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Lizzie Kelly: I am a feminist – but you have to accept the way racing is

Lizzie Kelly reflected on last month's win on Siruh Du Lac last month, saying: 'it was insane'

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Paul Grover

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Lizzie Kelly considers herself to be a philosophical thinker, but on reflection she sees little of the wider significance in her win at Cheltenham Festival last month. 

Looking back on a day lauded as a triumph for women in racing, as she rode Siruh Du Lac to victory in a Grade Three chase just an hour after Bryony Frost became the first female winner in a Grade One race at Cheltenham on Frodon, the 25-year-old Kelly merely shrugs and says she does not define the experience by that. 

“It was insane but I look at it slightly differently to the outside person. For me, this horse has just done what I’d hoped he would which means he could be the kind of horse that I’m hoping he is next year. I ride horses for quite an extended period of their life, I’d ridden that horse in his first race, as a young horse, I’ve followed him the whole way through and that for me is hugely important. 

“I probably don’t buy into the female thing as much as maybe I should, or people want me to. But for me that day was more about him than anything else.”

Kelly is clearly not here to slot into any narrative, no matter how fitting. In fact, when she readies at the gates at Aintree on Saturday on Tea for Two alongside 39 male jockeys in her first Grand National, she says it is a group she feels only affinity with, not difference.

She goes as far as saying she has shared experience with them that her female colleagues cannot relate to. At 5ft 8in Kelly is taller than most jockeys, and admits she has struggled to keep her weight down, much like many of the men in her field. 

“When you’re in your teens you’re sort of a baby at your most vulnerable point in terms of body consciousness and self-awareness. I had to fight very hard mentally to remember that I was heavy, not fat. Being one of the only girls I’ve met in my sport who has problems with her weight does make it hard. But on the other hand I was glad because it put me on the same level as the blokes. They would be in the sauna because they had two pounds to lose and I would be in the sauna because I had two pounds to lose. That made it a level playing field.”

Feeling a part of the group is one of the reasons she also has no issue with the lack of facilities that accommodate women in the sport. Having to go to the men’s changing room to be weighed for example is not something Kelly is likely to break a sweat about.

“It doesn’t bother me at all. Don’t get me wrong, I think I am a feminist, and I’m very pro women and I want equal chances for everybody, but you have to be aware of what this game is when you go into it. There is not a structure in place for females in the sport because there aren’t enough of us. You can’t say to a racecourse: ‘We want a female valet to do our stuff so we don’t have to go into the male changing room.’ They won’t be able to afford one. You have to accept the way that the sport is. 

Kelly rode Siruh Du Lac to victory at Cheltenham Festival last month

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Action Images

“I love the way it is, that’s what I wanted when I grew up. You’re not involved in the same way if you try to divide the sport. If we start trying to do that we’ll end up with a male and a female sport, which it’s not. It’s not tennis, golf, football – it’s racing. 

“I’ve made some very nice friends off the males in the weighing room. They’re a really nice bunch and very supportive. And this might come across as a bit mad or bad, but if you’re not brave enough to go into the male changing room you’re probably not brave enough to ride in a race.”

Kelly clearly is, and on Saturday she will become only the 17th woman to compete in racing’s most famous jumps race. If she completes it she will join a group of just six other trailblazers. If she wins, she will be in a league all of her own. 

But Kelly, in what she calls characteristic pessimism, says she is giving little thought to the possibility of history-making. Her hope is only that she and Tea for Two, a horse trained by her mother in Devon which she rode to become the first woman to win a Grade One Chase in Britain in 2015, finish together.

“I want to feel like I’ve had an experience with my horse that I will remember fondly. I want it to be a happy memory. I’m quite a negative person but I taught myself that when I say ‘What if this goes wrong’ you have to say ‘But what if this happens instead’. It’s like that thing, ‘What if I fall? But what if you fly?’”

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In all her realism, she does allow herself a little romance when thinking about what a young Lizzie, being ridiculed for her jockey ambitions, would have thought about riding in the Grand National. “Funnily enough that’s one of my often-used questions I ask myself. I think I’m more surprised than anyone else. If my little 10-year-old self had known that this was going to happen, she probably would have taken the pressure off. If you think this is going to happen to you, you probably don’t try as hard. 

“Everything that I’ve done to this point I never thought I would do. I spent a long time training for something I didn’t think would ever happen. I’m two Grade Ones in, I’m four winners off riding out my claim, two Cheltenham Festival winners, and I’m just about to ride in the Grand National. It’s a fairytale.”

  • Lizzie Kelly is an ambassador for Great British Racing’s #JockeyFit programme. To see jockeys in action, watch The Randox Health Grand National Festival on ITV. For more visit  gbraci.ng/jockeyfit

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