“I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie,” says 37-year-old Sarah Ayton OBE, the Olympic sailor who will race in the renowned charity event the Magnolia Cup this year – one of the highlights of the Goodwood Qatar Festival – having only sat on a horse twice in her life before commencing training in December.
“I love speed, so going 35-38mph on a horse was pretty appealing to me. I didn’t hesitate to sign up.”
It’s this passion for all things exhilarating, combined with an affinity for perfecting technique, that led Sarah to Olympic gold medals for sailing in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). Now she has set her sights on mastering a very different sport – and all in less than eight months.
“I’m giving this 100 per cent of my attention,” says Ayton, who rides at least three times a week and trains in the gym each day. “Making sure I’m really fit is a quick win for me, so I want to be one of the fittest jockeys out there. I’m lucky in that you use the same core strength you need for sailing.”
It’ll take more than just fitness, though, to give Ayton the lead. As any experienced jockey will tell you, horse racing is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. “Going fast is the easy bit,” she says. “What I’m struggling with is how to relax. Confidence comes with time and experience, so I’ve been working on harnessing my nerves so the horse doesn’t pick up on them. You need to be calm but also aggressive.”
There are certain advantages, however, in entering the race as a novice. Learning under the guidance of horse racing trainer Amanda Perrett and her husband, Mark, she has the benefit of an expert team behind her, and coming to riding later in life means she has “no bad technique, only good”. As with sailing, jockeys need to be aware of multiple different factors around them while retaining focus – but of course it’s a different challenge entirely when you’re dealing with animals.