Can female jockeys really compete on level terms with men? It’s a debate that has come to the fore since Michelle Payne’s ground-breaking victory in the Melbourne Cup and, just days later, the retirement at the tender age of 32 of Britain’s most successful female rider, Hayley Turner.
We asked TRC readers for their views, and they are still coming in. We also asked two of the people best qualified to answer the question. Jacqueline Freda and Lisa Allpress may not be among the most famous riders in the racing world, but they are unquestionably among the best. And they both have no doubt about the answer to that question, as James Crispe discovered.
In the top racing countries around the globe, rare indeed are examples of women overcoming their male adversaries to land a national jockeys’ championship. Hayley Turner won the British apprentice championship in 2005, the same year Emma-Jayne Wilson landed the corresponding award in both the U.S. and Canada, but senior titles have been more elusive.
Jacqueline Freda and Lisa Allpress have both won the overall titles in their native countries (Italy and New Zealand respectively) to become members of a very exclusive club – women who have won jockeys championships in major racing countries.
With apologies to Scandinavia, where females have won titles on six occasions in Sweden and Norway but the number of winners required to do so was never more than 71 (suggesting that these nations struggle to be considered ‘major’), this ‘Women On Top Club’ has just one other member. She is a second Kiwi, Lisa Cropp, who became New Zealand’s first female champion in 2005 before twice successfully defending her crown.
But Cropp’s opinions are now tainted by her dalliances with the banned drug methamphetamine - the same substance that saw American jockey Greta Kuntzweiler go to prison and contributed to the death of the brilliant Kentucky Derby-winning rider Chris Antley.
An initial nine-month drug suspension led to Cropp’s retirement followed by a brief comeback then another failed dope test one year ago. Once a media darling in not just her homeland but Australia and Japan too, Cropp is now a pariah.
There are no such issues with Freda and Allpress.
The American who is ‘the best trainer I ever met’
Freda is a one-off in many ways, not just as the only female ever to earn champion jockey status in a major European racing country. Born in late 1963 as the daughter of the prolific Italian film director Riccardo Freda, she made her living as a stunt rider before stumbling into race riding, initially as an amateur over jumps and on the flat, in her mid 20s.
Such was her success that she turned pro and racked up over 1,000 successes before returning to the silver screen in 2002. She never won a race at higher than G3 level, but in 1995 she got her hands on the Frusta d’Oro (Golden Whip) trophy awarded to Italy’s top jockey.
Yet racing was essentially their secondary career. “I retired because I missed the film industry,” she said. “It’s in my blood. I was just on loan to horse racing, the loan was finished and movies were claiming me back.”
Becoming Italy’s top jockey was never an ambition. “I only started thinking about it at the beginning of the year I won it, after I had come back from a working holiday in America with the best trainer that I ever met in my life, Richard Mandella.”
Asked how difficult it was for her to get started, she said: “To begin with it was hard, and I did experience sexism, but after a year or so I began to be accepted as just another jockey.
“But maybe it was easier for me, as I began as an amateur and won the amateur championship both on the flat and over jumps, so people knew me.”
Factors that make it extra difficult for women
However unconventional her route into racing, there can be no doubting Freda’s credentials as one of the world’s most skilful horsewomen. So her response to the suggestion that women may require special treatment to allow them to compete against men carries plenty of weight.
“I disagree that women need to be given any concessions. I think that the winner in racing is the horse, the jockey just needs to make as few mistakes as possible. Whether this is a woman or a man makes no difference,” she said.
While expressing mild surprise that her 1995 total of 130 winners remains the highest seasonal tally achieved by a woman in Europe, she does not believe that there will ever be a time when jockey rooms attract an equal number of both sexes.
“To be a jockey means that you have to give up a lot of women’s priorities,” she said. “That is the hard part of the job.”
Freda’s primary occupation has gone well since she hung up her racing saddle, although nowadays she coordinates riding stunts for films rather than performs them. She still calls herself a ‘stuntman’ - it’s just that that her stunts no longer include horses.
Her film credits include the 2005 Ridley Scott-directed epic Kingdom Of Heaven, and, four years later, Angels And Demons, an adaptation of a Dan Brown novel starring Tom Hanks.
But she has not severed all links with the racing industry. Still an occasional spectator at Capannelle Racecourse in Rome, she runs a racehorse rescue centre called Relived Horses, which enables her, in her own words, ‘to pay back some of the debt that I have to them’.
Where trainers just couldn’t do without female riders
Lisa Allpress was also a relatively late starter in racing but she is still riding at the top of her game after an exceptional 20-year career during which she has also brought up two sons.
As TRC detailed a year ago, New Zealand is very much the land of equal opportunity when it comes to making a living out on the racetrack. And, in stark contrast to most other jurisdictions, the current standings in the New Zealand jockeys championship make startling reading.
Allpress, who won the title in 2012 and has spent much of the intervening period plying her trade in Singapore and Japan, sits proudly at the top, in front of Matthew Cameron. The next three places are all held by women – Danielle Johnson, Rosie Myers and Sam Spratt.
With well over 1,200 career victories to her name, the widely liked and admired Allpress has a number of explanations for the female dominance.
“In New Zealand, the prize money on offer has seriously declined over the last decade or so and, with this, there is not such an incentive for boys to keep their weight under control. So more opportunities have arisen for the girls as we are generally lighter framed,” she said.
“There is also the fact that not many boys are coming up through our pony clubs at the moment. We have a very competitive pony club and show circuit that a lot of jockeys come through – Lisa Cropp was a very good rider, winning Pony Of The Year at the most elite level, and I competed very successfully on my ponies, which gave me a great grounding.”
“We have had so many good female jockeys in the past, starting with Linda Jones who was our flagbearer back in the 1970s.
“In New Zealand, the trainers need us, as our boys just are not as competitive as the girls. We work harder, we ride lighter and we generally have a greater affinity with horses.
“I do realise this is not the case everywhere, but I think that, if you are good enough, the trainers will put you on. If you are not good enough, you have to work harder to get better.”
‘McCoy didn’t really say that, did he?’
After leaving school, Allpress had no immediate connection with racing, instead qualifying as a veterinary nurse before taking some time out to travel the world. On her return, vet nurse jobs proved scarce.
“I was wondering what to do with my life, at the age of 20, and my best friend’s father was a trainer,” she recalled. “He showed me an official racing publication, which included the breakdown of the prize money earned by apprentice jockeys.
“At that time, the leading apprentice was also a girl, called Sarah Campbell, and after reading her stats I decided that if I could get paid to do what I loved – which was riding horses – I’d give it a go. So I was heavily influenced by reading that. Sarah Campbell ended up becoming the first woman to win one of our biggest races, the Auckland Cup.”
Allpress scoffed at the suggestion that maybe there is still a tendency for female jockeys to get overlooked in the top G1 races (“not in New Zealand, the girls currently in the top five are superior riders”) and her hackles rose when told of the recent suggestion of legendary British jump jockey A.P. McCoy that women riders might be encouraged if they had a weight allowance.
“Did he really say that?” she replied, incredulous. “We have even had leading female jump jockeys in our country so I’m sure that they could show him a thing or two! If it means we would win even more races, bring it on.”
Allpress wasn’t impressed either by an incident when she went to Australia in 1999 to ride in the Adelaide Cup. “There were not many female jockeys and I was asked how a little girl like me could ride in a two-mile race,” she said. “I was even asked if I knew how far the race was run over.
“I still think that there is a lot of sexism, but in different ways, the boys can still be chauvinistic out on the track but most of us can certainly give it back. I don’t put up with a lot and certainly hold my ground.”
Allpress is not just a top-class jockey, she is a loving mother too. “My husband, Karl, and I have two boys so I have a very full-on life and the children always come first,” she said.
“Josh is now 11 and Angus is eight. I had around six months off with each of them. I’m often away, but they understand and are both very proud of me. Josh is into doing the form for the races and is getting very knowledgeable.
“We had a full-time nanny with Josh as Karl was training a small team of horses at the time. Once Angus came along, we moved closer to Karl’s family and they are a major help to us.
“Karl is now a full-time stay-at-home dad, but he’s also in charge of our 60-acre farm and our herd of dairy cows.”
James Crispe is associate director of editorial at the International Racing Bureau