Can women really make a career from race riding? | Words and pictures by Sara Waterson
It’s hard to believe given the current high profile of women jockeys how very recent is the acceptance now accorded them.
Since the Lady Jockeys’ Association was formed in 1972 to press for reform, progress has been fitful to say the least. In 1975 women were at last allowed to ride as professionals on the Flat, and girls could apply for Apprentice licences in the same way as stable lads – under this arrangement an aspiring rider works in a racing yard and hopes to ‘earn rides’ – from which the trainer will keep a large percentage of any winnings! Then in 1976 the Jockey Club was forced by the Sex Discrimination Act to permit women to ride professionally over jumps.
It cannot be denied however, that the traditionally male-dominated sport of horseracing is still difficult for women to navigate; and the 2007 Calendar for which twelve leading young lady Apprentices posed (on their own initiative) in their undies for a children’s charity led to so much media prurience and strife for a few that the PJA will no longer permit the images to be published. It’s unsurprising that with such attitudes to overcome, so many young women have thrown in the towel – including a few in that calendar.
Since the 1970s many women have entered the sport in this country but few have succeeded, in contrast to North America, where in Canada in 2006 Emma-Jayne Wilson beat the men to be champion jockey at Canada’s premier track at Woodbine with 175 winners at the age of 24, and in America the great Julie Krone enjoyed success at the very top – the only woman so far to do so. Krone was the first woman to win a ‘Triple Crown’ race, to ride a Group 1 winner at the Breeders’ Cup championships (on Halfbridled), and she notched up over 3,600 winners in all before her forced retirement at 42 from injury. At least they’ve shown it can be done! But in common with every woman who rides, the ‘politics’ exasperated Krone: “Don’t ask me what it’s like to be a woman rider” she said in 2003. “Just ask about being a rider full stop. I’m not doing this for women. I’m doing it for myself. If other women get strength from that okay. But nothing beats sweat and hard work.” It’s a sentiment echoed by all the current leading female riders.
In Ireland and the UK many promising careers have been cut short by a lack of opportunity, the first being that of trainer’s daughter Linda Goodwill. In common with other girls since, she had coaxed wins from recalcitrant longtime ‘maidens’ such as Pee Mai, only to find that ‘outside rides’ remained hard to come by. Alex Greaves – wife of Yorkshire trainer Dandy Nicholls – rattled up a series of female ‘firsts’ in the 1990s: riding out her claim, winning the Lincoln, winning a Group 1 race, riding a four-timer, reaching a century of wins, and riding in The Derby and the 1000 Guineas. Candy Morris, born into the Moore dynasty of jockeys and trainers down in Sussex, did well for Mick Channon, famously doing most of the ‘homework’ too on his brilliant Classic hope Bint Allayl.
Come the turn of the century, and Joanna Badger was the girl in the news: mainly riding for the formidable Norma Macauley, she was making short work of her claim only for her career to stall as it dropped to 3lbs. Unusually, she had no racing background, but her talent attracted many trainers. “It was a struggle for the first two years,” she says, “I think you only get one chance as a woman when you might get more as a man.” Prophetic words indeed!
The next sensation was the very talented South African Lisa Jones who made it to Newmarket, creating a huge stir by winning 37 races in her 2001 Apprentice season with Willie Musson, riding in an eclectic style with elements borrowed from many countries, notably the States. “There is definitely a chance for a woman to break into the top ten,” she said at the same Breeders’ Cup meeting where Krone broke the Group 1 barrier. “You just have to believe in yourself at all times. I don’t think physical strength plays much of a part in riding horses. It’s more to do with having a horse well balanced and in the right place at the right time.”
But until the last few years these meteoric careers have seemed something of a false dawn. Sadly trainers and owners continued to doubt that women could ride as strong a finish as the men, and once more the rides started to dry up once Lisa ‘rode out her claim’, that is, lost the weight allowance compensating for her inexperience by riding 95 winners before she turned 25 – she was only the third woman to do so after Greaves and Emma O’Gorman (Hayley Turner being the fourth). On a level playing field with the boys, life was much tougher, and in spite of riding 47 winners in 2004, the winners plummeted once the claim had gone and it wasn’t long before Lisa decided to try her luck elsewhere: she’s riding now mainly in America, Macau (where she won their Derby), India, and Dubai.
Some graft away for the love of the sport – Cathy Gannon made history in 2004 by being the first girl to win the Apprentice title in her native Ireland, jokily pointing out she got to ride there in Group races on Lock And Key only because the filly hated men! She moved to the north of England not long after in the hope of getting more rides. She’s now based in Wales and plies her trade riding less fancied horses at the lesser tracks. One-woman-band Ann Stokell has found a less gruelling way to follow her dreams: she both trains and rides her own and her family’s horses, acting as ‘lass’ in the Parade Ring and getting legged up by her box driver!
Maybe things will now get a little easier for the fair sex in the sport. Hayley, Kirsty and the others accept they will have to keep proving themselves in order to improve the quality of their mounts but fully believe that their futures depend only on ability – and Hayley at least has been a little critical of
her fellow lady riders’ skills in the saddle, and their application. “I’ve ridden for loads of different trainers, loads and loads, and there’s so much racing now. Once you’ve proved that you can ride as well as the lads… Well, there might be the odd old-school trainer, but the majority of them will put you up.” She points out “It’s the same with male and female apprentices when they lose their claim: you’re going to go through a couple of hard years. And of those who lost their claim, neither stayed in the country and put their head down and struggled for a couple of years.” Kirsty adds “Hayley and I regard ourselves as ‘one of the lads’. We don’t want to be singled out.”
Josh Apiafi, the young Chief Executive of the Professional Jockeys’ Association, is in no doubt that following our leading lady rider’s record century of wins in 2008, attitudes are about to change:
“What Hayley has achieved is nearly as remarkable as Barak Obama becoming the first non-white president! Racing is full of alpha-male traditions and Hayley has broken through the barriers and become a highly successful jockey in her own right. She has opened doors which young up-and-coming women riders will be able to walk through and I think you will see a huge increase in the number of female apprentices over the next few years. Racing has been crying out to broaden its appeal and Hayley typifies what can be achieved with dedication and hard work.”