Riding in the Magnolia Cup: 6am starts, a total ban on chocolate, and the chance to go on board ‘the ultimate equine athlete’

Country Life's Octavia Pollock rode in the Magnolia Cup at Glorious Goodwood, the charity race for female amateur jockeys which is one of the highlights of the meeting. She tells the tale of what it's been like to take on this gruelling but hugely-rewarding physical and mental challenge.

This piece was written before the Magnolia Cup itself on July 29 — in which Octavia successfully came in sixth place on her horse, Huntsford Express.

Honours in the race itself were shared by Thea Gosden-Hood and Candida Crawford, who both finished first in a rare dead heat!

It’s not too late to sponsor Octavia — visit her fundraising page here at Smartworks.

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Feeling a Thoroughbred, the ultimate equine athlete, bunch beneath you and extend its stride defines horsepower. Perched above the tiny saddle in short stirrups, head down and eyes up, it’s impossible to stop grinning in sheer delight, intoxicated by the speed.

When Goodwood contacted the Editor of Country Life, asking if anyone on the staff would be interested in taking part in the Magnolia Cup, a charity race on Ladies’ Day of Glorious Goodwood, he asked me, as I am well known for charging off across country.

Octavia Pollock with Koeman. ©Sarah Farnsworth for Country Life

The chance to learn a new kind of riding and race on the hallowed turf of the South Downs course was impossible to pass up.

And it is hallowed turf. Not only did the 5th Duke of Richmond’s friend Lord George Bentinck create the first horsebox to transport his horse Elis 250 miles to Doncaster to win the St Leger in 1836, but the pair cleaned up the sport and introduced elements familiar today, including flag starts and jockey silks. ‘The reform of racing was the 5th Duke’s biggest legacy,’ says James Peill, estate curator and the author of Glorious Goodwood. ‘It’s sometimes overshadowed by the glamour, but a lot of racing history has happened here.’

The Magnolia Cup was founded by the current, 11th, Duke, then the Earl of March, who wanted an event to raise money for charity and celebrate female jockeys.

The name comes from the 2nd Duke’s enthusiasm for horticulture and the latest exotic to capture the attention of ‘brother gardeners’ in the 1730s; he wrote to supplier Peter Collinson about the plants of his late friend Lord Petre: ‘The small magnolias are confounded dear, butt I must have them, though I believe nobody else will be fool enough to buy any at that price.’

Octavia Pollock training on Sunline. ©Sarah Farnsworth for Country Life

Those 290-year-old Magnolia grandifloras still flourish at Goodwood, so the name is the perfect blend of beauty and estate history. The trophy, designed and made by Garrard, reflects the same qualities. ‘The Duke wanted a cup that was feminine and pretty, not a great big thing,’ explains Mr Peill. Indeed, fashion has always been important to the estate, home of the Goodwood Revival, a motor racing meeting held in period dress, and the race itself, for which the jockeys’ silks are created by a leading designer, this year Bella Freud.

Such glamour feels a long, long way away when you are balancing on wobble cushions or holding a four-minute plank. Professional jockeys are unbelievable athletes, with cores and thighs of steel, gymnast-worthy balance and the courage to ride half a ton of explosive equine. I am very far from their level, but even amateurs riding in one race of 5½ furlongs have to pass a fitness and riding test at the British Racing School (BRS) in Newmarket.

Most of this year’s riders have equestrian backgrounds, including dressage rider Lady Tatiana Mountbatten, indefatigable Caroline Miller (at 50-odd the oldest rider) and event rider Ella Dettori (Frankie’s daughter; she avers she will not be doing his famous dismount), but sports presenter Rachel Stringer first rode only a few months ago.

She has the courage of Khadijah Mellah, who won in 2019 at the age of 18 after learning to ride with the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton. ‘I visited the BRS with the club when I was 12, the first trip I ever took, and knew I’d come back,’ she remembers. ‘Race day was a blur; it felt like forever at the start, so much tension, and I was overwhelmed with emotion when I won.’

Now studying mechanical engineering at Brighton, she is aiming for the Town Plate in Newmarket next year and is setting up the Riding a Dream Academy. ‘I’ve learnt that, if you give people a chance, you can unlock talent you didn’t know was there.’

I was asked to ride in the race when, thanks to hunting being curtailed at Christmas, I had been doing little but hacking out and eating chocolate. I started running and, as soon as restrictions permitted, engaged a personal trainer, Neil White, who tailored workouts for the fitness test and turns my legs to jelly with encouragement and a touch of sadism. I do leg raises and press ups in my bedroom and in the garden, listening to audiobooks to take my mind off the burn in my thighs, and I’m fitter than I ever thought I could be.

I next had to shorten my stirrups by many holes and learn to control a racehorse with my body; pulling on the reins means ‘faster’. First came gallops with trainer Luke Dace (even in a blizzard), then mornings with veteran trainer John Bridger and Richard Bandey, whose gallops have spectacular views over Hampshire. Both were hugely helpful and I was able to ride out with one or a few jockeys, working on getting the horse on the bridle. When Mr Bandey recommended sessions on a mechanical horse with David Crosse, however, I really got going.

Octavia Pollock on Koeman. ©Sarah Farnsworth for Country Life

An Irishman with a jockey’s wiry physique, coach Mr Crosse cracked the whip, getting me crouched half an inch above the saddle to ride a finish; my exhortations of ‘good boy’ were swiftly dismissed in favour of a growl. He set me up at the yard of Mick Channon, former England footballer-turned-top trainer, where I ride out four times a week in a string of 15, with first lot at 6am, and pick up tips from the unfailingly helpful work riders.

Sleep is now a luxury, but it is worth it to go upsides (alongside one or two other horses) on Koeman or Sunline and feel the unbelievable surge of power. As I write, I am still buzzing from leading the string on Aweemaweh, the strongest I’ve ridden so far. Fortunately, Mr Channon was grinning when he remarked: ‘I thought you’d be in the next county by now!’

Mick Channon giving feedback to Octavia in his office. ©Sarah Farnsworth for Country Life

There have been low moments, being run off with in a rainstorm (Mr Bridger commented ‘I didn’t know he could go that fast!’), realising my alarm had gone off at 5am instead of 4am so I missed first lot, galloping blind when my hat slipped, but it is an immense privilege and thrill to ride these animals. I am nervous about getting the timing right on the leg up, being bucked off before the start and missing the flag, but whatever happens, I wouldn’t have missed this experience for wild horses.

The Qatar Goodwood Festival runs from July 27–31; the Magnolia Cup is the first race on Ladies’ Day, July 29 — see www.goodwood.com for more details. To sponsor Octavia, visit her fundraising page at Smartworks.

©Sarah Farnsworth for Country Life


The Magnolia Cup’s charity fundraising

Since Tom Cruise presented the trophy to Edie Campbell after the first race in 2011, the Magnolia Cup has raised more than £1,630,000 for a series of charities, from Wellbeing for Women to The Haven Breast Cancer Support. This year, the chosen charity is Smart Works, which helps women into work, offering style advice and interview coaching.

Stylist Isabel Spearman, one of this year’s riders, has been a Smart Works ambassador for 10 years. ‘I’ve seen girls who have been out of work coming in with no confidence and leave a new person. For a small charity, we have a significant impact.’ At a time when so many women have lost jobs due to Covid — 250,000 from December 2020–March 2021 — Smart Works is more valuable than ever. Visit www.smartworks.org.uk to find out more.