The Rise of Female Jockeys
December 31, 2015  »  By: Lara Jones  »  Sport
Shergar Cup

When Michelle Payne landed the 2015 Melbourne Cup she immediately became the highest-profile female jockey horse racing has ever known.  That’s because, unlike the rest of the world, horse racing is a leading sport in Australia and the Melbourne Cup is called ‘The Race Which Stops a Nation’ for good reason.

The normally shy 30-year-old lady rider could not contain her inner emotions when speaking to a media throng in the immediate aftermath of steering 100/1 outsider Prince of Penzance to victory in Australia’s greatest race. “Darren Weir [the winning horse’s trainer] has given me a go when it’s such a chauvinistic sport.  I know some of the owners were keen to kick me off.”  The first woman to ride a Melbourne Cup winner in the race’s 155-year history, Payne went on to heap more praise on Weir and owner John Richards for their support before adding “I want to say to everyone else, get stuffed, because women can do anything and we can beat the world.

On figures alone – Payne was only the fourth female jockey to have a ridden in the Melbourne Cup – Australian horse racing clearly appears to be a sexist world.

That’s not the case in America where Julie Krone became the first jockey to win a leg of the Triple Crown in 1993 (aboard Colonial Affair) and ten years later she also won a race at the showcase Breeders Cup.  In total Krone rode the winners of 3,704 races and was undoubtedly recognised as one of the leading jockeys in her sport.

But it’s noteworthy US horse racing would not constitute a mainstream sport there.  Beyond the trio of Triple Crown races (The Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Preakness), racecourse attendances Stateside are restricted to serious punters with no equivalents to Royal Ascot or the Melbourne Cup Festival.

Since Krone bowed out in 2004, no North American woman jockey has risen to prominence in the way she did but Canadian Chantal Sutherland has come close to riding 1,000 winners in a career punctuated by retirements and a modelling sideline.  Of the current crop of lady riders plying their trade in America, Rosie Napravnik is the leading lady with two Kentucky Oaks and a pair of Breeders’ Cup victories on her CV.  At 27, and with almost 1,900 race winners to date, Napravnik could transpire to be one of the greats albeit at the start of 2015 she took a sabbatical from the sport to have her son.

So if lady riders are taboo in Australia but readily accepted in North America, how does the UK weigh-up?  In short, relatively well.

Alex Greaves started the ball rolling in 1990.  Her 15 year career netted a modest 300 winners but on her 2005 retirement, aged 36, she laid claim to being the first woman rider to win a Group 1 race – aboard 1997 Nunthorpe dead-heater Ya Malak.  The previous season she had became the first woman to ride in the Epsom Derby – aboard 500/1 no-hoper Portugese Lil.  Sadly the price of her mount was reflective of the true respect lady riders were given at the time.

Nevertheless from the mid 2000’s female jockeys have received greater and greater opportunities which they have embraced.

Hayley Turner can be described as the first woman to achieve a sustained, day-in, day-out, successful career as a professional jockey in the UK.  The 33-year-old has completed a number of milestones and records; most notably being the first female Champion Apprentice, riding 100 winners in a year (2008) and claiming more than one Group race winning ride.  In 2012, Turner won the Beverly D. Stakes in America, becoming the first UK-based woman to ride an international Group 1 winner.  That year she also became the first female jockey in history to ride on the Dubai World Cup night – a notorious male stronghold.

Tuner sadly called a halt on her riding career at the start of November 2015 and racing also lost the services of the successful Kirsty Milczarek in October 2014 after the 29-year-old failed to recover from a neck injury.  And so moving into 2016, UK horse racing is looking for its next female torch-bearer rider to further her gender’s fortunes on the track; to ultimately see lady riders become not only successful but numerically commonplace.

Sammy Jo Bell could be that inspiration.  Like the legendary jump jockey (Sir) AP McCoy, the 24-year-old hails from Country Antrim (in Northern Ireland) and spent three years in Ireland learning her trade and working from the bottom up.  2011 and 2012 yielded nine winning rides for Sammy Jo Bell in Ireland, for the most-part for her employer Kevin Prendergast, before she moved to England and Yorkshire trainer Rickard Fahey.  A move which has seen her become the highest-profile lady jockey currently riding in the UK.

This sudden rise in recognition is not a consequence of Sammy Jo’s good looks and bubbly personality, as demonstrated during an appearance on Channel 4’s Morning Line.  Rather it is a consequence of her riding abilities which have drawn plaudits from all sections of the sport and landed her a double at Ascot’s Shergar Cup day.  The Shergar Cup is a competition, a team event, which Sammy Jo’s ‘Ladies Team’ (featuring the aforementioned Hayley Turner and Canadian Emma-Jayne Wilson) won ahead of jockeys representing the ‘Rest of the World’, ‘GB & Ireland’ and ‘Europe’.  Here Sammy Jo Bell’s double not only helped her team to a first-time victory, but also saw her collect the ‘Silver Saddle Award’ for being the leading rider.

With almost 50 winners during 2015, Sammy Jo is about to lose her claim (meaning horses ridden by her no longer carry 3lb less than they would if a full-fledged professional was in the saddle).  Of course this will also see her categorised as a full-fledged professional and assume the mantle very few women in racing so far have.  We wish her well as a professional and look forward to following her career over the years ahead.

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