The dream of a young rider to become a jockey has come true thanks to an innovative Youth Training Scheme which aims to make careers in racing more accessible for young people.
Sixteen-year-old Annabel Willis from Banbury made her debut at the Heythrop Hunt point-to-point held at Cocklebarrow racecourse last weekend [24 Jan]. Despite having to pull up My Minds Maid two from home in the 3m 4f Ladies Open, it was a good first outing for the Moreton Morell College student, who had no experience of racing until two years ago.
With her experience limited to lessons at a local riding school, Annabel joined a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) based at Appletree Stud near Banbury, one of two schemes run by the Pony Racing Authority (PRA). Designed for children aged 11-14 years who do not own a pony and who are unable to participate in pony racing through financial or other circumstances, the scheme takes young riders through a fully-funded training programme with the goal being to take part in a pony race.
As one of the first teenagers to graduate from the training scheme in 2014, Annabel described the experience as life-changing:
“I wasn’t lucky enough to have my own pony growing up, but I never saw that as an issue, more an obstacle to overcome. Completing the YTS scheme meant that, as well as riding in a Pony Club Race Day at Cheltenham, I learned about the different roles in racing and developed some of the skills needed for the industry. I wish I had had longer in pony racing, but the hard work and focus I had during and after the YTS, is definitely what got me to the races on Sunday.”
The 16-year-old credits Stratford-based trainer Francesca Nimmo for her first competitive ride: “Francesca gave me the opportunity to ride out for her whilst I study for an Equine Management Diploma at college. When the chance came up to ride My Minds Maid – or Marge as we call her – it took sixteen weeks of hard work, balancing my race riding, fitness and education, along with intensive equicizer and schooling sessions with Francesca’s partner, professional jockey Charlie Poste, before I was ready to go.”
“I couldn’t have asked for a better race to have my first spin – it was the fastest 7 minutes of my life! The best thing, by far, was jumping a racehorse at speed over the fences in the pack. It was the biggest thrill I have ever felt … such an adrenaline rush!”
She added: “Before the YTS I was like any teenager drifting through life without ambition. Now I know what I want, I’m one hundred per cent focused and excited for what my future may hold.”
Francesca Nimmo said: “We are delighted with the progress Annabel has made over the last sixteen weeks, having had very little experience on racehorses. Her hard work has paid off and she certainly did not look out of place on her debut on Sunday. Pony racing has obviously provided her with a fantastic grounding.”
PRA chief executive Clarissa Daly commented: “With her determination to succeed and enthusiasm for learning, Annabel is a fantastic role model for young riders. I am delighted that our Youth Training Scheme, through the coaching and mentoring of Julie and Patrick Scott at Appletree Stud, has given Annabel the boost she needed to start a career in racing.”