How a day at Goodwood racecourse changed my life

It was a day and a moment that no-one present will ever forget. Especially not the person whose life it changed.

Thursday, 27th August 2020, 4:30 pm
Khadijah Mellah was the centre of attention at Goodwood after her magnificent Magnolia Cup win / Picture: Malcolm Wells

Just over a year ago, the eighth running of the Magnolia Cup ladies’ charity race at Goodwood became not only the story of the day, but one of the racing stories of the year.

She was the first jockey to wear a hijab during a race on a British racecourse and taking part in the high-profile race was a story in itself. That she went on and won – just three months after riding a racehorse for the first time and while up against competitors like Olympian Victoria Pendleton – took the tale to a whole new level. It attracted headlines around the world and projected the sport to a new audience.

Quite rightly, the story was made into a film – Riding A Dream.

Khadijah during the race / Picture: Malcolm Wells

The film was named Best British Short Film at the prestigious British Documentary Film Festival.

Khadijah was named The Sunday Times Young Sportswoman of the Year and is now an ambassador for Great British Racing.

Khadijah, from Peckham, said: “Winning the Magnolia Cup at the Qatar Goodwood Festival was a whirlwind experience and something that has changed my life immensely.

“The fact that the documentary of my story, Riding A Dream, has gone on to win Best British Short Film is totally surreal.”

Khadijah meets the Duchess of Cornwall during the premiere of Riding A Dream / Picture: Getty

She has been keen to ensure that her achievement does not just change her life, but those of other young people too.

“At the time, I was looking up to role models to help inspire me and get me through the gruelling training,” she said.

“So it was incredible to then receive messages from young women and girls in particular, saying that I had inspired them to do something out of their comfort zone.

“It is so important to me to encourage people to be determined and pursue a sport to a higher level despite what other people may think.

“My hope is that my experiences will encourage more people to get involved in racing.”

There were plenty of great racing stories that occurred during the 2019 Glorious Goodwood week.

There was the Japanese celebrating their biggest ever win in this country with Deidre in the Nassau Stakes, and there was Goodwood favourites Stradivarius and Battaash completing unique trebles in the Goodwood Cup and King George Stakes respectively. Yet Khadijah’s win on the horse she came to adore, Haverland, made history and changed the perceptions of young women in her community.

“I know for sure that I have broken some perceptions of a young Muslim woman and it is something that I am proud of and will continue to do,” she said.

“Me being Muslim isn’t just it.

“It is important that people realise that being a certain religion or from a certain background doesn’t determine your interests and the person you are, and it certainly doesn’t determine how good you are.

“For me it is so important to be able to spread the message that you can be successful despite your background.”

Khadijah hopes her story and positive experience within the sport will see a shift in horse-racing.

She said: “When I was younger, I didn’t think that getting into racing would be an option for me or someone of my background.

“There was no one that looked like me. I hope now that I have joined the racing industry and I have been a success story that young people like me will also see there is an opportunity for them to join that racing community.”

Khadijah’s story was told in the Riding A Dream documentary, which was shown on ITV during this year’s Glorious week.

Oli Bell, producer of the film and ITV Racing presenter said: “The Riding A Dream team are thrilled to receive this prestigious award.

“It is recognition to a lot of people’s hard work and testament to what an incredible young woman Khadijah is.

“We were so lucky to be working with Khadijah who dealt with everything that the filming and the preparation for the race threw at her and I am delighted that her story has been recognised in this way.

“On behalf of the film makers, we would like to thank the team at the British Racing School and Charlie Fellowes Racing for all their help and Great British Racing, The Racing Foundation and Goodwood Racecourse for their belief in this project from the start.

“I hope that Khadijah’s success helps to make the sport a more diverse and inclusive one going forwards.”

The film was directed and filmed by filmmakers Tom Bolwell and Mattia Reiniger and produced by Oli and Phil Bell.

It was supported by Great British Racing, Goodwood Racecourse and The Racing Foundation.

Khadijah completed much of her training at the British Racing School and was supported by trainer Charlie Fellowes on whose horse, Haverland, she won the 2019 Magnolia Cup.

And what of her future? “My parents aren’t rich, so my future needs to be based on my work. For some people, particularly some of the girls in the school I went to, that isn’t necessarily the case. They have parents with money. If things go south they have people to rely on and maybe a business to inherit. My parents have worked hard but don’t really have anything they can give me.

“I need to equip myself for the future.”

* Khadijah Mellah is an ambassador for Great British Racing - and is able to give industry officials a whole new angle on how their sport is viewed in different sections of society.

She told the Racing Post the sport had work to do if it wanted to be more inclusive.

“From the outside, racing seems to be elitist and upper class. It seems expensive. Racing has a shiny exterior that gives the impression you need to be a certain person to be able to access the sport. I know this is changing but the culture around racing is also about betting and drinking. In my culture that sort of social gathering just doesn’t occur.

“There’s been no representation for people in my community. That’s why I’m happy and proud I am now a representative.

“Young people ask me how could they become a jockey and I tell them about the racing schools. I don’t think there has been an incentive for people to deviate from the traditional route.

“Now I have had some success in racing, people from urban areas or with ethnically diverse backgrounds can hopefully see there are opportunities for them in racing.”

“When I go to the races the culture still feels like it’s about drinking and betting,” she says. “That puts people off.”

Exposing more people to racing is vital, says Khadijah.

“The way racing is publicised is directed towards its fans. If you have no connection with horses, if you’re from my background or live in an urban area, it can be impossible to imagine yourself in racing. My brother got into racing is he was quite small and when he was at Ebony an ex-work rider suggested he had a go at pony racing.”