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Women jockeys have long reigned supreme in New Zealand, as their overseas sisters battle

Mary Burgess05:00, Mar 08 2020

OPINION: Jockeys and gender equality are not words one would expect to encounter in the same sentence. But in New Zealand women jockeys are not only an integral part of the racing landscape but they are paid exactly the same as their male counterparts. This has been the case since day one.

Nearly 42 years on from Joanne Hale's ground-breaking ride in a hurdle race at Waimate on July 15, 1978, when just four women took rides, females now make up 43 percent of New Zealand riding ranks.

Lisa Allpress competed in the inaugural Kingdom Day Jockey Challenge in Saudi Arabia.
NICKY GRAY
Lisa Allpress competed in the inaugural Kingdom Day Jockey Challenge in Saudi Arabia.

New Zealand was not the first to licence women jockeys, but it has been lengths ahead of other racing jurisdictions when it comes to acceptance. The women riding in races now, and the girls taking up apprenticeships, have never known a time when a career as a jockey was not an option due to their sex.

It is thanks to the incredible tenacity of the trail-blazing Linda Jones, whose case was promoted in the media by the late John Costello, that they now have that option. Of course, the timely appearance of the 1977 Human Rights Act and a suggestion from Jones' MP, Marilyn Waring, that the entity then known as the New Zealand Racing Conference might want to be on the right side of history, also helped.

 
Lisa Allpress rides Dukedom for yet another yet.
ROBERT KITCHIN
Lisa Allpress rides Dukedom for yet another yet.

It is to the credit of New Zealand trainers at the time their attitude towards the women was markedly different to those overseas. The trainers gave women go, and found that most had ability. Over the years that ability has morphed into very real talent.

Female jockeys have ridden the most winners in three of the last four seasons, and in the year when Chris Johnson took the premiership the runner-up and third-placed jockeys were women.

Linda Jones in 1979 claims her first victory following injury.
UNKNOWN
Linda Jones in 1979 claims her first victory following injury.

Last year's premiership was special for Lisa Allpress; not only was it her third but it also came after a gutsy return from a shoulder injury that threatened to end her career. 

The previous season Sam Collett repeated the achievement of her father Jim, who topped the premiership in 1994-95.

New Zealand jockeys' premiership winner Sam Collett.
TRISH DUNNELL
New Zealand jockeys' premiership winner Sam Collett.

With success at the top level comes international opportunity. While top jockeys were focused on the Group One Derby at Ellerslie a week ago, Allpress was blazing a different trail.

Invited to ride in the Kingdom Day Jockey Challenge in Riyadh, curtainraiser to the world's richest race - the $20m Saudi Cup - Allpress was against the best in the world.  

Riding against the likes of superstar Frankie Dettori and American Hall of Famer Mike Smith, Allpress won her first race and created history in the process, as the first woman to ride a winner in Saudi Arabia. 

Linda Jones captured a nation once women were permitted to hold a jockey licence, in 1978.
UNKNOWN
Linda Jones captured a nation once women were permitted to hold a jockey licence, in 1978.

Allpress doesn't identify herself as a female jockey, she is simply a jockey. Alongside her in Saudi twere women from countries where the struggle for true acceptance is on-going.

Mickaelle Michel, who tied with Allpress for third in the Saudi competition, was the first woman to top the French jockeys' table (although she was later overtaken). Michel, who has a lengthy list of "firsts", has benefited from a weight allowance introduced by France Galop in 2017. The allowance, intended encourage trainers to provide women with more opportunities, appears to be working..

The counter-argument would be women outside France have managed to succeed on their own terms without such assistance.

Yet nowhere else appears to have the level of involvement and acceptance of New Zealand.

In 2015, Michelle Payne became the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup.
VINCE CALIGIURI/GETTY
In 2015, Michelle Payne became the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup.

Julie Krone, the first woman inducted into America's National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, remains the only woman to win a Triple Crown race. Krone took out the 1993 Belmont Stakes on Colonial Affair.

That record is likely to remain for some time as American statistics indicate that only two percent of women ride in races such as the Triple Crown events. Women make up 14 percent of American riding ranks.

In New Zealand there is just one race at the top level which has eluded female jockeys - the NZ Derby. They came close to ticking that off too last week, when Danielle Johnson rode Scorpz into third.

Australia made a big deal about Michelle Payne's victory in the 2015 Melbourne Cup, yet women jockeys across the Tasman have to be tough to get to the big stage.

Jockey Michelle Payne and her brother Steven Payne, with the Melbourne Cup after Prince Of Penzance won in 2015. Steven Payne was the strapper.
SCOTT BARBOUR/GETTY
Jockey Michelle Payne and her brother Steven Payne, with the Melbourne Cup after Prince Of Penzance won in 2015. Steven Payne was the strapper.

With around 30 percent of Australian jockeys now female, and female apprentices outnumbering males in Victoria, there are more opportunities. 

In regional areas, particularly Western Australia, women dominate, but their numbers at city meetings in Sydney and Melbourne are noticeably lighter.

Kiwi Linda Meech was controversially "given the drag" off Group One Victoria Derby contender Thought About That in favour of a "better performed" male jockey in October. 

Michelle Payne rides Prince of Penzance to victory in the 2015 Melbourne Cup.
VINCE CALIGIURI/GETTY
Michelle Payne rides Prince of Penzance to victory in the 2015 Melbourne Cup.

A twitter scrap ensued with Michelle Payne jumping to Meech's defence and earning herself a fine. Meech, although disappointed just kept chipping away.

Last month, having ridden her first Group One winner in 2015, Meech became the first woman to win the Group One Oakleigh Plate at Caulfield.  Significantly, she fought off a challenge from another female jockey, Jamie Kah, who ran second.

Women across the Tasman still have a few big race wins to mark off before they can claim the same status as their Kiwi sisters.  Like those in other parts of the world they are still battling a certain level of sexism.

Michelle Payne is congratulated by her brother Steven Payne as she returns to the birdcage after her Melbourne Cup win.
SCOTT BARBOUR/GETTY
Michelle Payne is congratulated by her brother Steven Payne as she returns to the birdcage after her Melbourne Cup win.

A recent study undertaken at the University of Liverpool, analysing data over 14-years, determined the performance of female jockeys was equal to that of the men.

In the UK where 11.3 percent of jockeys are women, they do not appear to receive the same opportunities as they do in New Zealand.

Kiwi jockey Linda Meech secured the Group One Oakleigh Plate at Caulfield in 2019.
KELLY DEFINA/GETTY
Kiwi jockey Linda Meech secured the Group One Oakleigh Plate at Caulfield in 2019.

During the timeframe of the study only 5.2 percent of available rides went to female jockeys which has prompted the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) to attempt to address the issue through its Diversity in Racing Steering Group.

On International Women's Day the racing industry can be proud of the fact that we consider our jockeys just that.  Like Allpress we don't differentiate based on sex.

Mary Burgess is Corporate Communications and Media Advisor at New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing

 

 

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