On Thursday 1 August 2019, Khadijah Mellah made global headlines by becoming the first jockey to ride in a race in Britain wearing hijab – aged just 18. And not only did she take part, she galloped into first place, going on to land the 2019 Magnolia Cup charity race at Glorious Goodwood.
Her rise to success is being shown in a new ITV documentary, Riding a Dream, which charts her journey from growing up in Peckham to joining the charity Ebony Horse Club to winning gold at Glorious Goodwood against the likes of Olympian Victoria Pendleton and model Vogue Williams. Ahead of the documentary airing on 2 November, we catch up with Khadijah to talk through her extraordinary story…
Tell us how you first got into horse riding…
I first visited Ebony Horse Club in Brixton around six years ago and have been going ever since. I love being around horses and I would spend almost every weekend there. However, when I was fortunate enough to be asked to take part in the Magnolia Cup, I had to learn a whole new riding technique as I had never sat on a racehorse before then. I’ve always liked sports like cricket and boxing, but learning to ride a racehorse is probably the toughest thing I’ve had to do. Not only are racehorses athletes in themselves, you have to be physically fit yourself to ride them. I think my passion for sport definitely played a part in my determination throughout the training.
How did it feel to win the Magnolia Cup?
It was an incredible moment. From realising I won the race to seeing all my family and friends in the Winners Enclosure is something I will never forget. Being against the likes of Victoria Pendleton and Vogue Williams, it really does show you can achieve anything if you are ambitious. Ultimately, I really wanted to make my friends and family proud and inspire other women with the same story, so that gave me the determination to succeed.
What was your training routine like?
It was tough – I’d never sat on a racehorse before so I had to learn a whole new riding technique. There were several fitness tests I had to complete ahead of the Magnolia Cup and they were very tough. I moved to Newmarket to ride out every day and focus on my fitness and training, which was key to me completing the assessments.
Was it difficult balancing training with working for your A-Levels?
I only moved to Newmarket once I finished my A-Levels, so that allowed me to focus on the riding. However, whilst studying for my A-Levels I still had to dedicate time to my training and fitness and rode out every weekend in Epsom which was hard. Jockeys have an extremely high level of fitness. I was also training during Ramadan which was difficult at times – the hours were very long, from riding three to four horses every morning and then fitness training in the afternoon.
Your win garnered interest all over the world. Have you found the attention overwhelming?
I never expected my story to go so far and the days following the race were quite overwhelming, but my family and friends have been very supportive, the whole experience has been amazing, and I hope my story inspires other young women. I saw this as an opportunity not only for myself, but also to represent other British female Muslim women. I wanted to be an inspiration for others and prove that ambitious women can make it. I hope I have done that.
Who inspires you?
Manal Rostom, who founded the online platform Surviving Hijab, is a huge inspiration to me. The platform inspires young women to wear the hijab and I reached out to her and shared my story just weeks before my race. Great British Racing arranged a surprised visit with Manal a few weeks ago so it was great to meet her and discuss our stories.
What are your plans now?
I am in my first term at University of Brighton studying Mechanical Engineering. I will continue riding, I have joined the polo society and hope to set up a racing society too. I hope to ride in another charity race – though at the moment I am focusing on settling into University.
What can we expect from the upcoming documentary Riding a Dream?
I am excited for people to see the rest of my story and the journey to Goodwood. The training was very intense and there were definite highs and lows so I can’t wait to share my story and hope that inspires other people to be ambitious.
Riding a Dream will air on ITV on Sunday 2 November at 12.15pm. For more information visit greatbritishracing.com/ridingadream