Bryony Frost giving a different glimpse of life in the weighing room
Is there a residual chauvinist element at play when it comes to attitudes towards jockey?
Bryony Frost and Frodon en-route to victory in the King George. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty
Racing people have some well-established lines to fall back on when faced with a microphone, like the rider who insists they “wouldn’t swap my horse for any of them” when they would clearly prefer to be on the favourite. In similar vein, every jockey is expected to mark the moment of retirement by saying the thing they’ll miss most is the camaraderie of “the weighing room”, a term used literally to describe the place where jockeys are weighed but also figuratively as a collective reference to all jockeys. In either sense, it is generally made to sound like an ideal workplace, full of good humour and mutual support.
That reputation has taken a couple of dents in recent weeks, the result of some pretty dark hints from one of its best-known inhabitants, Bryony Frost, who has evidently had moments of friction with other jump-racing figures. Details have begun to emerge, of a complaint being made about the trainer Johnny Farrelly after a verbal exchange at Uttoxeter in 2019, and of another verbal clash between Frost and the jockey Robbie Dunne at Southwell last September.
These and possibly other incidents like them are thought to be what Frost had in mind when she said recently: “There are ongoing things that need to be sorted out and there is protection that needs to be given to others. So at the moment I can’t go too much into it. But it’s something I’m going to be trying extremely hard to make better and move forward in a positive way ... I think for our younger generation there are things that must be improved.”
The two incidents were reported to the British Horseracing Authority and may still lead to hearings, or may have been quietly dropped; the sport’s ruling body won’t say. Whether Frost herself complained is unknown but any official involvement is beyond the pale for some, as one still-young retired rider, Rhys Flint, tweeted: “Bad form going to the BHA ... say what you have to say, take it on the chin, move forward”. While some protested, his tweet was liked by a number of current jockeys, trainers and stable staff, who appear to agree that what happens in the weighing room should stay there.
To some extent, that attitude reflects a feeling that racing’s internal disputes are best kept out of the public eye, for fear the nuances, motivations and daily realities in this odd little world will never be understood by outsiders. But it also suggests nostalgia for a simpler, rougher time of long-gone decades, when, if a steward stumbled across jockeys trading punches, he was expected to forget it immediately and close the door quietly behind him. The late Ginger McCain described the weighing room of those days as “a man’s domain ... You had that smell of men’s bodies, sweaty and masculine. The toilet was a bucket in the corner that never got emptied until it was full”.
Modern plumbing could just about be taken for granted by the 1980s, when Peter Scudamore was the dominant champion jump jockey, but perhaps the prevailing mood had not changed much. He once reflected: “When you go back to it, it was a ruffian sport of very, very tough men, and it’s hard to get rid of that completely. It’s always going to be there.”
Scudamore keeps in touch with the weighing room as an employer of jockeys at the Kinross stable of his partner, Lucinda Russell, and through the exploits of his son, Tom. He sees it as a “surprisingly non-violent space, for the level of competition” and can recall seeing only a handful of fights, but stands up for a jockey’s right to speak their mind plainly to their rivals.
“When I was riding, the older jockeys didn’t like amateurs ... because they didn’t keep straight. When you go out to ride, it’s a risk. You weigh up those risks and say, look, given reasonable luck, I can get this horse round. But you add somebody who’s wobbling all over the place or taking you along at too strong a pace, it adds to the danger and people don’t like it. It’s affecting their ability to earn a living and the welfare of the horse.”
Scudamore, an admirer of Frost’s skills in the saddle, did not want to comment on the specifics of her reported troubles but the importance of keeping straight is thought to have been a factor in her clash with Dunne. Her mount, Wisecracker, persistently edged left as he jumped round Southwell and may, at a late fence, have contributed to the fatal fall of Dunne’s mount, Cillian’s Well.
Was Frost at fault for allowing Wisecracker to move away from the rail between fences? Or does blame lie with Dunne for trying to move up the inside of a horse who had been jumping that way? Opinion is divided and neither jockey has yet addressed the issue in public. Cillian’s Well was trained by John Flint, whose son, Rhys, later tweeted his complaint about involving the BHA.
While there is no suggestion Frost made a deliberate manoeuvre on Wisecracker, nipping up another jockey’s inside has long been seen as a rude and provocative act which has led to reprisals on occasion, including at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, where the crack Irish amateur Jamie Codd earned a six-day ban. Scudamore got a three-week ban for his furious reaction when Bruce Dowling did it to him at Newbury, and recalls another occasion when he was on the receiving end, being put through the rails by a northern-based jockey defending his patch.
“I went mad but I was the idiot for poking up his inner. He was saying, don’t come up to Cartmel, being cocky. And you respect that. You’ve got to stamp your authority.”
It may colour Frost’s relationship with her fellow jockeys that she appears to have some reputation for jealously guarding the inner, which is certainly no sin in the eyes of her employers or any punter who may have sided with her mount. She got a two-day ban in her moment of greatest triumph, having allowed Frodon to interfere with a rival on the final bend on their way to winning the King George on Boxing Day.
But that little dose of official trouble was a rarity for Frost, the BHA confirming last week that she has just one other finding of interference against her, a two-day ban handed out by the Plumpton stewards in 2018. It is a record to be proud of, after more than 1,200 rides, and undermines any suggestion she is doing anything wrong on the track.
Some observers fear Frost is, at least in part, a victim of jealousy from riders who do not get the same number of chances in major races, who allow themselves to be rubbed up the wrong way by her free-form emoting in TV interviews, so different from the reserved stoicism that most jump jockeys favour. Is there a residual chauvinist element at play? Whether a different woman in her situation would have a similar experience is hard to know, because for now she is the only one in the top 40 and, at age 25, already holds the British record for wins by a female jump jockey.
But there are other women getting regular work at a slightly less exalted level, including Bridget Andrews and Page Fuller, while youngsters such as Lilly Pinchin and Millie Wonnacott are building enviable reputations. Wonnacott, who won the Somerset National with a finely judged ride last week, has had a reassuringly straightforward experience to this point.
“Personally, I’ve had no trouble in the weighing room,” she says. “I’ve never experienced any problems whatsoever. Some people get verbal. But to me that’s just sport in general. You’re going to get that anywhere. We’re all trying to do our best, we’re all competitive. Some things get said in the heat of the moment and it’s brushed off within five minutes in most situations. It’s very rare that I would come across a fight or a serious argument. Everyone lets them get on with it and the next moment it’s all over.”
There would rarely be more than three women at the races on the same day but a good relationship exists among those happy few, Wonnacott reports. “We’re like one big happy family, us girls. We all get on. There’s absolutely no bad blood between any of us.”
She makes the point that, in the Covid era, all jockeys see less of each other, with changing rooms spaced apart through every grandstand and everyone under instruction not to linger after their last ride of the day. As a result, a troubled jockey may feel more isolated than in normal times.
Plenty of help is available for any jockey having a hard time, through their trade association or the Injured Jockeys Fund, which routinely helps riders struggling with pressures on their mental health. Those pressures often revolve around exhaustion, the constant need to travel and to lose weight, to compete and succeed, as well as financial concerns.
But the IJF’s chief executive, Lisa Hancock, reports that bullying in the weighing room, or anything resembling it, has never crossed their radar. “I can’t recall any support we have given specific to challenges they’re experiencing in the weighing room,” she says.
“We’ve got pretty good dialogue with a significant number of jockeys in all parts of the country now and lots of them stay with us, at Oaksey House or Jack Berry House; there are injured jockeys staying at both those places right now. They become a bit of an extended family to the team at the centres. I would hope that if there were concerns, they would come out in those kinds of environment, when it’s quite relaxed.”
Brian Hughes, Britain’s champion jump jockey, is satisfied that the weighing room still deserves a good reputation. “I’ve never felt there’s anything to worry about. There’s a good mix of people, boys and girls, and plenty of older figures who are more than welcoming to the younger generation.
“If there was a jockey unlucky to get a fall or get injured, then you see people’s true colours come out and everyone wants to do their bit. You know someone’s going to help you out, whether it be a colleague or a valet.”
What would he say to the parent of some horse-mad teenager, with their sights set on jockeyship but worried about those recent reports? “There’s absolutely no reason to fear. This is a dream for us all. I would say to anyone who wants to pursue this dream to kick on and do it. There’s absolutely nothing to worry about.”- Guardian