Three years ago, in January 2018, Vanessa Cashmore, then a Liverpool University MBA student, published a study into the performance of female jockeys in comparison with their male counterparts.
Cashmore noted in her paper, which covered the period 2003-2016, that female riders were as capable as males when accounting for the quality of mount, but were notably under-represented in the jockey population.
What follows is not a reprisal of that previous work but, rather, a review of progress since. Has the sport begun to level the chasmic disparity between male and female rider opportunities? And to what degree is it appropriate to do that based on performance data?
I've used British flat racing (turf and all-weather) from 1st January 2016 to 31st December 2020, a period of five years. It should be noted that 2020 had three potentially impactful differences from the preceding years:
- Covid caused a cessation of racing for around ten weeks from mid-March to the beginning of June
- Thereafter, jockeys were only permitted to ride at one meeting per day
- Many meetings from June onwards comprised of a greater number of races, replacing a large number of cancelled fixtures
The analysis has been broken down by:
- Overall dataset
- Handicap races only
- 10/1 or shorter only
- Favourites (including joint- and co-favourites) only
And I've further compared all riders with those able to claim 3lb, 5lb or 7lb (i.e. in most cases, apprentices riding against professionals, but also including a handful able to claim in apprentice races, as well as a small number of amateur riders claiming that allowance).
Why? To try to answer the following questions:
Have opportunities for female flat jockeys improved?
Are female flat jockeys taking those opportunities?
Are there any market biases in relation to female jockeys?
By way of comparison, I have opted to use ratios as they are agnostic in terms of sample size and make for easy inspection between years, cohorts and factors.
The Big Picture
Male vs Female Jockeys: Overall numbers
The first table, below, is the superset of data: all riders in UK flat races between 2016 and 2020 inclusive, broken down by gender. This offers an overview perspective - a baseline - for what follows.
The first row, total rides, discloses that male jockeys had 260,005 mounts compared with female jockeys' 25,887 in the five-year study period and, therefore, that male riders had a numerical advantage of 10x.
In terms of wins and places, and therefore win/place strike rates, male jockeys out-performed female jockeys by a greater ratio still.
BUT... none of the above makes any allowance for the quality of those opportunities. In simple terms, if all the better-fancied horses were ridden by men, they absolutely should out-perform women.
The imperfect but credible 'leveller' I've chosen to use in the tables is Actual vs Expected, a betting metric. This metric brings its own baggage in the form of market biases, but that is no bad thing from a wagering perspective, even if less useful when attempting to compare the respective ability levels of male and female riders.
The table relates that male and female riders had identical market performance at starting price when gauged against A/E. Moreover, at Betfair SP, female riders slightly outperformed males.
But that yawning opportunity gap - ten to one in number of rides - is ostensibly deeply concerning. By reviewing the year on year data we can get a feel for whether progress is being made.
The answer, mercifully, is yes. In 2016, male jockeys had 13.31 times as many rides as females; by 2018 the ratio was 9.53 and in 2019 it was 8.33. Last year saw a momentum check, quite possibly due to that triumvirate of Covid, single meeting/less fixture constraints and longer meetings, with the ratio out to 9.11x.
As alluded to, not all opportunities are equal, so what follows attempts to iron out some of those inequalities within the full dataset. First up, handicap races.
Male vs Female Jockeys: Handicaps
Ignoring conditions races and, instead, focusing on races where all horses are rated - and weighted - to have a theoretically equal chance (and ignoring the fact that we all know that this is not true in practice), how do the figures stack up?
We see a narrowing of the gap across all measures: rides, wins and places all show improvement notwithstanding that the improvement comes from an extremely low representative base. This dataset, like the overall superset, makes no account for quality of opportunity, except via A/E. We again see exact parity at starting price and a slight edge to female riders at exchange SP.
But we really ought to more meaningfully account for quality of chance.
Male vs Female Jockeys: Favourites
Lurching from one extreme to the other, this next cut looks at performance on favourites, including joint- and co-favourites, by rider gender in UK flat races between 2016 and 2020.
There is a lot in this. A lot.
Let's begin with the even fewer opportunities that female jockeys had to ride horses sent off favourite in their races; that supports the notion of an inequality beyond mere numerical opportunity but also in terms of the competitiveness of the runners.
Spelling it out, female jockeys were almost 15 times less likely to ride a favourite on the flat in Britain between 2016 and 2020 than their male counterparts. Wow.
The A/E figures are equal where the win strike rate is lower for women, suggesting that even when riding favourites, the odds available on female jockeys' rides are greater.
Male vs Female Jockeys: 10/1 or shorter
This slice is arbitrary to some degree but has loose logic, too. Specifically, it uses the market as an approximation of quality of opportunity, and it provides for a larger sample size than solely focusing on favourites. It is also possible, though hard to validate, that the group includes some horses which ought to be favourite but are discriminated against due to the gender of their rider. [That last statement may merely be unhelpful conjecture on my part.]
The ratio of male to female rides is 11.82, greater than the 10.04 for all rides, and further attesting to the limited opportunities for females on the better horses; or, at least, the horses with perceived better chances.
As a punter, and/or using market metrics as a bellwether of opportunity conversion, we can again see females outperforming males in the betting context for all that that in isolation will lead nowhere but the much-hackneyed poorhouse.
Male vs Female, Year by Year, by Rides
The last five years have felt progressive - not always in a good way (erm, is that regressive, then?) - across society as a whole with keen focus being placed on some of the starker inequalities in our midst. Whilst much more needs to be done in most areas, we need also to be cognisant that progress is gradual not instantaneous, and we must further be able to measure that progress. After all, what cannot be measured cannot be managed, as Peter Drucker apparently once wrote.
So how do those numbers look from year to year?
We can see in the above a pleasing progression from the intolerable 2016 inequality to a more understandable - if still likely unacceptable - disparity in the past few years. Again, I'm minded to cautiously overlook the 2020 backward step on the basis of the exceptional circumstances highlighted in the introduction; but if 2021 was to follow a similar pattern it might be that the greater volume of races across a smaller number of fixtures is a barrier to opportunity for some.
Representation across each of the subsets follows a similar trajectory though 2020 is a consistent bump in the road.
Male vs Female, Year by Year, by Wins
It might be argued that the best way to get more rides is to win more races; but how do you win more races if you're not getting more, or better, rides? That's a chicken-and-egg conundrum that macro society is helping to solve, the gender (and many other) prejudices of former generations softening somewhat in our enlightened (at least relatively) times.
The next table shows the ratio of male to female wins under our four conditions. It is again clear that progress - last year aside - has been made, and also that further progress is necessary.
The most pleasing aspect of this might be that the gender ratio of wins aboard favourites is narrowing apace: whether this nods to greater market awareness or greater opportunity or, most likely, a combination of the two, I'm not sure.
In spite of the narrowing of the gap it remains difficult to view these data from any other perspective than that there is still an enormous opportunity divide. If that is on one hand slightly disappointing, perhaps even depressing, there is some light.
The Next Generation
Male vs Female Apprentice Jockeys: Overall numbers
One of the constraints of a study like this is that it is trying to hit a moving target. What I mean is that, in 2016, there existed a very large imbalance of men to women in the weighing room. Such an imbalance can only be evened out over time, as the retiring professionals of today - who will, by legacy, be mainly male - are supplanted by the aspiring apprentices of tomorrow who, it is hoped, will represent a more even gender spread.
A feature of apprentice jockeys is that their careers as apprentices are much shorter, generally speaking, than the professional jockeys many will become. As such, the cohort refresh rate is much quicker. In plain English, it is easier to affect a fresh start within the apprentice ranks; and so, if British racing is serious about its claims to want to bridge the gender gap, this is the place where any green shoots should first emerge.
[There is a further question about making the jump from apprentice to professional but, anecdotally at least, the likes of Josephine Gordon, Hayley Turner, Nicola Currie, and the brilliant Hollie Doyle, are making it much easier for those who follow in their footsteps.]
Male vs Female Apprentices: Overall
The headline apprentice opportunity number - rides - has seen roughly one female ride for every three male rides. Whilst in isolation that still seems unacceptably far apart, it must be considered in two contexts. First, the ratio in the overall ranks is 10:1 so 3:1 is a clear uplift on that. Secondly, and the imponderable in terms of a basis for this review, it is unclear how many girls versus boys go to yards and riding schools with the ambition of becoming a jockey.
With blinkers on, it might be hoped that approximately three boys for every one girl head to racing schools/yards because, while the equality issue would remain, the responsibility for addressing it would be upstream of the race track.
As with their senior counterparts, this overall table makes little acknowledgement of the quality of opportunity; though, also as with the previously referenced superset, we can see that female apprentices perform better on A/E metrics. The boys' overall win strike rate is around 8% higher.
Male vs Female Apprentices: Handicaps
It's a similar story when looking exclusively at handicaps. The number of rides ratio has tightened slightly, and female apprentices again outperform male apprentices on A/E metrics. Male apprentices still win at a higher rate than females.
Male vs Female Apprentices: Favourites
As we start to use the top of the market as a barometer of opportunity, it sadly reveals that male apprentices are almost four times more likely to ride a favourite than female apprentices. There is absolutely no good reason for that, with girls recording a slightly higher win and place strike rate aboard market leaders and having been profitable to follow even at SP!
Male vs Female Apprentices: 10/1 or shorter
Expanding that top of the market cohort out to include all claiming apprentice-ridden horses that started at 10/1 or shorter, we see the numerical opportunity gap truncate from the purely favourites group, though the ratio of 3.34 is still notably higher than the 2.82 of all apprentice rides. In other words, female apprentices are getting less opportunities than male apprentices on the better-fancied runners.
There is barely a hair's breadth between the respective gender win and place rates and, again, female apprentices are more punter-friendly.
The Year to Year Apprentice Story
When looking at the jockey gender superset it was noticeable how the opportunity divide had narrowed from year to year. Is the same true of apprentices?
Male vs Female Apprentices, by Rides
This first table has goodish news. 2016 was a vintage year for female apprentices with Josephine Gordon and Hollie Doyle collectively taking more than 900 rides. That helps to explain the skewed starting point, after which there is a gradual improvement year to year in not just the overall ratios but also handicaps and the 10/1 or shorter cohort. Excepting an outlier in 2019 within the favourites group, that too has shown a gradual levelling of the playing field.
Male vs Female Apprentices, by Wins
We now know the key reason that 2016 was an outlier and can focus on the years 2017 to 2020. Within that four-year timeframe, progress - defined as a reduction in the ratio of male to female apprentice wins - has been the general theme. There is a caveat in relation to last year, however, which may or may not be attributable to the unique Covid-dictated situation.
Male vs Female Apprentices, by Win Strike Rate
There is another interesting gender-based takeaway from the apprentice group, particularly for most visitors to this website who may primarily view the game through the punting prism.
A figure of 1.00 here means female apprentices win at the same rate as male apprentices. What is most interesting is that, when we look at the sharp end of the betting - favourites or all runners sent off at 10/1 or shorter - the numbers go below 1.00, meaning female apprentices are winning more often when given better (judged by market sentiment) opportunities.
Putting that all together, the story is that female apprentices are getting more opportunities than in the earlier part of the study period compared with male apprentices; and, when riding fancied runners, they're successfully converting more of those opportunities.
So what does it all mean? In this article I've tried to look at two things in parallel: the respective opportunities afforded to females versus males and, with the betting blinkers on, any wagering utility therein.
What I have absolutely not tried to do is say that one gender is better than the other, or to prove that both are equal. Honestly, I don't feel we have a sufficient balance of data to arrive at meaningful conclusions to that end, nor even what 'better' means. More importantly than that, such generalisations are pointless and stupid: some men are better than most women, and some women are better than most men. At most things, including riding horses. So what? How does that, at a global level, inform anything?
However, what is abundantly clear is that winning opportunities for women riders were pretty poor in 2016 and are still disappointing as we enter 2021. The more heartening flip side is that solid progress has been made during those five years in terms of absolute opportunities and winning opportunities. And, more promising still, there is a group of young female apprentice jockeys, a number of whom look to have the raw ingredients to become the next Hollie Doyle, that are converting their opportunities with regularity.
Hollie is a very tough act to follow but she is also an outstanding blueprint and role model. When she was a seven pound apprentice, she'd regularly make the long trip from the south of England to Newcastle to ride one or two for lesser lights on the trainers' roster like Wilf Storey. Indeed, she twice rode a lovely little geegeez syndicate filly, Table Manners, to victory.
As far back as 2013, she was riding for Wilf. It seems a hundred years ago now, but Hollie rode just six winners between 2013 and 2015, from 99 rides. After scoring aboard McConnell at Southwell on 26th November 2013, her next victory wasn't until 14th July 2014, and the one after that was 10th August 2015. Then, at the start of 2016, came the tie up with Richard Hannon and the associated abundant opportunity.
You have to be very good to make it to the top in this game, man or woman, and you have to work bloody hard!
Gender is merely the easiest of racing's representational challenges. It must confront similar demographic disparities around race and sexuality and, in fairness, the industry is paying more than just lip service to that end. It takes time to change attitudes, especially in such a Luddite and legacy sector as horse racing, but the progress by female riders on the flat is testament to the efforts being made. There is a long way still to go.