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Barman turned jockey Gavin Ashton enjoying life in the saddle

Growing up in Oldham, Gavin Ashton dreamed of being a sportsman of some description.

Despite being of a Manchester United persuasion, wearing the sky blue of Manchester City would have been the ultimate, and Ashton got closer than most after spending time on the Premier League champions’ college course, which incorporated training sessions at the world renowned Etihad Campus.

Be it racing in the Tour de France, big fights at Madison Square Garden or playing for England at Twickenham – Ashton has always yearned to get to the top.

Gavin Ashton (22294425)
Gavin Ashton (22294425)

And yet, one sport he never considered up until three years ago was horse racing, which makes his 2019 Apprentice Hands and Heels Series title triumph all the more impressive and intriguing in equal measure.

The story goes that while working in the kitchen of the Elephant & Castle pub in Bamford, Greater Manchester, in 2016, one of the locals observed that Ashton was the perfect size to be a jockey.

A large majority would have taken it as a mere throwaway comment – even laughed it off – but it ignited Ashton’s attention and after seeking advice from an ex-racehorse owner in the local area, he headed down to Newmarket to enrol on a 14-week course at the British Racing School, from where he linked up with the legendary Sir Mark Prescott at Heath House Stables on the Moulton Road.

Gavin Ashton (22294320)
Gavin Ashton (22294320)

It has been a steep learning curve ever since, but one that has culminated in success in the Jockey Club initiative designed to teach jockeys how to ride out with hands and heels, without resorting to the whip.

Ashton triumphed by two points from fellow Newmarket-based jockey Grace McEntee, with his victory being sewn up by a maiden series win aboard the George Baker-trained Cristal Spirit at Newbury in late October.

”I set the target at the start of the year of trying to win it, but it was not until halfway through when my agent called me to tell me I was leading that I thought it was a real possibility,” he said.

“I got some points and was ticking along, yet it was not until the final meeting that I managed to win one of the races.

“That was a big thing – winning one of the races. It made me a lot happier and if I could have planned for the first win of the series to come on the final day, I would have done that.

“I have loved every winner but I am probably most proud of that one. It will stick with me forever.

“There can only be one champion apprentice, so small initiatives like the Hands and Heels are fantastic. They are so achievable and it has improved me as a rider.

“My balance is coming together. I have always worked hard on my fitness in the gym but it takes time to get better in saddle, and you need races like this series. The win on Cristal Spirit felt like the turning point – the horse was running for me.

The Henry Cecil Open Weekend Sir Mark Prescott opened his Heath House yard. Picture by Mark Westley. (22295094)
The Henry Cecil Open Weekend Sir Mark Prescott opened his Heath House yard. Picture by Mark Westley. (22295094)

“I have spent three years with Sir Mark Prescott and he has been brilliant for me. He has given me such a good grounding and I have learned so much.

“Sir Mark has given me every opportunity he could and let me ride for owners I could never dreamed of riding for like Cheveley Park.

“I have always wanted to be involved in sport at the top level. Some people laughed when I told them I was going to become a jockey, but I am living the dream now.”

Yet as the famous saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Ashton recently left Prescott’s yard, making the short switch to Exning to work with Shaun Keightley at his Harraron Court Stables base.

Gavin Ashton (22294447)
Gavin Ashton (22294447)

It was tough to part company with someone of Prescott’s experience, but Ashton did so believing that it was a necessary measure if he was going to take the next step.

“I want to make a career of this and that was going to be tough with Sir Mark,” he said.

“I am not going to replace Luke Morris (stable jockey). Maybe if I was 18 I could have held on a bit longer but time is against me. I need to kick on – Sir Mark understood that.

“I am excited about linking up with Shaun. His yard is getting bigger and bigger. At the moment he has around 45 horses and 12 yearlings coming in.

“Shaun can really train – his number of winners show that – and he has got some very good horses.

“He has said I can pick up the rides Josephine (Gordon) is not taking and that is brilliant. There should be plenty for me with Shaun.

“And Sir Mark has really backed the decision. He has already given me a runner-up at Newcastle since I left and that is brilliant – it shows I left on really good terms.

“I really appreciate that he is still backing and supporting me. I cannot thank him enough, but it was the right time to move on.”

Life as a jockey is notoriously tough, with early mornings, long days and countless hours spent up and down the motorway.

That is not to mention the risk of serious injury,no guarantee of income and the constant worry of making sure you are the right weight.

It can become all encompassing; indeed numerous jockeys – including the great AP McCoy – have spoken out recently about the importance of mental health.

For Ashton, it is The Kentford – a pub just outside of Newmarket on the Bury Road – that allows him to not get too bogged down by the industry, providing him with somewhere he can carry out another of his passions.

“I work as a chef when I can and love it there. They are so supportive and accept that sometimes my availability is going to be limited,” he said. “I have been cheffing since I was 15 and it takes my mind off things – it is a real stress reliever.

“Racing does not stop. If I am at home, even if I am watching a film, I will be checking the results and the cards for tomorrow, seeing who has won what race and who is riding for who.

“Then there is the training, the fitness, working on your balance – it can get on top of you.

“But at the pub they know that horses have four legs and that is about it! And I love that. I can switch off and not talk about horse racing. We talk about everything – football, politics, anything – but not racing. It’s like an off button and it is so important to me.”