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Women in Racing – Hannah Runnalls

It’s true what they say – behind every successful man is a strong woman – and as Women’s month comes to a close we acknowledge the ladies behind some of racing’s most successful sportsmen. Despite unknowingly having crossed paths as children, both having grown up in Port Elizabeth, current SA Champion jockey Lyle Hewitson and Hannah Runnalls only officially met 3 years ago in the office of trainer Yvette Bremner – and the rest, as they say, is history.

The couple have recently made the move to Hong Kong where Lyle, at just 21 years of age, is the youngest South African to be granted a jockeys licence and where he will race for the 2019/20 season.

Hannah herself is no stranger to the horse racing circuit, having competed in no less than five amateur races – with a victory on her second attempt. The 20-year old had applied to go to New Zealand to do her apprenticeship but decided to ride in the amateur ranks first to see if race riding truly was her calling. Although she enjoyed riding in races, it was working with the horses on a more personal level that appealed to her more and she took up a role working for champion trainer, Mike de Kock, in Dubai instead. It was during the off-season when Hannah returned home to gain more work riding experience with Port Elizabeth based trainer, Yvette Bremner, that she met Lyle.

In light of Women’s month, Hannah’s wish would be to see more opportunities for female jockeys in South Africa, “I think it would be great to introduce a claiming system for women jockeys as they have done in France. Currently in the UK, women outnumber men entering the racing industry at a ratio of nearly 70:30! Obviously not all of these women will become
jockeys, but nevertheless it would be great to get more women involved in general, as I feel racing in South Africa is a very male dominated sport.”

It’s also a very demanding sport and whilst in-form Lyle spends a vast majority of his time travelling and away from home, Hannah understands the importance of capitalising on rides and opportunities in order to be successful. “You have to make the most of it and join them for the ride when you can” says Runnalls, who has subsequently made the trip to Hong Kong with Lyle.

Whilst the life of a jockey’s girlfriend may seem glamorous, it doesn’t come without it’s challenges and Hannah’s greatest concern is about his safety, “ Lyle has had a few bad falls over the past few years and when you realise just how easily it can happen it can play on your mind. I just pray that he gets past the line safely during each race.”

Away from the race-track, the couple don’t have much free time due to Lyle’s schedule and any off-days are usually spent relaxing at home, watching movies or at leisurely lunches with friends. Being athletes, both Lyle and Hannah enjoy keeping fit together and would take the opportunity to hike or ride together when it arose. Hannah began studying accounting but the horses took preference and although she may return to the studies at some point she is hoping to continue her career in racing, wherever her or Lyle’s career takes them. Whilst she may study or work while in Hong Kong, her primary focus is to be a support system for Lyle, “we share the joy of each win together – whether it’s a Group 1 Feature race or a Maiden Plate. You feel as if you are a ‘team’ even if your role in the success was much smaller”.

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