Inspiring racehorse groom Ashleigh Wicheard on her work with young offenders and racing's diversity problem

IT’S often said that stable staff are the unsung heroes of horse racing.

In the case of Ashleigh Wicheard, that statement has never felt more appropriate.

As one of the very few – if not only – black women working in the sport, she has been challenging stereotypes since day one.

She took her first full-time job as a groom with jumps trainer Neil Mulholland in 2013 and fell in love with racehorses.

It helps that she has looked after some good’uns along the way. 

Her pride and joy was Southfield Royale, a Grade 2 winner who was placed at Kempton on King George day and at the Cheltenham Festival.

She led-up The Druids Nephew in the 2015 Grand National – and though he fell when in the lead five out it was one of the best days of her career.

The stresses of the job and a troublesome skin condition forced her to take a step back from full-time stable staff work.

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And it was during this time that she gained qualifications to help children with autism, while she became a case worker and equine coordinator for a charity assisting young offenders.

She has helped several young men rebuild their lives on their release from prison, and one success story in particular fills her with pride.

“I’ve helped a lot of young offenders, though not too many of them have had an interest in working in the racing industry,” she said. 

“But there was one young man who I feel proud to have helped and privileged to be a part of his journey.

“He lost his mum and was living in a hostel in London. He was at risk of a life of crime, not because he was a bad person but because he was vulnerable.

“I was able to build a rapport with him and he went through the Northern Racing School – he is still working in racing now.

“He worked with Harry Fry for a year and Harry trains close to where his mum was buried. So he was able to build his career and visit his mum.

“His story has been a very touching one and things are going really well for him right now."

The Bradford-on-Avon native returned to the stable staff ranks on a full-time basis at Mulholland’s in February – riding seven lots a day and working 12 days a fortnight.

She loves the sport and is a fantastic role model for any young person aspiring to work with horses.

But when it comes to diversity and making people of colour feel welcome, she feels racing has a long way to go.

“People just think racing isn’t for black people. I don't know any other black girls that work in racing,” Wicheard said.

“There haven’t been many good experiences for black people in the equestrian world, they're rarely welcomed or embraced.

“When you feel there are barriers in your way it’s difficult to have the passion to go forward and stick with it.

“I’m lucky that, bar the odd negative comment that I have been able to deal with, I have worked with some amazing people.

“It would be a dream to ride in a Magnolia Cup at Goodwood one day, but I have never been approached and who knows if that situation will present itself.

"The year that Khadijah Mellah rode in the race it was fantastic for the sport. It's a pity racing hasn't built on that.

“It can be off-putting if you’re black and you look through racing papers or magazines and only see white faces – you get in the mindset you can’t be what you can’t see.

“But you have Josh Apiafi covering racing on TV and young riders Kanane Francis and Reece McCook trying to come through.

“Hopefully things are changing, and not before time.”

League of their own

I’VE been supportive of the William Hill Racing League – I think the concept is great.

But the news this week that the rules have been tweaked, essentially to suit Hayley Turner, was disappointing.

Jockeys were supposed to be limited to 18 rides across the six weeks, but the guidelines were altered after Turner rode out her quota with two fixtures left.

In the final individual jockey standings, the points from her best 18 finishes will be taken into account.

There is a £25k bonus to the leading jockey on the line – I don’t think it’s fair that she gets favourable treatment.

And changing the rules half-way through damages the integrity of the competition. 

There were always going to be teething problems this year, so hopefully they are ironed out in 12 months' time.

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Cocaine woes

JOCKEY Kevin Lundie has tested positive for cocaine again and his future in the saddle looks very uncertain.

He failed a drugs test last September, his second offence in just over a year, and this week it was revealed that he had been banned for two years.

That suspension was backdated, so he will be able to resume riding in September 2022.

He has revealed he is suffering from an alcohol and drug problem, so here’s hoping he can get his life back on track.

But it once again highlights the issue of cocaine use among jockeys. Racing has a drugs problem and nowhere near enough is being done about it.

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