
Except that I felt completely underprepared.
Racehorses rarely train at top speed so I didn’t have the opportunity to learn what 45mph felt like.
I also hadn’t ridden the horse I was due to ride for the race. He was called Outer Space.
Osborne said I wouldn’t have been able to stop him during my training on the gallops. But I wasn’t to worry, as I “didn’t need to have any brakes during the race.”
I just had to hope he would stop before we got to the imposing wall beyond the finish line at the end of the track at Goodwood.
I was pretty nervous when I was in the parade ring for the first time before the race. There was a huge crowd at the racecourse and I had images of being thrown off before I had even got to the start.
Being back in the saddle was strangely comforting though. It felt like familiar territory and, when I got to the start, I was focused on riding the best race I could.
We had a reasonable start and I was tucked in nicely behind two horses up until the halfway point.
With 400m to race I pulled out to pass them and Outer Space gave me that incredible rush of speed. No other breed of horse can lower, stretch and gallop like a racehorse and it’s some feeling, believe me!
We tried to catch the winner but alas the line came too soon. Probably not a bad thing as I was certainly exhausted and given how easily Outer Space pulled up, I think he was running on empty as well.
After my small insight into a jockey’s life, I’m sure you’d expect me be in awe of them and their profession.
Yes, they have to be incredibly strong, fit and brave. But they get to enjoy the buzz of race day. Riding down the track at full speed in front of a full grandstand was a real thrill. That would make up for all the traveling, early mornings and light weights that they have to endure.
For me, the real heroes are the work riders who risk life and limb to exercise and keep the racehorses fit every day. They don’t get the glory that the jockeys enjoy.
After getting up early in the morning, they ride six to eight horses a day. Not your sensible gentle old hacks but racehorses that are unpredictable young thoroughbreds, bred for speed and fed high-energy rocket fuel.
It’s not easy, it’s certainly not safe and I admire their bravery. I enjoyed the month that I was part of their team. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience but now I’ll leave it to the professionals!