How women won the right to race | Words and pictures by Sara Waterson
The recent media focus on Hayley Turner has turned the spotlight on lady jockeys, and what her growing success and public profile might mean for other women race riders, or those hoping to enter the profession.
Even a few years ago the current high profile of women jockeys would have been unthinkable. The fact that young men have grown on average a great deal bigger than they were even a generation ago gives girls one advantage, in that they are more likely than men to be able to ride at the very light weights required, on the flat at least. That has not compensated in the past for the entrenched prejudice in the racing world, which has only recently begun to dissipate. Younger trainers have no problem with a woman riding – even if some of their owners do! – and many of the older trainers, who a few years ago would have thrown their hands up in horror at the very idea, are now using the girls as well.
It cannot be denied however, that old habits die hard in the ‘club’ that is horseracing. The slang name within the sport for women jockeys is too graphically unpleasant to record here. It’s no surprise that with such attitudes persisting, few until now have persevered.
The story of women actively participating in the sport is quite briefly told, and began with a handful of fearsome women who took on the ‘Racing Establishment’ and won. It wasn’t until Lord Denning’s Court of Appeal ruling in 1966 overturned the Jockey Club’s veto on lady trainers, that the redoubtable Florence Nagle, by then in her seventies, won her 20-year fight and was able to send out her first official winner. Until then, in company with several other grand ladies of the turf, she’d long been training with the licence in the name of her Head Lad.
Until the late 1960s women had never been able to ride in a race at all, anywhere. The first woman jockey to ride with men was Puerto Rican Diane Crump in 1969, and she continued in America until injury forced her off the track in 1985. Britain was a little slower; however with the training bastion breached at last, jockeyship was sure to follow.
The late Meriel Tufnell was the first woman to win a Ladies’ race under Jockey Club Rules, in her first ever ride in the Goya Stakes at Kempton Park on May 6 1972 on 50/1 shot Scorched Earth. This was the first of a twelve-race series for Lady Amateurs, of which she won seven, thereby becoming the first Lady Champion Jockey. From a pony-jumping and hunting background, Meriel’s interest in racing grew; and her mother who owned racehorses encouraged her venture. Her first victory was “the subject of much patronising ribaldry from the male racing establishment”, according to one obituary, and this convinced Meriel that her chosen sport should be formally organised.
As a result she founded the Lady Jockeys’ Association of Great Britain, and it was only a year before Lady Amateurs were able to race against their male equivalents; by 1975 they were finally permitted to race as professionals – although only on the flat, jump racing still being deemed ‘too dangerous’. With so many women succeeding by then at top levels in eventing and show-jumping, such dinosaur attitudes now seem very quaint. It took the Sex Discrimination Act of 1976 to remedy this state of affairs; meanwhile the press and the racing ‘establishment’ continued to report the women’s exploits with a mixture of derision and animosity, calling them ‘jockettes’ and denying they could ever be the equivalent of man in the saddle.
Over the sticks the ladies soon caused great excitement by riding in the 4.5-mile Grand National Steeplechase – fearsome now but truly terrifying in those days. Charlotte Brew was first woman to jump Aintree’s big fences in the 1977 running of this ultimately demanding showpiece, and five years later Geraldine Rees completed the course. A few years ago (preceded by an amusing war of words with Ginger McCain, veteran trainer of Red Rum) Carrie Ford came fifth on Forrest Gunner, and might have won had he not tired at the end. In 1979 Ann Ferris won the Pierse Hurdle, a 2-mile Grade B Heritage Handicap run at Ireland’s premier jumps track Leopardstown on Irian, the only woman to do so. Now Nina Carberry is the queen of the Cross Country courses at Punchestown and Cheltenham, showing that if you have the horse – and the support of owner and trainer – you can win against the ‘big boys’.
Racing is finally starting to grasp the idea that strength is not everything in a race: as Christine Dunnett (who gave both our current leading lady jockeys their first chance) recently remarked: “Raceriding isn’t all about brute force.” Women can often cajole a difficult horse which dislikes being ‘bullied’, and both balance and tactics count for much when riding. Whilst women professionals are now taken seriously, the tradition of the Lady Amateur has endured and now offers greater opportunities, both over fences and on the Flat with its own ‘Fegentri’ international series of races, and a UK series sponsored by Bathwick Tyres.
Most women riders, like Nina Carberry, the top Lady NH Amateur in Ireland both of whose brothers are professionals, Gemma Gracey-Davison and Sophie Doyle, whose mothers train, Rose Dobbin (formerly Davidson) whose family owns many horses, or Francesca Cumani, daughter of top trainer Luca on the Flat, have grown up in a racing family; but this is no longer the only route to success or to riding ‘under Rules’ as well as in Point to Points.
Captain Lucy Horner, an Army vet, owns several horses and is well known on the Amateur jumps circuit, including the Hunter-Chase and Military races. Several such as Sara Moore, wife and Assistant to trainer Stan, Sarah Bosley (another hands-on trainer’s wife) or Emily Jones, a presenter with Attheraces TV channel, combine race-riding with their ‘day jobs’ within the sport.
Many of the new generation like Zoe Lilly work in racing yards – in her case for Carl Llewellyn. Others have careers involving horses outside racing – leading flat rider Marie King is a farmer and Master of Foxhounds. Faye Bramley and Serena Brotherton both win many races too. But even in the Amateur sport, equality is hard to come by – Rose
Dobbin was forced last year to share her Champion Amateur title with a man – the runner-up Nick Scholfield. Since there was ‘no precedent’ for the overall winner being a woman a Gentleman and a Lady ‘Champion’ were declared, although – unlike on the Flat – the girls ride against the men in most races!
The big question now is, how will Hayley Turner’s massively higher profile in the media change perceptions in the future, and will more ‘Ladies’ refuse to settle for Amateur status? We shall look at the new ‘women professionals’ in Part 3.