On To A Winner
Apprentice jockey Poppy Fielding speaks to David Fearnhead about going from a Clitheroe Auction pony to riding a winner at Windsor. Photography: Mick Atkins Photography
The weather forecast wasn’t looking good on the morning of 16th October last year. From Hastings on the south coast to Stornoway in the far north a great stain of blue arched over the entire length of the country. In Nottingham, the River Trent grew fat as it wound its way past Nottingham Racecourse where the going in the third race was heavy.
The bookies didn’t think much of She’s A Unicorn, a 20/1 shot ridden by apprentice jockey Poppy Fielding. ‘Showed much improved form… although inexperienced rider on board, and a visor is an unknown,’ reads the race card.
As they approach the three-furlong marker it seems like they are going backwards and in need of encouragement. It arrives from fellow jockey Richard Kingscote riding the favourite Jungle Book: “Come on, Poppy! Don’t stop pushing!” he shouts, as he eases past her on the rail side.
“Okay!” She replies. Then she manages to find the good ground and the two-year-old bay filly begins to regain momentum and as Poppy retakes the lead from Richard, she can’t help herself: “Come on, Richard! Don’t stop pushing!” The experienced jockey can only smile as he watches the apprentice take the race.
Horse and jockey would both break their maiden that day. Finishing two lengths clear, Poppy had ridden an excellent race on an un-fancied horse in tough conditions – having to push her ride most of the way. Whilst her fellow jockeys congratulated her on the win, not everyone was uniformly pleased with the result.
“My dad was really annoyed with me,” confesses Poppy as she suppresses her laughter. “Normally whatever I ride, even if it’s not got much of a chance, he’ll still put a few quid on it. But I didn’t tell him that day.”
And with that a superstition was born. Whenever her dad Mark wants to know when his daughter is riding he has to look it up.
“Generally, when I tell him I don’t come anywhere,” says Poppy. “So, I’ve told him I’m not going to tell him and he has to look it up on the Manor House Stables Facebook page,” she laughs.
At 21 Poppy, from Clitheroe, is not your average Chipping Pony Club alumna. While other young girls were spending their time plaiting their pony’s mane, Poppy was sneaking hers into a paddock to see how fast they could go together. Given a choice between a sweet natured pony and a naughty one she says would always pick the naughty one as it was more likely to want to go fast.
“My mum Lorraine bought me my first pony from Clitheroe Auction because she felt sorry for him. He didn’t sell in the ring. Everyday, I would go in his stable and he would bite and kick me.”
Over time Poppy won his trust and his confidence: “He wasn’t much into jumping, but he loved going fast so I entered him in a pony race.”
At 13 she had her first win on a pony and was set on a career in racing. “I’ve always been one of those kids that’s been a daredevil,” she says. She once even dared a riding instructor to try to make her fall off. After 45 minutes of chasing her he gave up.
After graduating from the British Racing School, she wanted to stay as close to home as possible. She found a place at Tom Dascombe’s yard in Malpas, Cheshire, where work starts at 6.45am, with the horses tacked up and out for 7am. She’ll have ridden two before breakfast. Then another two after breakfast. By late afternoon she’s back brushing and feeding before clocking off at 6pm. It’s a full day, especially in the colder, darker months.
“You have to learn very quickly about how to ride a horse,” she says, and she’s not talking about the basics. Thoroughbred horses have personalities as distinct as humans. So, it’s Poppy’s job to quickly assess how a horse must be ridden to get the best from it – and her rides are not the same every day. It’s a process she says she can normally figure out in the first five minutes in the saddle.
“You have to pick up things very quickly. Some people find it quite difficult, but I find it quite easy. It depends on if you are bothered about trying to help the horse. It’s not always about its ability. Having the fastest horse doesn’t guarantee the win. You get horses that might not be as good but they try for you, and they are the ones that win because they want to do it for you. Some of the good horses don’t want to do it because they know they’re good. The horse always has an opinion on it.”
Her favourite these days is Arcanada: “He teaches me,” she says of the seven-year-old chestnut gelding. “When I first started I rode a lot of two-year-old horses. Sometimes it was their first race too, so neither of us had a clue.”
“With Arcanada, it’s nice because he’s actually teaching me things. I’m so thankful that Tom [Dascombe] has bought him for me, and the deal is that I ride him and learn on him. You don’t have many opportunities and you always need a horse to help you get there. When I’m racing, I do talk to him and say, ‘Come on, Let’s go!’. You have to have a bond to get a tune out of them.”
Amongst those she credits, Poppy thanks the well-respected former jockey John Bramhill, saying: “For helping me improve all the time, ride after ride.”
In her five rides this year she’s had a second, a third, a couple of mid-divs, and in June she won her first race back after lockdown, riding Arcanada at Windsor.
“He hadn’t run over six furlongs since he was a two-year-old. So I was a bit worried he might not be quick enough. Obviously he was. He doesn’t want to be bossed around, he likes to think that he’s in charge and that’s how I rode him. Once he felt that, that’s when he dug in for me and we got there. It was so close that I didn’t know we’d won until someone told me. I did feel him stretch his neck for that extra bit. He wanted it for me.”