How much strength do you need to win a horse race? Do women have enough? And if they don’t should they be given an allowance to help them in one of the few sports where they compete professionally against men?
The question came up as I shared a farmer’s platter with champion trainer Paul Nicholls in his Ditcheat local at the end of the jumping season. Paul is no softie: one of the things he most admires in Ruby Walsh is his toughness, win or lose, and the end was signalled for one young rider in the Nicholls yard because he came into the unsaddling enclosure in tears after a mistake. But, like the former champion jump jockey Sir Anthony McCoy, Paul believes that it is time to give the girls some assistance. If mares and fillies get allowances when running against the boys, he says, then why shouldn’t women riders?
‘Hayley Turner was a brilliant rider on the Flat, but she gave up at the end of last season. It’s really hard for girls. How many girls could compete playing with a premiership football team? Girls don’t get a weight allowance and they’re riding against the top pros. So why not a 7lb allowance?’ Noting that McCoy had suggested something similar, and that some women riders had rejected the idea, he added: ‘That’s a bad attitude. If girls got a 7lb allowance, they’d get three times the rides. We should give it a crack because there are some good girls out there.’
One of them is in his own yard: jockey’s daughter Bryony Frost. ‘She’s very talented. Rides a few hunter chasers for us. She won on Polisky for me at Ascot. I told her to come as late as you can. Three over the last, the commentator was writing off Polisky and she whipped up the inner. Came to the last, gave him one belt and he won four lengths. Brilliant. Nearly the ride of the season. First time he’s won in four years — the bastard.’ Paul has another particular interest too: after riding 19 winners from 23 rides point to pointing, his daughter Megan is trying to make a go of it on the Flat and finding it frustrating.
This should have been a breakthrough year for women jockeys. In last year’s Shergar Cup contest at Ascot, the girls team, comprised of Canadian Emma-Jayne Wilson, Hayley Turner and apprentice Samantha Bell, beat three teams of international male stars with Sammy Jo, as she prefers to be known, winning two of the six races. In November Michelle Payne became the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup, riding the 100–1 shot Prince of Penzance. Since then, though, it has been tough-going for the girls. Payne herself, who was to have ridden in this year’s Shergar Cup, is in hospital in Australia with pancreatic injuries after a fall. Turner has given up the struggle for decent rides. Cathy Gannon, our most experienced woman rider, is out of action after breaking five toes in a starting stalls accident and Sammy Jo is spending six weeks in a wheelchair with pelvic injuries after a horse reared and fell on top of her.
The only crumb of comfort for women riders is that the leading apprentice this season is Josephine Gordon, a one-time pony racer and eventer with Lambourn’s Stan Moore, who has progressed swiftly from the stage of learning to push no-hopers at the back of the field. As I write, she is ahead of last season’s champion Tom Marquand with ten winners from her 75 rides. Big names such as Michael Bell and Hugo Palmer are giving her opportunities.
So should female riders like Josephine Gordon be given an extra 7lb when Turner made it pretty close to the top without help? I think we should try it, although not as compensation for women being physically weaker than men as McCoy argues. Ruby Walsh, probably the best rider anywhere these days, insists that physical strength brings no more than one race victory in a hundred; it is what goes on in your head that wins jockeys the rest. Everybody remembers Michelle Payne’s invitation to the chauvinists in Australia after her Melbourne Cup glory hour: ‘A lot of the winner’s owners wanted to kick me off. Everyone can get stuffed who thinks women aren’t good enough.’ But it was her follow-up remarks that should be noted: ‘It is not all about strength. So much more is involved: getting a horse into a rhythm, getting the horse to try for you and being patient.’
Some owners and trainers leap at the chance of taking 7lb off a horse’s back when they spot a good apprentice, but baulk at using a woman: we need to give them a direct incentive to bring on the girls who show potential. Many racing yards employ at least as many girls as boys and there is another consideration: half the people who buy tickets to go racing and half the people who watch racing on TV are women. It would be nice to keep it that way.