Female jockeys: is racing still stuck in the dark ages?

Do you see a female jockey, or do you see just a jockey? In this case, it's Rosie Napravnik winning the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita last year on favourite Untapable. Photo: Healy Racing/Racingfotos.com

It’s been one of the biggest talking points in the sport over the past few weeks - sexism in racing: how much of it is there, and why does it exist at all?

And now we want to know what you think.

It surged onto the agenda on November 3 after Michelle Payne’s stunning triumph in the Melbourne Cup aboard 100-1 outsider Prince Of Penzance. Any thoughts that this, the first victory by a female in the great race’s 155-year history, was evidence of a modern, inclusive sport in which female riders are now getting a fair crack of the whip, so to speak, didn’t last beyond the first post-race interviews.

“It’s such a chauvinistic sport,” Payne told reporters. “A lot of the owners wanted to kick me off. Everyone else can get stuffed [who] think women aren’t good enough.”

Then just four days later, Britain’s most successful woman jockey, Hayley Turner, said goodbye to the saddle - somewhat surprisingly as she is just 32 and has had a fine year. But the message was a little different. Turner has never complained about chauvinism in racing. “I’ve done everything I want to do and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it but I feel ready to do something different now,” she told The Guardian’s Chris Cook.

Indeed, Turner’s response to Payne’s success was to tweet: “Girls, it can be done!”

But can it? What do you, the reader, think?

Suppose there were two riders - one male, one female - with exactly the same level of ability, exactly the same attitude, with everything else equal. Would they achieve a comparable level of success? Or is there still a prejudice that would see the girl quickly lag behind?

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WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Let us know what you think by either posting a comment with this article, emailing trc-edit@thoroughbredracing.com or on Twitter at @TRcommentary

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If you’re a trainer or an owner, have you ever booked a female to ride one of your horses? If you haven’t, would you? If not, why not? Is it because you believe a girl is weaker in a finish (and that that outweighs any other quality they may have in the rest of the race)?

When you see a woman rider, do you see a female, or do you just see a jockey? Would you put a girl aboard the favourite in the Arc or the Kentucky Derby? Or the Melbourne Cup for that matter?

Female riders clearly have it a lot better in the United States, where Turner’s level of success is far outstripped by the likes of Julie Krone, who was elected to the the Racing Hall of Fame and won a Belmont Stakes and a Breeders’ Cup race, and Rosie Napravnik, who has won  Breeders’ Cups, Kentucky Oaks and other G1s and finished 2014 seventh on the U.S. jockeys’ earnings list.

Turner won three G1s (the July Cup and Nunthorpe Stakes in Britain in 2011, and the Beverley D at Arlington a year later) in a 15-year, 760-winner career, during which she was in Britain’s top 10 riders based on races won just once (in 2008). But would she have done better had she been male?

She told Greg Wood in The Guardian: “Trainers and owners want a good jockey on their horses and, if you’re good enough, they want to use you. It’s nothing to do with being a girl. The numbers are higher for men because men are better riders than women in general. A lot of the girls that try aren’t good enough.

“I work as hard as they do, they work as hard as I do if not harder sometimes. I can still do it, but I’ve not got the ambition as much now as I used to, and you can’t do it without that.”

‘Go home and have a baby’

But ex-jockey Richard Perham, senior tutor at the British Racing School, isn’t convinced there’s fairness everywhere. He told Greg Wood that prejudice against women riders remains deeply ingrained in some part of the industry in Britain.

“A big problem here is that some people are still living in the Dark Ages,” he said. “There are lots of trainers that are willing to give anyone an opportunity, and train young riders and help them out, but there are also trainers and owners that wouldn’t entertain girls riding, and that’s sad in this day and age.”

This is a day and age, remember, in which more than half the new recruits at racing stables are female. Yet, the only female in the top 50 of the British jockeys’ title race for the season just ended was rising star apprentice Sammy Jo Bell.

Another highly regarded young rider, Sophie Doyle, sister of Godolphin jockey James Doyle, now plies her trade in America because she just wasn’t getting the same level of opportunity in the U.K.

But even in America, the girls may still not be getting an even break all the time. As Napravnik told Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post in 2013: “There still are owners and trainers that don’t want to ride a female. Hecklers at the track will shout, ‘Go home and have a baby! Go home and stay in the kitchen!’”

Michelle Payne, who was just the fourth female to even ride in the Melbourne Cup, praised one of Prince Of Penzance’ owners. “I would like to thank all of the owners, John Richards specifically,” she said. “I think he is the main man who kept me on Prince Of Penzance. Maybe a few of them wanted to take me off.”

She added: “I would like to say that, you know, it’s a very male-dominated sport and people think we are not strong enough and all of the rest of it. You know what, it’s not all about strength. There is so much more involved, getting the horse into a rhythm, getting the horse to try for you, it’s being patient and I’m so glad to win the Melbourne Cup and hopefully it will help female jockeys from now on to get more of a go. I believe that we sort of don’t get enough of a go and hopefully this will help.”

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