09/16/2011 3:18PM

A college and a professor for future jockeys

Jay Hovdey
Malcolm Bygrave has spent 18 years instructing prospective jockeys at tne Northern Racing College in England.

Near the northern England town of Doncaster, just off the A638 down a shady lane, the Northern Racing College sits on 200 useful acres of Yorkshire forests and fields. From dawn ‘til dusk, the clop-clop of hooves on brick mixes with the hushed hubbub of young people cleaning stalls and tack, feeding hungry school horses, and riding out on the college’s generous gallops.

Chief Executive Dawn Goodfellow runs the show, with ample assistance from her right hand Michelle Bardsley, but when it comes time for the students to muster for horsemanship courses they answer first and foremost to the man known as Malc.

Malcolm Bygrave is the NRC’s training manager and chief instructor. This is a simplification, of course, fitting neatly on a business card, when the job in fact calls for him to be tactician, educator, horse whisperer, psychologist, lifeguard and sergeant major all rolled into one.

“Some of these kids have never been near a horse before,” Bygrave said last week, as he took time out for a wayward band of American visitors. “Their motivations vary, but they soon learn the horse is the reason we’re here.“

Back home in the States, the idea of a formal educational setting for youngsters intent on careers in racing is still in the flickering stages. There have been any number of private jockey “schools” pop up across the land, and farms continue to welcome anyone who wants to work for what amounts slave wages and learn on the job.

The North American Racing Academy in Lexington, Ky.,inspired and run by retired Hall of Famer Chris McCarron, is still in its infancy but quickly becoming an admirable model (its jockey track grads have now won more than 1,000 races). But for the most part young riders primarily learn their trade on the first turn at tracks like Fairplex Park from veterans like Martin Pedroza, or variations on that Darwinian theme.

Bygrave, 43, was in the first class offered by the Northern Racing College in 1984. From there he was lucky enough to go to work for the noted British trainer Clive Brittain when champion Pebbles was in the yard. Bygrave’s luck turned in the second year of his jockey apprenticeship when he broke his neck schooling a yearling at the family farm.

“That’s the way it is, isn’t it?” he said of his accident. “When you like horses you’re on them all the time.”

The damaged vertebrae fused, rendering Bygrave unable to lift his head while crouching low in the saddle. So ended his dreams of being a jockey, although he was able to continue as a work rider for a number of stables over the next few years.

“Eventually I wanted to take some time off from racing,” Bygrave said. “I came home to Doncaster to spend some time with my mother, a month or so. I read in the paper an advertisement for an instructor at the Racing College. I thought I could do that short term until I got myself sorted.“

Bygrave shrugged.

“Eighteen years later … still here.”

A healthy percentage of NRC’s beginning students have never touched a horse before, and they don’t until Bygrave and his instructors have laid down the laws of safety. Still, once on horseback things happen.

“I’ll never forget the day I took a class out,” Bygrave said, shaking his head. “Something spooked one of the horses, and when I turned around all 17 of them were on the ground. For some reason they just sat there, like they weren’t sure what to do next. I suggested they get up and catch their horses.”

Chances are one of those was not Hayley Turner, England’s most celebrated woman jockey and an NRC grad.

“She had no idea of the potential she had at the time,” Bygrave recalled. “She was just a little girl. It soon became clear to us instructors that she had something nobody else had. It became a matter of convincing her to have faith in her own ability.”

Apparently the lessons took. As 2005 champion apprentice and later the first British woman to win 100 races in a season, Turner is clearly the exception to the rule. Still, Bygrave never discourages a student intent on becoming a jockey, while at the same time he coddles no delusions.

“If you think about it, one percent of all apprentices who get their licenses will continue to ride into professionalism,” he noted. “That’s how hard it is. At the moment, I think there is only 150 professional riders licensed in England, and all the top spots are filled. In my era there was Pat Eddery, Steve Cauthen, Lester Piggott. And it weren’t until they hung up the boots that the next generation started coming through.”

Once through the basic 12-week course, NRC students are placed with trainers, their progress closely monitored by college evaluators.

“The trainers are clamoring for qualified help,” Bygrave said. “And we’ve tried to make it more of a racing experience here, getting the students out earlier, giving them a feel for what they’ll find in a real training yard. I’d love to keep the students longer, but part of our funding mandate requires us to generate product for the work force.”

As racing in the U.S. moves farther and farther from its rural roots, the skilled positions – jockeys, grooms, exercise riders – are becoming harder and harder to fill. British racing, with its training yards spread across the land, continues to nurture the memory of its agrarian past, but the skills still need teaching. Bygrave, who once burned with the fire to one day ride with Piggott and Eddery, has instead spent his life nursing those flames in others.

“Somebody once told me never forget where you came from,“ Bygrave said. “I think the fact I’d been in the same situation as the students helped me be a teacher. I know how hard it is to learn unless it’s something you’re passionate about. But if they’re eager, it’s easy to teach them.”