The only woman jockey racing in Bahrain at present aims to become the first female to win the jockeys’ championship in the kingdom.
Rosie Jessop, who has been based in Bahrain for the past four years, just won her first race – the Bapco Cup 1800m race for locally-bred horses – of the 2022-23 season last Friday and is preparing to make it two-in-a-row tomorrow when she competes in a 2,200m race, again for locally-bred horses at the Rashid Equestrian and Horseracing Club (REHC).
“It would be nice to win on consecutive weekends,” Jessop, 33, told the GDN in an exclusive interview at the REHC. “Last season, for example, I was the leading rider for the first five weeks! I had a winner at each meeting and, then, unfortunately, the boys took over.
“It would be fun if I could do it again. But it would be even better if I could achieve my long-term goal which is to become the first woman to win the jockeys’ championship in the kingdom!”
As Jessop stood by the race track, close to the REHC grandstand, a couple of jockeys thundered past on their magnificent steeds and her piercing blue eyes followed the horses as they galloped into the distance.
“Come, let’s go to the stable,” she said, leading the way to her SUV.
“I first came here ten years ago,” Jessop said, as she drove slowly on a two-way road that runs parallel to the track. “The legendary Allan Smith, who’s been training horses at the Royal Stables for years, needed a light-weight jockey and he asked me if I wanted to come and race in Bahrain.”
For Jessop, never afraid to experience a new adventure, the invitation was hard to turn down.
This, after all, was a woman who, as a 16-year-old in her home county of Essex, decided she was now ready to embark on her childhood dream of becoming a jockey, wrote to several trainers and, when she received a surprise reply from Sir Mark Prescott – another training legend, who has trained more than 2,000 winners in a career spanning more than 50 years – arrived at his Heath House Stables in Newmarket on her own.
“I just left home, had no family there, no friends, knew absolutely nobody,” Jessop laughed as she brought the car to a halt near the entrance to the stable. “But I’m glad I did because I ended up working for Sir Mark for 13 years! I absolutely loved working with him!”
That was why, after having taken up Smith’s offer and despite making quite an impact on her arrival on the horseracing circuit in Bahrain, the young jockey returned to the UK at the end of the season.
“Since I was employed full-time by Sir Mark, he would only allow me to come to Bahrain for about five months – which is approximately how long the racing season lasts here,” Jessop explained, as a groom led a beautiful horse past her.
“That’s Campolina, by the way; the mare I won last week’s race on,” she continued.
Jessop spent five seasons in all with Smith, coming to Bahrain at the start of the racing season and returning to Newmarket once it ended, where things were going swimmingly as well.
“Sir Mark had made me head girl, which is general stable manager of the horses and staff,” she explained. “It was great but I was still trying to do the race riding also and it started to … get a little bit too much. I was trying to balance two different jobs at the same time but I had to choose between one or the other.”
So Jessop chose her love for riding.
“I had a very good job opportunity to come here, so I did, in 2018,” she said. “Racing in the UK is very hard. There are lots of jockeys, lots of travelling and not many horses.
“It made sense to come here, not only for the opportunity to ride but, also, because I loved coming to Bahrain before and I knew I would love to live here. It’s so fabulous!”
Smith had been sufficiently impressed by Jessop and had offered her a full-time position. But, at the beginning of that very first season, Jessop broke her hand and, even though she gritted her way through the pain for the rest of the five months, Smith told her at the end that he wanted to change her contract to just a rider.
“He thought I wasn’t riding to my full potential so, clearly, he appeared to overlook the fact that my injury was hampering my riding,” Jessop explained. “So I made a call to Fawzi Nass, asking if I could join his stable. And he said yes. It’s the best job over here and I am now in my third season with him.”
Bahraini business magnate and globally successful trainer Nass has about 90 horses in his stable, Jessop said.
“And, along with riding for him, I also get the chance to ride for other trainers who have horses here,” she added.
Among those for whom she has ridden in races are His Majesty King Hamad’s representative for humanitarian work and youth affairs and Supreme Council for Youth and Sport (SCYS) chairman Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa and SCYS first deputy chairman, General Sports Authority chairman and Bahrain Olympic Committee president Shaikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
“They are owners within the stable so I feel very privileged to have been able to ride for them, whenever they have given me the opportunity,” Jessop explained.
Meanwhile, Jessop is no stranger to experiencing success in big-race environments, having ridden winners in Ascot in 2015, quite a few in Bahrain and she also represented the UK in the Shaikha Fatima bint Mubarak Ladies World Championship in Abu Dhabi in 2017, where she finished fourth.
“The Crown Prince Cup win last year was my biggest achievement but I’m trying to remember the exact number of races I have won here,” Jessop laughed, as she began to put on her riding gloves. The 4pm starting time for her afternoon riding session on three horses for trainer Jaffar Radhi was just ten minutes away.
“Honestly, it’s hard to remember,” she said, continuing to laugh. “I enjoy the riding as much as the wins. But the one I remember most vividly is my first race for Sir Mark, which I won! I was still a teenager – I think I was about 18 – and that, I will never forget.”
Interestingly, Jessop, who said she learnt to ride before she could walk at her family estate in Essex where her father, John – a former jockey himself – kept horses, dismissed the notion that being a woman in a male-dominated sport put her at a disadvantage.
“I know that issue is brought up quite a bit,” she explained. “But I think when a jockey is on a horse, it is the quality of the animal and the skill of the rider that comes into play – not the gender.”
That line of thought is supported by a 2018 study which focused on 14 racing seasons and more than one million rides and concluded that female jockeys were just as good as men but got fewer top rides.
The study was conducted by Vanessa Cashmore, a work-based learning manager at Northern Racing College, while studying for an MBA in Thoroughbred Horseracing Industries at Liverpool University.
“I’d like to try to change public perceptions about the performance of female jockeys,” Cashmore said.
“So far, we have only controlled for the quality of the ride that they are receiving and held everything else constant. If women are riding lower-quality horses, they have less chance of winning and, to outsiders, it can look as though they are not performing as well. If we can address this so people realise there should be no difference between the performances of male and female jockeys, it could be something we can start to address on the track.”
But the times, they are a-changin’, as Bob Dylan famously sang. And changing, especially rapidly in the Middle East.
In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, British jockey Hollie Doyle created history last year by becoming the first female jockey to win a race on Saudi Cup day when she triumphed in the $1 million Neom Turf Cup.
“For Hollie to have won a race there was absolutely fantastic!” Jessop exclaimed. “On the world stage, being a female, it’s even bigger!”
And, almost simultaneously, Madawi Al Qahtani saw her name enter the history books by becoming Saudi Arabia’s first licensed female jockey.
“Things are definitely changing very quickly,” Jessop said. “And, here, in Bahrain, with more publicity and more competitions like the Bahrain International Trophy and the Bahrain Turf Series which was held for the first time last season and was a huge success, more young children and, hopefully, more young girls will be inspired to take up careers as jockeys.”
Jessop should know a thing or two about being inspired by jockeys. Her father, John, had to abandon his career as a promising jockey after a bad fall left him with a broken back. But his love for horses was transferred on to his third child, Rosie, who remains the only one of his four children to have taken to riding.
“None of my two brothers or sister pursued riding,” Jessop laughed, as she put on her helmet and tightened the strap in preparation for her departure. The horse she was going to ride swished its tail expectantly.
“That’s why my father, who is now 86 and because of what happened to him, says that I am living his dream!”