EXCLUSIVE: Royton-born jockey loving life in the sport of kings

GAVIN Ashton had not sat on a horse until he was 19; not even ridden a donkey on Blackpool beach.

Even feeding grass to nags in the local field was enough to bring him out in a cold sweat.

Yet within a little over two years after saddling up for the first time, Royton-born Gavin competed in his first professional horse race.

Even more remarkable this determined apprentice jockey steered his mount Alternate Route to second place in a 12-furlong race at Lingfield Park.

That was exactly a year ago. A few months later, the former Fir Bank Primary School youngster and Crompton House School old boy celebrated a maiden win on the same track with Harmonica.

Two more victories followed in Gavin’s first full season on the flat racing circuit, which ended with a ride at Southall last month.

Driven to succeed, the 22-year-old is already plotting greater success in 2019 and has taken himself to Australia to study his craft in greater detail.

Before he flew out the one-time Puckersley Inn pot washer and Oldham Community Leisure lifeguard met up with Correspondent editor Trevor Baxter.

The interview took place just a short canter away from Gavin’s base at the stables of distinguished owner and trainer Sir Mark Prescott in Newmarket.

The Suffolk town is headquarters of British horse racing with an association to the sport dating back more than 350 years.

We were given privileged access to the stables and facilities before a trip to the racecourse first established on the orders of King Charles II in 1666.

The conversation started with Gavin, a confirmed Manchester United supporter, detailing his love of sport that saw him wear Manchester City colours for two years.

He also revealed a love for cooking that even now runs side-by-side with his bid to become a fully-fledged professional jockey.

“It was always sport, sport, sport,” he explained. ”I wasn’t the best academically.

“My mum and dad were always pestering me to revise but I just wanted to play sport. PE was my favourite lesson.

“I really wanted to play football, play for United especially. Ability though is a massive thing in football.

“I played for most of the school teams – badminton, cricket, rugby- and on Saturday mornings football with Chaddy End.

“When I was about 15 I started as a pot washer at The Puckersley just to make some pocket money.

“I loved being in the kitchen and I started to help out doing a salad here and there.”

After achieving what he describes as “pretty average grades” at GCSEs, Gavin moved up to sixth form but was forced to re-sit his first year.

“I was too busy in the kitchen, life guarding and playing football,” he admitted.

“I was also massively into the gym and Oldham Community Leisure asked me to put in for my personal training qualification as well.”

Having moved on from The Puckersley to The Elephant and Castle pub at Bamford to further his culinary skills, Gavin also enrolled on a sports diploma course run by Hopwood Hall in conjunction with Manchester City.

“I know I am a United fan but when you get something like that to train at the facilities City have now, you are not going to turn it down,” he said.

“It was a two-year course and I had a brilliant two years. We were the first intake and City have grown it into a massive thing now.

“We trained next to the Elite Development Squad (EDS) pitch and the first-team pitch was about 400 yards away.

“I had just come from doing ‘A’ levels and working part-time in a pub to playing in those facilities.

“We’d see all the first-team players and some would say hello when they walked past. It was a different level.”

It was during his time at The Elephant and Castle that Gavin stepped away from dreams of becoming a Premier League star to thoughts of emulating the feats of Frankie Dettori, Richard Hughes or Silvestre de Sousa.

“I was watching the racing on Channel 4 one day during a break in my shift at the pub,” he explained.

“A cousin of mine went through a phase of enjoying a flutter. I looked up to him and anything he did I wanted to do.

“Someone said I was the right size for a jockey so why didn’t I try it. My reply was something along the lines of, ‘If I knew how to do it, I would.’

“I was told about the British Racing School, about getting a job in a yard and getting a racing licence.

“I went home and said I wanted to be a jockey. Mum and dad just laughed it off.”

Determined to follow through with his ambition Gavin spent a week at the Garstang racing stables of Richard Ford.

“I just stood here and watched the whole week, I couldn’t ride, I couldn’t touch a horse,” he recalled.

The next step was enrolment on a 14-week course at Newmarket run by the BRS.

“At first I didn’t have a clue. I am sure the instructors thought, ‘What have we got here?’ I was bouncing up and down in the saddle and at other times falling off.

“Fortunately, the instructor was very patient. Everything she told me to do I did because I didn’t know any different.

“There were 14 people on the course and it finished with four.

“What anyone said I did. Others who had ridden before didn’t perhaps the same willingness to learn.”

Gavin was eventually sent to Sir Mark’s yard for an interview. Mum Gail and dad Mike attended as well.

“I have never been so scared in my life,” he confessed. “He told me I wouldn’t be a jockey because I’d get too old or fat.

“I came out so deflated. I had just spent 14 weeks working as hard as I can and now I have just been told I won’t be a jockey.

“For him though, he sees so many kids coming through and he doesn’t know their backgrounds. A lot of people come, try and just fail

“By the third interview he had mellowed to say ‘Gavin will get his licence eventually but we will have to see how he is on the track.’

“After about a year he said he was going to put me in for my licence.

“That was a massive shock because I thought it would take two years.

Within two weeks of getting my licence I was given my first ride. Some of the jockeys reckoned it’s normally about seven months.

“In my first five rides I had three winners. I was flying and it was a shock to the system.

“Now when I have had more rides and not getting as many winners, it’s bringing me back to reality though I am still loving it.

“And because I am a little older I’ve been able to cope with the setbacks and the falls and the day-to-day life of an apprentice jockey.”

Gavin’s usual routine is 13 days straight work with one Sunday off. He is up at 5am, Monday to Friday working through to noon, mucking out, feeding, and riding on the gallops.

There are evening stables between 3pm-6pm, a daily visit to a jockey coach between 6pm-7pm and often a shift at a local pub to keep his hand in with his catering skills.

At the height of the season, he might receive one ride a week; it’s not unknown to go three weeks without boosting his win tallies.

To officially take off his racing L plates Gavin needs to saddle 95 winners before he is 25.
“I am very ambitious and say I will do it. But I will need more rides.

“Next year I would like to be riding two days a week because I am not going to improve riding once every two weeks.

“I want to be very ambitious and say I want 20 winners next year. It is doable but it is a cut throat sport.

“You finish second 100 times and no one notices you. You come first 20 times and someone will give you the chances.

“You have to get the wins to get the rides but without the rides you won’t get the wins.”

Gavin receives £120 per ride but the total is significantly reduced as the ‘boss’, the valet, the tax man and others take their percentages.

“I am not in it for the money,” he said. “I am in it for the pure thrill of racing. There is nothing like it.

“The animal has a mind of its own, anything can happen. It is an adrenaline rush I can’t describe.

“I am very proud of what I have done so far. I am very ambitious so I know I am not where I want to be yet.

“I have been so lucky with the opportunities I have had and the people I have met.

“I feel I have worked hard to make my own luck. My first love wasn’t horses but I have fallen in love with them now.”

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