Though the sport of racing stretches back through the centuries, women were only allowed to start stepping onto the centre stage less than 100 years ago and womenjockeys first began to triumph in Britain only as recently as the 1970s.
When the late Meriel Tufnell became the first woman to win a Ladies’ race under Jockey Club Rules (at Kempton Park) in 1972, it was the start of a series of racing firsts for women jockeys. She competed as an amateur against other women jockeys, while Linda Goodwill won the first mixed race under Jockey Club Rules (also as an amateur) in 1974.
The first woman jockey to ride against professionals was Val Greaves in 1967 who was simultaneously the first to ride over hurdles in that race on 14 February at Catterick. She went on to become the first woman to beat professionals and win over hurdles at Hexham on 4 May 1976.
More ‘firsts for women’ followed with Lorna Vincent becoming the first professional woman jockey to win over hurdles at Devon & Exeter on 17 August 1978 – she also became the first ‘big-race winner’ after success in the 19 78 Buchanan Whisky Handicap Hurdle at Ascot.
And the first professional jockey to win on the Flat was Karen Wiltshire on 14 September 1978.
Karen Wiltshire had been sent to a private convent school and by the age of 16 she was itching for some excitement in her life. Having competed in showjumping and crosscountry riding as a child, she rejected those in favour of something more high-octane and wrote off to racehorse trainer Bill Wightman.
Having taken out his trainer’s licence in 1937 with his first winner the same year, Wightman returned to racing after fighting in World War II and by the 1970s was already an established and highly-respected trainer. His owners included the playwright, Sir William Douglas-Home, Stanley Cayzer from the shipping dynasty, Mick Channon (a professional footballer at the time) and supporters such as Evelyn Baring (of the Baring banking family) and Geoffrey Gilbey (from the drinks family).
Incredibly, he decided to take on the presumptuous teenager with no previous racing experience, as a stable lass with a view to becoming a jockey.
“I didn’t have any racing connections at all so I just approached him,” Karen recalls. “He said if I could get through a winter breaking the yearlings I could have a job. Coming from showjumping I thought ‘oh that will be a piece of cake’ and then I found out the hard way how tough it really was! There were all these yearlings and they were rearing backwards all the time, it was by far the hardest part of the job – by the time I got onto a racecourse that was the easy bit.”
It was not the only aspect of the job Karen was unprepared for: “They used to employ about 50 people at a time and it turned out I was the only girl in the yard – that was quite a culture shock going from an all girls’ convent!”
Having survived the winter the next test was to graduate to jockey status.
Before she could compete on a racetrack, however, Karen had to earn selection at the yard, against the likes of `Taffy’ Thomas who rode many of Wightman’s top horses (through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s) and who had clinched the Stewards Cup in 1974 aboard Import.
She also had to earn approval from Bill Nash, Wightman’s Head Lad, whose knowledge and love of the horses played a major part in the yard’s success.
“I was the only girl at the yard and it was not simply a case of Bill giving me a ride – he had to keep the whole yard happy and I had to be seen to earn my chance the same as anyone else – in fact more so. If you can imagine in those days it was very very difficult, and if it wasn’t for Bill Wightman I don’t think it would have happened.
Her lucky break came in 1977: “Bill had a few lady owners and one of them agreed to let me ride her horse. My first race was on Friday 13th at Newbury, I didn’t get anywhere but it gave me a taste of the speed and adrenalin and I was hooked!”
One particular horse caught her attention. “Bill had a lot of jockeys but to get the ride on The Goldstone I had to compete with Taffy. After I came 5th at Brighton riding the horse, Taffy Thomas commented that he would be riding it when it was fit enough to win – that annoyed me so much that on my return to the stables I went straight to Bill with an ultimatum: ‘If you give Taffy the ride on the Goldstone when he is fitter and has a chance to win then I’m leaving now’. Bill calmed me down by saying he would do his best to give me the ride, but I had to be patient.
“I had to really pressurise him and it was very hard for him. He had pressure from the owners and serious prizemoney was at stake. He replied I would have to prove myself and he said ‘I can’t give you races if you’re not as good or actually you’re going to have to be better’. It was so that they could not say it was because I was a bit of a novelty.”
Karen was given another winter of yearlings to break to prove to Wightman and Bill Nash she could do it. “I put a lot of work in to really prove to him how much they responded to me and I think he realised that I tuned into the horses and they really went well for me.
“When he gave me the ride on The Goldstone he really stuck his neck out and everybody said no other trainer would have done that.”
The Goldstone was owned by Lady Packenham who agreed to let Karen have the ride, and she narrowly missed second place at Bath when a photo finish went against her. A fortnight later and a late decision after another jockey dropped out saw Karen given the ride in The Winterbourne Handicap at Salisbury with prizemoney of £2000 – “which in those days was a big race!”.
She was up against the big boys – even sharing a changing room with them, as back then no separate facilities existed for women. “Come to think of it, it was quite amazing because I had a man who dressed me like everyone else and I was undressing in with the other jockeys – I actually felt like one of the boys! But I would be in there and he would be putting my jodhpurs on and nobody took any notice at all… sometimes the jockeys were joking but I was so focused on the forthcoming race that I didn’t really chat. Having been the only woman in the racing yard I was used to all their banter.”
All the hard work with the yearlings and the manual labour at the yard had helped Karen build her upper-body strength and finally, given the chance to ride a quality horse, her endurance paid off. On 14 September 1978 The Goldstone won by two-and-a-half lengths, making Karen Wiltshire the first woman professional to win on the flat in this country.
But the ‘first’ was strangely hush-hush. “I went under ‘K Wiltshire’ the whole time and I had short hair so a lot of people didn’t realise it was a lady racing but that’s how my trainer and especially the Head Lad wanted it – in fact after my win Bill Nash said no publicity because the Jockey Club won’t like it, so even though the women’s magazines were asking me for interviews, I turned it all down – I was only thinking of my next race, I wasn’t interested in that at all. The thing is that in those days the Jockey Club was completely different from how it is now and they didn’t want me to have any publicity whatsoever in case it brought the sport into disrepute.”
She followed up her achievement a year later by becoming the first girl to ride at Epsom, on Somers Heir racing on The Derby course (though in a different race), where she came second to Walter Swinburn. “He beat me by a nose which was really annoying because I was carrying 4lbs extra weight.
“Walter Swinburn was really, really nice – and he still remembers me now that he is a trainer. In comparison, Willie Carson was really cheeky, he would crack jokes to try and put me off in the starting stalls. Lester Piggott, every year I rode a horse, said he was not sure why I was not in the Ladies’ races. I think they were a bit taken aback because at the time there were a lot of high profile jockeys racing, who the public really followed, so it was harder for them to accept a girl in amongst their top boys’ club.”
But life near the top was not a bed of roses. “Weight was a huge problem because Bill Wightman had said the only way he could get owners to let me ride was if I could do weights at a really low handicap. So even though I am 5’2” and my normal weight is about 8st 5lb, I had to starve myself to get down to about 6st 11lb – although to race at 7st 3lb was about the lowest I could get.
“I remember cantering to the stalls and I hadn’t eaten all day; my throat was just burning because I was so dehydrated.”
And making the weight was only part of the ongoing struggle for rides. “After I had the win then I broke my collarbone on the gallops and then after that in April ’79 (after my second place at Epsom) I realised it would always be difficult to get good rides that had a chance of winning.
“After the win it was addictive, I wanted to carry on and get more wins, but I couldn’t get the rides. I was watching Walter Swinburn who was the same age and he had done so much more, and it was hugely annoying that it was just because I was the wrong sex. I even broke off my engagement because I wanted to concentrate on my racing, I put it before everything. In the end I got really depressed because it is really addictive, you live from race to race.”
In an attempt to improve her chances of getting rides, Karen moved to Bay Meadows in California in 1979: “I had a couple of races there but it was in the ’70s and was all very hippyish and I just didn’t like it so I came back.”
Upon her return she decided to give up racing and took on a management role in her father’s property development business…and just two months after starting her job came perhaps the most bittersweet moment in her racing career.
“I received a letter from Mr Karl Zivna who was fourth in the training lists in Vienna. He was offering me a position as first jockey at the racing club in Vienna. All flights would be paid for and there was an apartment waiting for me. It was an amazing offer. But my father had ploughed a lot of money into renovating a snooker/night club as well as other business properties on the basis I would run them, so with all these commitments it was impossible to leave. Also I was still hoping that opportunities for women professional jockeys in the UK would improve in five years (little did I realise it would take 30 years!). So I stayed and always regret not taking it up.”
In total she rode 19 races on the flat at courses including Kempton, Newbury, Chepstow, and Sandown Park, resulting in 3 thirds, 1 second and 1 win.
But though Karen had stopped riding, her interest in racing never waned. She was delighted therefore to be asked to present an award for Lady Jockey of the Year to Hayley Turner at the Lesters last year (2008). “Thirty years later Hayley has realised you get so much more opportunity now as a woman jockey. She’s a lovely girl and really deserves her success, she’s worked so hard. She’s got the same upper-body strength and I think, with that plus opportunity, you can be equal to men on the flat. In fact I think girls think it out more, some boys get so het up! And girls can tune into a horse more.”
But though opportunities may be improving, the danger element remains high. “I saw so many horrendous falls I pushed my daughter to yacht racing rather than encouraging her interests with horses.
“Joy Gibson who gave me my award after my win – it was on Cesarewitch Day at Newmarket and the week after she presented me with the trophy she got killed riding a yearling that reared up and fell over backwards on her. But riding yearlings is still part of the job; I always thought the safest part was on the racecourse really. Look what’s happened to Hayley now with her head injury at home [falling from a horse that broke its leg on the gallops]. I feel so sorry for her and just hope she will come back and ride again next year and break some more records.”
And Karen is chasing a return to the saddle herself: “Bill Wightman owns a horse called Digital which is trained by Mick Channon – Bill used to train Mick’s horses and Mick says he learned everything from Bill. I rode a horse called Man on the Run which was owned by Mick – it wasn’t very fast and he went to Salisbury races with Kevin Keagan wearing t-shirts saying ‘Man on the Walk’! (Having said that, Man on the Run did surprise them by winning a race at Folkestone in 1978 and Bath in 1979, a memorable race as half of the Southampton Football Club were in the stands and Bill thought their shouting helped the horse to win.)
“I often go racing with Bill and I think he thinks I’m still the age I was! He said if I get my licence I can race Digital. It would be lovely to ride in his colours again so I’m watching the racing really carefully and hoping I can get fit enough.
“I haven’t ridden a racehorse since 1980 but I’ve been exercising an eventer for a friend. Mick Channon’s saying ‘come up to me and ride out, we’ll get you galloping fit.’
“Digital is now 12 and Bill is 95 this year so it will really be my last chance to get on a racehorse again…so I’m working to pass the medical and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get on him towards the end of this season!
“No matter how that turns out, I have seen historic days, and it is fantastic to have been a part of it. It really was the best time of my life and I am just so lucky that Bill Wightman gave me the chance.”
Pictured top: Karen rides to victory on The Goldstone at Salisbury