The south London district of Brixton isn’t necessarily the sort of place you’d expect to find a horse riding club, but amid concrete streets and towering apartment blocks lies the paddock where Khadijah Mellah first fell in love with the sport.
When the 18-year-old takes to the start line at the Goodwood Festival Thursday, surrounded by an oasis of green in the south of Engand countryside, it will seem a far cry from the venue in which she’s more accustomed to riding horses.
Thursday’s Magnolia Cup — the annual ladies-only charity race at “Glorious Goodwood” — will be a momentous occasion for Mellah. On top of marking her competitive racing debut, it will also make her the Cup’s first Muslim rider, as well as the first jockey to wear a hijab at a British racecourse.
The student is the first to admit that she’s something of an anomaly within the horse racing community.
“I’ve been looking at the racing history and typically it’s all just middle class white women,” Mellah tells CNN Sport.
“It’s a nice change to see someone who isn’t typically racing to be racing. I feel like it could open up doors for people and I like the idea that I’m starting a little movement and surprising people.”
When travel to riding centers outside London proved too expensive, Mellah’s family discovered Brixton’s Ebony Horse Club, a community riding and horse care center intended to give fresh opportunities to young people living in one of London’s most disadvantaged areas.
The sight of horses trotting around in the heart of London is an arresting one.
“Day in, day out people are passing by saying, ‘Oh my God, is that a horse? Is that a riding center?'” says Mellah. “It’s such a privilege to be involved in such a niche club, there aren’t many like it.”
For the past few weeks she has been living and riding at Newmarket Racecourse in Suffolk, England preparation for the Magnolia Cup.
Training has been arduous, not least because Mellah has had to learn to ride a thoroughbred racehorse from scratch.
Then there’s also been her schoolwork (she sat exams in physics, math and design and tech in the hope of achieving the grades to study engineering at university), her other interests (she had to give up boxing), her part time job as a children’s party supervisor and that she undertook much of her grueling training regime while fasting for Ramadan.
“I’m quite exhausted,” Mellah admits.
As for the riding, she says it took time to adapt to the new discipline, but after a few hiccups and falls soon began to hit her stride.
“The first time I sat on a racehorse was a couple of months ago,” she continues. “Racehorses and thoroughbreds are just a different breed and it took me a while to understand them.
“Obviously if you don’t understand something, you tend to fear what you don’t understand … there was a certain element of panic and fear, but thankfully I’ve got over that stage.”
Although none of the Magnolia Cup competitors are professional jockeys, they will be competing in a festival cluttered with famous names and big-money races, notably the $1.25 million Qatar Sussex Stakes.
Mellah will line up alongside 11 other riders at Goodwood including former track cyclist and double Olympic gold medalist Victoria Pendleton and Irish model Vogue Williams.
In spite of the celebrity lineup, it’s Mellah who has achieved the lion share of media attention in the buildup to the race, which has also included filming for a documentary about her journey.
Not that any of that is phasing the teen, who admitted to feeling “pretty chilled” a couple of weeks out from the event, the outcome of which she hopes will inspire onlookers — be it on a horse or in another walk of life.
“There’s no reason why anyone can’t become good at a sport,” says Mellah. “As long as you put the hard work and the effort in, there’s no real reason why you can’t be good at what you want to do.”