It is a blustery afternoon at a livery yard on the exposed South Downs in East Sussex and Khadijah Mellah is taking a break from her mechanical engineering degree at the University of Brighton to indulge her real passion in life: horses.
It is, after all, horses that have propelled this most articulate and inspiring of 21 year olds from a shy south London schoolgirl into a figure of national prominence, respected for the trail she is helping to blaze for communities significantly underrepresented in the sport of racing.
Mellah, proudly wearing her hijab, was the first Muslim woman to ride in and win a race in Britain. She took the Magnolia Cup, a five-and-a-half furlong sprint for amateur female jockeys at the famous Goodwood Festival in July 2019. In an instant her life changed beyond recognition and in a roundabout way she perhaps found her calling.
“It has been insane,” she said. “I could never have predicted my life being the way it is now. Just being involved in the racing world is brilliant. I didn’t set out to make history, but it is really cool when you do.
“Now, at least there is a conversation [about the need for diversity] in racing. Any sport has to reflect the society we live in today. I say it all the time that there must be a lot of untapped talent in communities like mine who don’t realise they could have a career in racing. I think that opening racing up to more and more young people will only enhance the quality of the sport.”
A television documentary was made about her story and from that the Riding A Dream Academy has this year been established. This offers equine scholarships to talented teenage riders and residential experience at the British Racing School, in Newmarket, to young people from a similar background to Mellah’s.
It is a compelling narrative and one very much at its nascent stage.
“Faith is very important for me and my family,” said Mellah, whose father is Algerian and her mother from Kenya. “It has always been difficult to balance faith and my passions to ensure I go about things in a respectful and Islamic way.
“I have gone through phases in my life, religion is a journey, faith is a journey. One thing I definitely feel is that what has happened was meant to be by God. Nothing happens without a reason. The pieces of the puzzle have just fallen into place. It feels almost miraculous. It has gone way too well for me to believe otherwise.”
She is reluctant to position herself as a standard bearer – conscious she is very much a novice when it comes to being a jockey. But her motivation is to use the platform that fate, circumstance and her own drive and ambition have helped to create, to forge a pathway that others can appreciate and follow her into the racing industry. For many people outside the sport’s rural heartland, the industry remains something of a closed shop.
As a hyperactive child, Mellah played a variety of sports at school. She always also loved animals and decided one day she wanted to ride. The problem for most inner-city children is that opportunities barely exist. By chance one day her mother picked up a pamphlet in the local mosque in Peckham, south-east London. It mentioned the Ebony Riding School in Brixton.
“I thought it had to be a drama club! I never thought in a million years there would be horses in Brixton. But my mum and I walked past and saw a horse and thought, ‘Wow! It’s real.’
“It never crossed my mind that someone like me could have the chance to ride. The racing world and my life had never crossed. They ran in parallel. It didn’t occur to me the opportunity was there. I was very lucky to have it presented to me.”
She enrolled and for several years had lessons, combining them with her schoolwork. Then, shortly before her A levels in the early summer of 2019, the circumstance for her was created when Oli Bell, the patron of the Ebony club which does so much good in the community, had the idea to have someone ride in the Magnolia Cup.
Mellah being Mellah, answered the call.
Then, with her inner resolve to the fore, and in a whirlwind three months while also revising for her A levels, she undertook the rigorous training programme and passed the various assessments required for her enter the race.
“It was a bit of a struggle to start with. I was thrown in at the deep end! I hadn’t a clue how to ride a racehorse. I got run away with many times. At certain points I did wonder what I had let myself in for.
“Training [at yards in Newmarket] was hard, especially as I was fasting because of Ramadan, so I was really struggling physically. That whole period was the most difficult time of my life.”
She made it to the start line on a horse called Haverland from the stable of Charlie Fellowes.
In the parade ring she attracted considerable attention because she was wearing her hijab and as the first Muslim female jockey in the country reporters and photographers were keen to capture the moment.
“I was conscious beforehand of something developing that could be bigger than just me taking part in a race. I went into it just hoping I could run a good race and knowing that I had achieved something.
“Charlie told me to break the race down into furlongs. About two from home I saw a gap and Haverland picked up so well and picked up again and kept going and about 10 yards from the line I thought to myself: ‘This is it!’ We’ve won.’" It was a close call but when number 7 was announced and surrounded by her family and friends she burst into tears. “I lost my composure a bit. I screamed and cried loads. I couldn’t stop.”
Since then, she has had the time to contemplate not only what she had achieved but reflect what it has meant for someone in her position. She looks at it on two levels.
“Wearing the hijab I looked different and in that environment it takes a bit of courage and confidence. But that is true in racing; if you don’t come from a traditional background you are going to be different.
“I love representing my community and am so glad there is a positive headline about Islam and Muslim women especially. However, on a personal level I did also want people to understand and appreciate what I did in only two-and-a-half months.
“It is complicated, but all I want in the future is that other young girls who wear the hijab are appreciated for their skills and their hard work and less about their hijab. However, I understand you have got to have Muslim girls in the game in the first place for that to happen.
“I have been fortunate in that I was carried on my journey into horse racing. I am very lucky. Most from inner city communities are not. There is not direct path or support system.
“There has to be other Khadijah Mellahs out there and better versions of me who could go further and go higher and become champion jockey. But we have no idea because young people in big cities have not had a pathway to walk down. That has to change.”
So, what of the future? For starters she would love to ride in the UAE or Saudi Arabia.
“But one thing I have learned over the last three years is not to make a concrete plan. My path and plan right now is to get my degree and then throw myself into racing and see how that goes. I want to continue to try to be an accurate role model for young people and try to live up to people’s expectations.
“What I would say to families from my community who might be reluctant to allow their children to spread their wings is, ‘Don’t be fearful. Trust your children.' Ultimately if your child’s intentions are clear, you and they will succeed. I like to think that I am living proof that both can be achieved.” Perhaps on that Sussex clifftop, a wind of change is indeed starting to blow.