When opportunities eluded her in her home country of England, Sophie Doyle set her sights on the bright lights and numerous horse tracks of California. But it was in Kentucky where she finally found success and got to see her name in lights. 

Now, in just her third full season of racing in the states, she is a regular in the winner’s circle at the tracks in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, including Turfway Park where she stays near the top of the leaderboard (On March 16, she was listed sixth among all jockeys and first among female jockeys.) Her wins have earned her fans, additional horse racing opportunities and about $250,000 so far in 2016. 

Success didn’t come overnight. Ranked as England’s top female apprentice jockey in 2010, it looked as though Doyle, who’d spent her entire life around horses, was well on her way to a rewarding and lucrative career. However, the number of meets in England is limited and it can be difficult for new riders to make a name for themselves. According to Doyle, it is doubly hard for female jockeys, so after securing only 85 mounts during the full 2012 season, she decided to look for opportunities elsewhere, namely California.

“In Britain, the trainers and owners still won’t give female jockeys the opportunities. They are still in an era of not pushing female jockeys enough, but a couple [females] are coming through the ranks now,” Doyle says, adding in her English lilt that she is glad to see things changing even if it came too late for her.

When heavy competition from well-known jockeys kept her off the tracks in California, Doyle made plans to move again. In 2014, she made Kentucky her home and has been competing all out ever since. She understands how fortunate she is to have an opportunity to race within the Thoroughbred industry and she is doing everything she can to take advantage of it. On the track and off, she has to be ready when she sees an opening.

In her first season at Turfway Park, when a gate incident left jockey Aldo Canchano with a dislocated shoulder and unable to ride, Doyle was dressed in silks and volunteering to ride for trainer Anthony Hamilton Jr. before he could even ask for a replacement. It was her first time riding for Hamilton but not her last. The filly ran so well with Doyle in the saddle that Hamilton kept her on. 

“For me, it’s not just about winning. It’s about associating with people and building relationships with the owners and the trainers and the horses,” she says. “I’d love to win every time, but it’s really fun when you get to know the owners and trainers and work together as a team.”

The relationship she has built with Hamilton has certainly paid off. It was on another horse from Hamilton’s stable that Doyle made her Breeder’s Cup debut last year. Doyle mounted Fioretti in the 2015 $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Keeneland. It was the same filly she had taken to the winner’s circle of the Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes, her biggest win to date.

“That was a dream come true. If you don’t make dreams, you don’t have goals or anything to look forward to,” says Doyle who has set numerous goals for herself including a mount in the Kentucky Derby, a feat she believes she could pull off this year. 

“To have an opportunity to ride in the Derby in my second year in Kentucky would be pretty special. I have to grab it with both hands and make that opportunity happen,” she says, her eyes widening at the mere thought of it. 

It isn’t only the esteem of the Kentucky Derby that causes her to break out into a wide smile. Stories of the ponies she showed as a young girl have a similar effect. Her face visibly brightens as she tells of the tiny pony that had to stand on wooden blocks to see over the barn gate. Doyle doesn’t just have a love of racing; she has a love of horses. 

Her relationships with the horses she rides is just as important to her as the relationship with their owners and trainers, maybe more so.

“You have to understand them. You have to understand how they feel in your hands,” she says of the thoroughbreds she rides. “Do they need a light or strong hold? Should you keep your hands up off the withers or down? You need to know what they like. I like to know the quirks of a horse.”

She adjusts to each one of their preferences. Sitting in the locker room of Turfway Park on a Friday night, she details the preferences of each of her rides for the weekend, sharing which likes to run off the pace and which she knows to put in to start finishing earlier than the others. 

Having grown up in the horse racing industry—her mother, Jacqueline Doyle, is a former trainer and agent in England; her father, Bill Perrin, briefly raced as an amateur; and little brother, James Doyle, is a professional jockey racing primarily in England, Ireland and Dubai—Doyle doesn’t remember a time when horses weren’t part of her life. She’s been riding since she was big enough to sit on a horse and remains passionate about the animals whether riding for sport or pleasure. 

Doyle credits her mother for sparking her love of horses, but says it was her father who instilled a love of sports and encouraged her athleticism. He visited her in Kentucky last year and had the opportunity to watch her excel on the track. Doyle says the time together helped him to understand why she continues to push herself so hard in a sport that has taken her away from her family.

Ironically, as her racing career has taken off and filled her schedule with near daily trips to the horse tracks, she says she misses being a “horsey person.” Her busy work scheduledoesn’t leave her much time for grooming horses and mucking stalls, work she has always enjoyed. 

She has continued to work hard to get her name and her work ethic in front of decision makers. In 2015, her second full season racing in Kentucky, she ran in 747 races, more than any other female jockey. The busy season and a place percentage of 32 percent helped her build her bank account and her reputation as a winner. Though proud of her 2015 season, Doyle is hoping for fewer mounts and more wins in 2016. After completing the Turfway season, she will compete at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Ellis and others. She’d like to increase her win record from 9 percent to closer to 15 percent.

“You have to keep it realistic. You keep trying to achieve something and if it can be better than last year, then that’s great. You have to make the most of it every time,” she says.

While a live racing night at Turfway Park often brings four to eight mounts, some nights, like the night we spoke, bring only one. She trusts that her agent, Cory Prewitt, made the best selections for her. They are shooting for quality over quantity. 

“By the end of the meet, I want a high win percentage. If that means that tonight I ride just one mount then I am OK with that,” she explains.

She made the most of her single entry, coming from off the pace to handily beat the field.

The win is more evidence that she can hold her own among the male jockeys, but even in the U.S., she feels that female jockeys have to work harder to prove themselves. 

“You have to apply yourself to the job you want to do and work twice as hard. For jockeys, it is especially important to build your health and fitness,” she says.

To maintain the incredible strength needed to control her mounts, Doyle participates in daily Insanity workouts, which include 20-25 minutes interval training. On race days, she makes sure to fit in an intense six-minute routine close to post time.

“We work the horse before a race. I treat myself the same way before I go out there, just like we do the horses,” she says.

Still, the sport isn’t without risk. She took three falls between August and November of 2015. She suffered two concussions and aches and pains, but considers herself lucky to have not been hurt more seriously than she was. In each case, she was back in a race within two days.

Her strength, both physical and mental, helped her to recover quickly. Several told her she should take more time to heal and only come back when she was fully recovered but, as a woman in a male-dominated sport, she isn’t sure she has that luxury.

“If I was to take a week off, what would that do to my reputation as a girl jockey? You have to be tougher. No matter where you are in the world, being a female, you have to bounce back twice as fast,” she says. “You fall off, you get back on.”

It is advice she follows not just on the track but in life as well. When her career in England faltered, she found a way to get back on the horse and now rides to victory in Kentucky.