Where are all the women jockeys?

Last Thursday Matt offered us Red Tanber in the Turf TV Novices’ Handicap Chase at Musselburgh as Stat of the Day. I don’t suppose that at the time he put the horse up he knew that if it won it would be helping to make racing history! But that’s what happened.

Red Tanber went in at 3/1 with jockey Lucy Alexander jumping into the history books by riding her 23rd winner of the season. In doing so she passed the total of 22 (obviously), set by Lorna Vincent in the 1979/80 season. That was just three years after amateur rider Diana Thorne had become the first female jockey to ride a winner under rules, and barely 18 months since Vincent herself had become the first professional woman jockey to ride a winner under either code of racing.

You might have expected those early successes to pave the way for more success for Vincent, and also for other women, but they didn’t. Vincent deputised for John Francome to ride a Michael Dickinson horse at Chepstow, but a fall out with her major supporter, Somerset trainer Les Kennard meant her own career stalled.

So why is it that more women haven’t made the breakthrough? After all, riding stables are full of teenage girls who are there for the love of working with horses. Yet last year only two of the top 50 flat jockeys were women, Hayley Turner (88 winners) and Cathy Gannon (71 winners). It was only last July that Turner became the first woman jockey to ride a Group 1 winner outright, and that was 14 years after Alex Greaves had dead-heated in the Nunthorpe at York. And Greaves herself remains the only woman to have ridden in the Derby, and that was on a 500/1 outsider trained by her husband.

In America some eyebrows would be raised by the fact that a female flat jockey riding a big race winner should make the headlines because of her gender. There, women jockeys are much more common, and Julie Krone is already a member of the jockeys Hall of Fame. It's true there was some excitement about Rosie Napravnik’s ride in last year's Kentucky Derby, but she did have a decent chance of winning that race (her horse Pants On Fire came in 9th). Look at any racecard in America and you'll see there are plenty of women riding and plenty of opportunities for them.

Maryland trainer John B.Secor said he was more than happy to put them on his horses. "I love to have girls ride for me. I always put them up, and they win races." It's not the same across here, where some of the top trainers still refuse to provide any opportunity for the women to show their horsemanship.

There are even fewer female jockeys riding in jump racing. Yet this was the code that 20 odd years ago seemed to be welcoming and encouraging them - at least within the industry. There were regularly one or two riding in the Grand National and back in 1987 Gee Armytage rode The Ellier and Gee-A to win their races at the Cheltenham Festival.

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Several years later she he recalled in an interview for The Observer newspaper that her ride on Cuddy Dale in the Festival's opening race wasn't particularly welcomed by people in the crowd. "I was pelted with plastic bottles and paper cups. People were shouting things at me like ‘bloody lady jockeys shouldn't be riding – reliability – not fit to be on a racecourse’, stuff like that. I'd been forced off the track by a loose horse at the second hurdle – there was nothing any jockey could have done about it – so I decided to get out of the way by hacking past the winning post towards the paddock. All the spectators at the far end hadn't seen the incident and thought I'd just gone the wrong way."

Soon after that the rides dried up for Armytage and the few other women who were trying to establish themselves. She said, "I think there were very few girls who wanted to take that risk in the end. These days, [2003] there aren't many girls who have what it takes anyway and even then they've got to be given the opportunity. It's getting harder and harder for them."

Things have changed very little since, despite the achievements of Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh, who have both ridden winners at the Festival. Of course these are both riders steeped in racing backgrounds, with highly successful brothers who are at the very top of their profession. They've both shown they have the riding skill and craftsmanship to make a living out of riding, and yet both have maintained their amateur status. Would that have been the case if jump racing had a bigger community of female riders?

Or is it that the sport retains a degree of prejudice that makes it that much harder for women to make a career as a jockey? Both Hayley Turner and Cathy Gannon have denied that they have ever suffered from any sexism, but it could only be damaging to their careers if they said they had. So it's not all right to let things go along as they are.

Paul Bittar has come to the British Horseracing Authority with a determination to shake it up to move the sport forward for the better. He's already made that clear in the changes he and the board have approved about the whip rules. There couldn't be a better next challenge to face up to than that of attracting the best talent into the sport, regardless of gender.

There are several ways this could be done. The BHA and Racing for Change need to build on the excellent Racing to School programme that uses the sport as a vehicle to put aspects of the national curriculum into practice. And closer liaison with the education system would help girls to realise that there is more they can do in racing than working as stable lasses.

But as well as the supply side, there are demand issues to be tackled and these have the potential to be far more difficult. A start would be to engage with trainers about their employment patterns. The employers have a major responsibility to provide more and better rides for jockeys like Turner and Gannon, and to give opportunities to the less experienced female riders in the same measure they do to the men.

Unless racing takes these issues on it will continue to miss out on some exceptional talent and will continue to fail half the population.

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3 replies
  1. Peter Colledge says:

    It is disgraceful that more women are not jockeys. There will always be nonsense talked about women’s lack of strength and passion to win at all costs. Mr Bittar seems to be a realist; time to drag racing into the new century. Women compete as equals in all other equine areas; why not horse racing?

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      How do you measure ‘good enough’, Roy? Win strike rate? Performance compared with market rank?

      Let’s look at Tony McCoy and Lucy Alexander in 2011/12 when they ride horses at 10/1 or bigger…

      McCoy wins just 3% of such races, and is losing 54 points.
      Lucy Alexander has won 6% of her races, and is WINNING 42 points!

      Incidentally, both Ruby Walsh (11% win rate) and Barry Geraghty (6% win rate, same as Lucy Alexander) perform much better than AP McCoy.

      So… it’s not quite as simple as that, I’m afraid. One thing I do know is that punters should be backing the good ladies as well as the good chaps. And Lucy is a VERY good lady jock. Check out her winning ride on Dear Villez on Saturday if you need convincing. Strong, stylish, and timed to perfection. Top drawer.

      Matt

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