Dani Jackson is on her way to becoming one of sport's trailblazers.
Her name might not ring a bell at the moment, but her voice certainly will for anyone who watched ITV's coverage of the Lockinge at Newbury last month. Jackson called the Injured Jockeys Fund Charity Race in celebration of Her Majesty The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee contest at the Berkshire track as part of a new initiative to champion female race callers.
While football, cricket, rugby and other mainstream sports are now used to having female voices in the commentary box, horse racing remains something of an outlier. Greater opportunities have been afforded to female jockeys, presenters and broadcasters, but those chances have not yet translated to the caller's booth.
Jackson is out to change that. A greyhound commentator with William Hill for a decade, Jackson has her sights set on becoming the UK's first full-time female race caller. She spoke to Daily Star Sport before her second stint in the commentary box on Thursday and admitted that it had been more a case of excitement rather than nerves this time around.
"I'm really excited," Jackson revealed before taking to the microphone again. "I'm more excited than nervous this time. Last time I wanted to throw up quite a lot! I’ve done a lot of practice between then and now and I’m feeling more confident and a lot less nervous."
Jackson didn't display any nerves on her first appearance at Newbury, and it was the same again on Thursday as she called home the nine runners and riders in consummate fashion.
But it's not difficult to understand why nerves can play such a part when it's something that someone is so passionate about. "It was hard to keep the nerves down," Jackson admits about her first time at Newbury.
"It’s a new challenge and it’s something that means a heck of a lot to me because it’s something that I want to do. As well as being the first female to do it for ten years, it’s a big thing for me and I want to nail it. I get very nervous about things like that, but I think I managed to keep it under control when I was actually calling.
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"Richard Hoiles beforehand was like 'will you snap out of it! You’ll be fine, just open your mouth because you can do it.' He gave me a good bit of advice beforehand and a good bit of advice after. It was great having him up there because I knew that if anything went wrong I had him there as a safety blanket almost."
Women commentators and broadcasters are no strangers to getting sexist abuse online. Alex Scott and Karen Carney, to name just two, have both been on the receiving end in recent times. But thankfully Jackson had an overwhelmingly positive interaction from people who listened to her debut last month.
"I got a really good reaction actually," she tells us. "I don’t think I was surprised about it because when I went to America I got a good reaction over there – and I was really nervous about that. I know that when it comes to commentating, they like to have people that are from America, South Africa or France or what have you doing the commentary.
"But it went well over there so I was hoping it would be the same over here. It’s all been positive, which is good. There were a couple of grumbles but nothing major. More like 'I can’t believe they’ve let a woman commentate' but I just completely ignore them."
Our conversation then turns to whether horse racing should be doing more to facilitate a pathway for female commentators. Given the opportunities afforded to women in other areas of the sport, it seems a reasonable question.
But Jackson doesn't believe there are any internal barriers holding back a wannabe female commentator, and adds that a lot of her male colleagues want to see a female voice finally make that breakthrough.
"I honestly think it’s because there’s nobody really that wants it that’s a woman," Jackson says. "I’m the first one that myself and a lot of my male colleagues know of.
"I’ve spoken to them and said 'can you help me.' And they’re like 'Yeah! We want a female on the rota, it’d be great to mix things up.' I don’t think it’s for the lack of support or opportunity.
"It’s ridiculously stressful and you can see the abuse people get online if you make the tiniest mistake and as the first woman, I know that I would be under a lot of scrutiny. I’ve got a thick skin, I’ll be fine. But it’s that thing, do I really want to put myself under that kind of pressure? I think that’s what a lot of people think about, especially with social media."
So with no female voices to look up to in the commentary box, or not in racing at least, how did Jackson come to dream of wanting to call the Sport of Kings? Greyhound racing and John Hunt played a big part in her ambition.
"I was told by my boss at the time to concentrate on greyhound racing because he said I needed a sport to focus on and it’s easier than horse racing," she says. "So I started learning all about the sport of greyhounds. Even though it’s just six runners going around in circles, I was ridiculously nervous.
"I’ve done about 200,000 races now but my first one was ridiculously nerve-wracking. Then I realised that you can play with how you say things and make a race exciting or dull. I remember listening to John Hunt – he commentates on swimming as well as horse racing.
"During the 2012 Olympics he was commentating a swimming race. I was an amateur swimmer, and I know how dull and boring they can be to watch, never mind listen to on the radio. He was doing a commentary on 5 Live and I just thought 'wow.' And that is the power of a commentator. He made it sound exciting even though I know it’s dull, and that was it for me. I honed my skills as a greyhound racing commentator and thought I need a new challenge, so horse racing it was."
Jackson had only commentated on one race at Newbury when we spoke, but she's now two down after calling the runners home at Thursday's Greatwood Charity Race. She has two more races to go in August and November, but her long-term aim is to become the UK's first full-time on-course female race caller.
"My aim now is to become the UK's first full-time on-course female race caller, yeah," she says, struggling to hold back her smile at the thought of such an achievement.
Jackson almost made that dream come true earlier this year, getting down to the final six in RaceTech’s latest recruitment drive for new commentators. She just missed out this time around, but you get the sense that won't happen again the next time a similar opportunity comes around.
"I chucked my hat into the ring this time around because they had the first application process for a number of years. I got down to the final six, so I know I’m ok and they’ve liked what they’ve heard. It’s not going to stop me just because I didn’t get the job this time around. I’m going to practice, get my name out there and organise my time so that I can go to different tracks and get the feel for them so that I can build up the base of knowledge and experience that I already have. And next time, it’s mine."
The former William Hill employee is not letting that setback get her down, far from it. "It's a waiting game," she adds excitedly. "A lot of commentators, or wannabe commentators, go through the point-to-point ranks.
"I’ve been speaking to a few of my mentors and they’ve said it would be great if you could get a point-to-point meeting and then progress from there. You get a lot of great experience and there’s no monitor as a safety net. It's just you and a pair of binoculars in the middle of a field and come hell or high water, you’ve got to call them home. So that’s what I’m aiming to do this winter."
What would it mean for Jackson to become the UK's first full-time on-course female race caller? The smile on her face says it all. "It would mean absolutely everything," she gushes. "It’s something that I first thought about around seven or eight years ago when I really enjoyed greyhound commentary. It would mean the world."
Jackson ends our chat with an anecdote about her first time on course at Newbury last month. "I’ve never gone 'oh, I’m a woman, so I need to do this.' I’ve always gone 'I’m just a commentator,' and that’s all I want to be.
"It’s funny because we had a videographer at Newbury on Lockinge Day and he said 'I want to say something to you and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way.' And I said 'just tell me.' And he said 'You just sounded like normal, like I’d been listening to you for ages.'
"And I went 'honestly, that is the best thing you could have said to me.' I just want to be a commentator. I want to do the job because I’m good enough to do it."
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