The young jockeys following in the hoofprints of Khadijah Mellah

The hijab-wearing Londoner's racing success inspired the Riding A Dream Academy - and now eight new scholars from underpriviliged and diverse backgrounds are under starter's orders there

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Eight excited students embarked on a new term this week on a course that could change their lives.

But they are not just any cohort of undergraduates.

The group are the "scholars" in a pioneering scheme designed to open up the horse racing industry to teenagers from underprivileged and diverse backgrounds in Britain.

Seven of the 2022 intake are of non-white British heritage and will benefit directly from the legacy of the astonishing success of Khadijah Mellah.

CHICHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01: Khadijah Mellah riding Haverland  win The Magnolia Cup The Goodwood Ladies' Race at Goodwood Racecourse on August 01, 2019 in Chichester, England. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

She is the hijab-wearing Muslim girl from south London who learnt to ride at an inner city stable, and then in 2019 went on to win a race at Goodwood, one of the top meetings in the United Kingdom.

It inspired a film and then the establishment of the Riding A Dream Academy (Rada).

This year’s group gathered on Monday. Uwitonze is one of them. “I want to get the experience to get me ready to succeed in my dream future career, ” she said.

The pilot programme, which began in 2021 saw nine youngsters aged between 14 and 18 graduate this July.

Sienna, 15 was one of the original nine.

“I signed up to the Khadijah Mellah Scholarship because I have always wanted to be a jockey and I really wanted to be part of the Academy but I thought there was no chance,” she said.

“But actually you have every chance and there are so many people at the Riding A Dream Academy who believe in you and want you to do well and help you to get where you want to be.

“I’ve kind of got my life worked out. I’ve used this year to set my head down because I like a plan and I’ve sorted it out and my plan is to be champion flat jockey, hopefully one of the first females, but I think Hollie Doyle might beat me to it!”

Another was Aamilah, 16: “My dream is to be a jump jockey and I’ve also thought of being a flat jockey as well, but I think what I am really going to push for is to be a jump jockey and to win the Grand National.”

She has already enjoyed work experience at the stables of Kim Bailey, one of Britain’s leading National Hunt trainers.

They are ready now to take their first steps in a career in the sport. That could be as a jockey or in any of the myriad associated fields the sport has to offer. Some may continue on to foundation courses at the British Racing School (BRS) in Newmarket or the National Racing College (NRC) in Doncaster.

2022 Riding a Dream Academy scholars. Picture credit: Naomi Lawson

These are the formal entry point into the industry with 12 or 18 week courses depending on how good an individual’s skills are. They take complete beginners, with attitude, passions and dedication the main prerequisites.

The Riding a Dream Academy is designed to spread the word about opportunities to communities who probably would never have heard of the ‘official’ courses.

Naomi Lawson is a director and co-founder of the Academy.

“If you came from an inner city community you won’t know about the NRC or BRS,” she explained. “That’s where we sit. The scholarship acts as an introduction to the sport to create awareness to make that transition smoother and less daunting.”

The scholarship is funded by the Racing Foundation for the next three years and is the Academy’s flagship programme. It also offers residential courses and from this year introductory courses to equestrian novices. Roadshows are due to be held in local communities in order to be able to offer it to as wide a group as possible.

“It had been hugely rewarding and successful, enterprise,” added Lawson. “Seventy four per cent of our attendees across all our programmes in year one came from a diverse ethnic background compared with 2-3 per cent who are professional jockeys. We had four times as many applicants as available places.

“Lots of youngsters we worked with are going on to Foundation courses.”

O'Shane has benefited greatly from the Riding a Dream Academy. Picture credit: Alice Gough

O’Shane was one. “I was at the Riding A Dream Academy and then I went on to the Foundation course and now I am at Charlie Fellowes riding real racehorses! My dream is to become a jockey, a champion jockey, one day hopefully.”

This year’s scholars will complete a week’s residential at the British Racing School, then return for monthly sessions until they graduate.

These take place over three days at the weekend and are designed to develop their skills and horse care, fitness and jockey pose as well as trips to a stud, the National horse racing Museum, a point- to- point meeting, a veterinary surgery and to Tattersalls bloodstock sales.

“Not all will make it as jockeys. It would be unrealistic to think that all nine will ride in the Derby. But it might spark an interest in other aspects of the industry,” said Lawson.

“So far we have been blessed with really great young people. It has been an incredibly life-affirming project.

“Our aim is to grow it and make sure we are making a valuable contribution. Fourteen per cent of the population is from a diverse ethnic background. That is not reflected in racing.”

Aamilah and O'Shane riding out:
Picture credit: Alice Gough
Updated: September 03, 2022, 10:15 AM
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