At Goodwood House, Sophia Money-coutts meets the plucky aristocrats, models and doctors who will compete in an all-female horse race for charity
Aristocrats, doctors and models are among the brave amateurs training for thoroughbred glory in the Magnolia Cup, Goodwood’s all-female charity race. Sophia Money-coutts studies their form.
It is a bright day in West Sussex and sunshine glints off the flint wings of Goodwood House. Of all Britain’s great houses, it is one of the most unusual-looking: grey and built in the shape of three sides of an octagon with circular towers at each corner. It has been the majestic seat of the Duke of Richmond since 1697, and today, with the 11th duke in residence, the ducal standard (red, yellow and blue, decorated with roses and boars’ heads) flutters over the roof in the breeze.
The scene on the neatly mown lawn in front of the house is slightly less majestic, as four women on horseback try to keep still for a group photograph. Rosie Tapner, a 22-year-old former Burberry model and Vogue cover star, is having particular trouble with her horse, which is refusing to stand beside the others and keeps spinning in circles, churning up the grass.
Luckily, all four are good riders. They need to be because, along with eight others from the worlds of business, fashion, media and medicine, they have signed up to ride in the Magnolia Cup, an annual women-only charitable race that has taken place at Goodwood for the past seven years, raising £1.2 million along the way. In previous years, competitors have included model Edie Campbell, DJ Sara Cox and Baroness Harding, the former chief executive of Talktalk. This year it is held on 2 August – Ladies’ Day during Glorious Goodwood race week – and supports Cancer Research UK.
Named after the flowers that adorn the front of the house, the race is a five-and-a-half-furlong (1.1km) flat sprint, with the amateur jockeys in racing saddles and silks, competing for victory in front of 25,000 cheering spectators. In all, it will last just 90 seconds, with racing speeds of up to 45mph. Most of them have ridden as a hobby, but racing as a jockey is something else – like the difference between driving a Ford Mondeo and an F1 Ferrari – and the effort and the training have been compared to that of an Olympic athlete, albeit condensed into a few months.
While the photographer sets up, one of this year’s competitors, Lady Tatiana Mountbatten, daughter of the 4th Marquess of Milford Haven (a cousin of the Queen), leans against a wall, her
legs bent at a right angle, demonstrating how to strengthen her thigh muscles for the benefit of Dr Amanda Cross, another of the riders. ‘You need to be able to squat,’ instructs Tatiana, pushing her back against the wall, ‘because with racing you’re literally squatting on a horse.’ Amanda copies her. ‘It really burns,’ she says after a few moments, her face creasing with effort.
It may sound like a scene from a Jilly Cooper novel, but each jockey has been issued with a brutal training programme to get them race-fit and must complete a hardcore fitness test before competing. ‘The magnitude of the challenge shouldn’t be underestimated,’ says Sam Hanson, a former jockey who works for Goodwood. ‘They’re riding animals that have been bred, fed and trained to go as fast as possible.’
The riders won’t be introduced to their mounts until nearer the day, but in the meantime most have been riding a succession of skittish racehorses in order to feel comfortable (or as comfortable as possible) in the small, precarious racing saddle.
On the day, they’ll wear intricate – and surprisingly woke – silks created by the glamorous Iranian-swedish fashion designer Morvarid Sahafi, whose creations are all about female empowerment. The faces of Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst stare out from several silks, alongside the slogan ‘I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit’.
It’s a particularly significant summer at Goodwood because it’s the first year that it’s formally under the helm of the new duke, Charles Gordon-lennox, 63, who is charming, debonair and prefers to be addressed by his first name rather than ‘Your Grace’. He has run the 11,500-acre estate since 1993 and has introduced the Magnolia Cup, the Festival of Speed and the Revival in that time, striving to modernise it. (His father, the 10th duke, died in September.) ‘We have a brilliant group again this year, from all walks of life, which befits the ethos of the race,’ he says. ‘It’s such a phenomenal challenge for the riders.’ So, who would be mad enough to sign up for it?
The Magnolia Cup takes place on Thursday 2 August at the Qatar Goodwood Festival. See goodwood.com /magnoliacup