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Byline: Sir Clement Freud unravels the tale of Shona Crombie Hicks, world-class runner and groom with Brendan Powell

SHE weighs a scant eight stone and the horse she leads up weighs half a ton. They get on famously. She is in her thirties, fair-haired, five feet two, married, born in Scotland to a monumental mason father; had wanted to be a jockey ever since she was three years old and watched racing on television with her maternal grandmother.

Shona, her name is. Shona Crombie Hicks. Dad's name was Crombie, husband is called Graham Hicks, a non-riding stable groom with whom she lives and works contentedly at trainer Brendan Powell's yard in Lambourn.

Do I hear you say: "Hundreds of people like that, what's so special?"

Parents moved to Portsmouth, she went to a Catholic school, was an average student; while other girls thought about boys she thought about horses, saved her pocket-money and every three weeks or so had enough to take a riding lesson. At the age of ten, her parents treated her to a week's riding in Brockenhurst in the New Forest; she had not been away from home before, so they told her that if she felt lonely, to ring up and they would fetch her. She never gave them a thought.

Other girls read Bunty and Dandy. Shona had Horses in Training. She got a few O-levels at 16, wrote to the nearest trainer, John Dunlop at Arundel, asking for a job. Dunlop wrote back: "We might have a job for you when you leave school, come over and ride a hack; we'll see."

I asked Shona, whom I had invited to lunch, whether anyone had ever told her she was a good rider. She shook her head. No.

So in 1987 she landed this job at Castle Stables: pounds 19 a week plus lodging with a demented landlady who put her shoes in the bread-bin. She did her three horses and one morning, soon after she had started, got carted on the gallops, lay numbed as Dunlop rode by on his hack.

He sent her to the Racing School at Newmarket for ten weeks and she came back a different person; still no men, very focused on horses. Silk Petal was the best she looked after.

A New Zealander came to work at Arundel, her first boyfriend, son of a trainer he was. They went together to Auckland, where English jockeys are popular because they ride with a longer rein; she rode her first winner in the sixth race at the local meeting and her second winner in the seventh at 25-1. "It was the adrenaline."

In all, she had 11 winners from about 100 rides, followed by a year in Oz riding for Bart Cummings in Sydney, then back to England because her father was dying. She stayed with her mum, worked a couple of years for Lady Herries (rode one winner, beating Frankie Dettori), and decided to leave the sport.

She became a receptionist in a hotel in Bognor Regis, raided the fridge at night, put on two and a half stone in weight, joined a gym and started running, the way fat people do.

What few fat people - even ex-fat people - do is enter the Bognor Regis 10km race and finish it in 47 minutes. Shona went on a running holiday to Lanzarote, met Graham, ran in the local marathon and won that in 2hr 58min. Over the next few years, without a trainer or a 'home' athletics club, she won marathons in Manchester, Copenhagen, Dublin and Berlin. Her best time is 2hr 38min, which is just four minutes shy of qualifying for the Olympics.

Does the name Captain Robert Barclay ring a bell? In 1809, the man accepted a bet of pounds 1,000 that he could not run one mile every hour for 1,000 hours . . . and won it. In 2003, the Barclay achievement was revived. 179 people entered. Six survived the preliminaries, four men, two women, and one of these was Shona Crombie Hicks.

The half-dozen were put up in the Rolling Stones tour bus and for 42 days, rain or shine, at every hour of the day and night, they ran a mile. On the last day, they completed the final mile at 8.30am and an hour later ran the London Marathon. Shona, in 3hr 9min, was the first finisher.

She came away with pounds 17,000 plus the winnings of a pounds 350 bet she and Graham had placed on her at 7-1 with William Hill. "I thought I should have been favourite but was not." It took her six months to recover.

She was in the Scottish squad for the last Commonwealth Games in Australia, went racing at Bendigo, found she missed it and a year ago - 11 years since she last sat on a horse - got a job with Powell, her local trainer; got Graham a job there also.

My horse Eau Good is one of her three and she has applied to get a licence to ride General Knowledge, one of her other horses, because he keeps coming last and she thinks she can win on him. Look out for S Crombie Hicks (7).


Shona Crombie Hicks, marathon runner, groom and jockey, with Eau Good, one of the three she looks after EDWARD WHITAKER
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Aug 8, 2007
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