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English jockeys now living American dream; Gilligan, Doyle among Turfway's top riders

Jockey Jack Gilligan and trainer Jeff Greenhill (Photo by John Engelhardt)

Jockey Jack Gilligan and trainer Jeff Greenhill (Photo by John Engelhardt)


By Liane Crossley
KyForward correspondent

As an aspiring jockey on his first visit to Kentucky, Englishman Jack Gilligan quickly realized he wanted to return. Two years after that initial sojourn, Gilligan ranks among the top riders at Turfway Park in Florence. By coincidence, he is joined on the leader board by another transplant from England in Sophie Doyle.

Both Gilligan and Doyle have deep roots in the racing world. As children of Thoroughbred trainers, they have been riding practically since they were able to sit on a horse; they honed their equine skills in their homeland before pursuing careers in the United States.

Gilligan is an apprentice who turned 18 in September while Doyle is a decade older and years removed from her successful apprenticeship in England. Gilligan is newly transplanted while Doyle toyed with the idea of moving after intermittent work in America.

Both ventured across the Atlantic for opportunities not available in their native land.

“In England, if you are not on the top end of the scale, it is very, very hard to make a living,” Doyle said.

Gilligan’s tour

Gilligan first came to Kentucky in the autumn of 2012 through an exchange program with North American Racing Academy, a branch of Lexington-based Bluegrass Community and Technical College. He was enrolled in a similar curriculum in England that includes equine management courses and experience in riding racehorses. During his week’s stay, Gilligan toured Kentucky tracks and horse farms.

That is when I decided I wanted to ride in America. I loved it,” he said.

Along with his parents and the family cat, Gilligan returned in late August prepared to work as an exercise rider with a goal of racing competitively by year’s end. Gilligan marvels at his rapid rise from newcomer to in-demand jockey after gaining his first stateside victory on Sept. 27.

“It takes longer to establish yourself in England,” he said.

Gilligan considered racing elsewhere for the winter but opted to stay in Kentucky at the suggestion of those who recognized his talent when he rode races at Keeneland in October and Churchill Downs in November. Horsemen have an added incentive in hiring Gilligan. Because of his apprentice status, he mounts carry about five pounds less than their counterparts.

The trainers had been very good to me,” he said. “It would have been hard to start again somewhere else. I would have to build a new customer base.”

Jockey Sophie Doyle at Turfway (Photo by John Engelhardt)

Jockey Sophie Doyle at Turfway (Photo by John Engelhardt)

Doyle’s decision

After spending two winters in the United States as an exercise rider, Sophie Doyle decided to reboot her jockey career by moving to the United States. Despite being a standout rookie in England, Doyle had difficulty obtaining competitive mounts there. Even winning caused frustration when big-name jockeys replaced her in subsequent races.

“I realized I had to be logical,” she said. “Do I want to keep pushing every year? Or should I go to America and start from scratch?”

She launched her comeback in California in 2013 before shifting to Kentucky where an abundance of racing means ample opportunities. She rode competitively at Ellis Park in Henderson this past summer and made contacts that led to winning at Churchill Downs. She is now one of the most sought-after jockeys at Turfway Park.

I am amazed at how busy I have been riding,” she said. “It is so different to how it is in England where I would only ride three or four races a day at the most. Now I have four to eight mounts a day.”

Both Doyle and Gilligan have adapted to American style racing that includes substantial support before races with escort riders and starting gate handlers.

“In England, once you get on the track it is down to just you and the horse,” Doyle said.

Warming up in the post parade alongside another horse is beneficial for overly exuberant racers because horses are herd animals that naturally are more relaxed with a companion.

In England if a horse misbehaves, you are alone out there and sometimes you are lucky just to stay on,” Gilligan said.

Gilligan especially appreciates the men in the starting gate who control the action just before the start to provide a safe and fair beginning.

In England, you don’t have someone holding the horses’ head in the gate,” he said. “If your horse starts misbehaving or rearing up, it is very dangerous. Here, they make sure the horse is standing square so when the gate opens the horse isn’t go out sideways.”

Gilligan and Doyle expect to carry their momentum to the spring seasons at Keeneland and Churchill Downs when the Turfway Park meeting concludes on March 29.

I think in America if you work hard and are honest and always try your best, people will give you a chance,” Gilligan said. “So far, it has paid off for me.”

Liane Crossley is a Lexington-based freelance writer.

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