Bryony Frost aims to put bullying case behind her in the King George
The battle-hardened professional in Bryony Frost will approach the King George VI Chase on Sunday as just another race: in the zone, fence-to-fence, a brief time when nothing on the other side of the running rail can intrude. For everyone else, the sense that a page could be turned in the space of six minutes after the toughest two years of her career is difficult to ignore.
The horse, the race and the stage might all have been scripted as a way for Frost to move on from one chapter to the next. It was in the aftermath of her win on Frodon, a 20-1 outsider, in last year’s King George, that rumours emerged of issues between Frost and a weighing-room colleague. “It’s hard for me to chat about it,” she said on the TV cameras trained on her at the time, “because there are still things that need to be sorted out.”
Over the months that followed, it emerged Frost had lodged a formal complaint with the British Horseracing Authority over her treatment by Robbie Dunne. Less than four weeks ago, after a six-day hearing, Dunne was banned from riding for 18 months after a disciplinary panel decided he had subjected Frost to a seven-month campaign of bullying and harassment between February and September 2020.
Frost was 22 and still getting a 5lb allowance from senior jockeys due to her inexperience when she climbed aboard Frodon for the first time almost four years ago to the day, on 23 December 2017. Paul Nicholls’s chaser had already had 16 starts in Britain for other riders, including a valuable win in a handicap at Cheltenham in December 2016, but the horse and his new rider bonded so swiftly that it was soon hard to imagine him being ridden by anyone else.
In November 2018, Frost rode the 75th winner of her career and joined the ranks of full professionals. It is a rung on the ladder that leaves many young riders facing a struggle to make their mark, but barely a fortnight later, and thanks to Frodon, her ever-dependable ally, Frost made the step up look easy.
Under a typically positive ride from the front, and despite giving at least 17lb to all his opponents, Frodon produced one of the best handicap performances of the last 20 years to land a £74,000 first prize, the biggest of Frost’s career to that point. It was a record that survived just three months, before their win in the £196,000 Ryanair Chase in March 2019 made Frost the first female rider to win a Grade One race at the Cheltenham Festival.
“He is Pegasus, he’s got wings,” Frost said shortly afterwards. It was a memorable quote, but not one that anyone could have imagined featuring in a disciplinary hearing two and a half years later. But it was this quote, according to Louis Weston, the BHA’s counsel at Dunne’s hearing earlier this month, which the jockey had in mind when he sent a tweet to his 1,500 followers before the Virtual Grand National in April 2020 that appeared to mock Frost’s post-race interviews.
“Out of 40 riders … why did you pick on her?”, Weston repeatedly asked Dunne in his cross-examination. Dunne, who had claimed in his witness statement to the hearing that his relationship with Frost was “good or perfect” until September 2020, wriggled and struggled but could not find a worthwhile answer.
And so the story returns to Kempton Park on Boxing Day – with one important difference. The grandstands were empty 12 months ago, at a time when Frost told Dunne’s hearing that she was already experiencing “isolation … which I wouldn’t wish on anyone” from other riders following her decision to break the weighing-room omertà and lodge a formal complaint with the BHA.
Twelve thousand racegoers at Sandown Park on 4 December, midway through the hearing, made their feelings and sympathies very plain as Frost returned to unsaddle after Greaneteen’s victory in the Tingle Creek Chase, the sixth Grade One win of her career. “To feel the support of everyone here is huge,” Frost said. “I was nearly in tears coming in.”
Around 20,000 would normally be expected at Kempton for the biggest race of the Christmas programme, and while Covid concerns may well see a lower attendance than usual, the prospect of Frodon taking on Minella Indo, last season’s Gold Cup winner, and Clan Des Obeaux, the Kempton winner in 2018 and 2019, will be tough for many to resist.
This time around, Frodon is one of the favourites, and Frost’s rivals will be alive to the danger of allowing her a soft lead. But as horse and rider have shown time and again over the last four years, when they are in the zone, it takes a mighty effort to overhaul them.
On Sunday, at long last and on her favourite horse, Frost will return to being what she always wanted to be before a weighing-room bully tried to get in her way: an elite jockey in a championship race in front of thousands of fans. And that will make her a winner, no matter what happens on the track.