General Cos ridden by Hannah English wins race 1 at Clifford Park ON Saturday, July 6, 2019.
General Cos ridden by Hannah English wins race 1 at Clifford Park ON Saturday, July 6, 2019. Nev Madsen

TURNING THE TIDE: Riding (and winning) like a girl

IN ITS long history, horse racing has been dominated by men - they have been the jockeys, the strappers, the trainers and the stewards.

It wasn't until 1979 that female jockeys were finally granted licences to compete against men in professional races.

In recent years however, the gender imbalance has started to turn around.

In 2015, Michelle Payne made sporting history by riding Prince Of Penzance to victory in the Melbourne Cup at 100-1 odds.

She was the first female jockey in the Cup's 155-year history to win the prestigious race and this month her biopic, Ride Like A Girl, was released.

There is little doubt that Payne's historic win spurred the continued rise in female jockey numbers - and, in turn, the rising number of women winning races.

Payne's success is part of a surge in the number of female jockeys in Australia, and women are now more visible in the silks than ever.

These days, about 30 per cent of Australian jockeys are female.

Women now dominate our regional meets - most recently in Nanango, female jockeys rode the program and took the win in every race.

Clearly things are changing as women carve out their own identity within racing.

Oakey-based jockey Tessa Townsend said a camaraderie was built between female jockeys in the weighing and changing rooms.

"There's an unwritten friendship between female jockeys,” she said.

"All the girls get along, and we praise one another a lot if we have a good day and out-ride the boys,” she laughed.

In the so-called "sport of kings”, female jockeys are now competing with men in a big way and the number of them competing at the highest level in Australia is only going to rise.

Tessa Townsend rides John Byrne's horse, Swagman, to victory.
Tessa Townsend rides John Byrne's horse, Swagman, to victory. Kate McCormack

Jockey Hannah English has ridden close to 200 winners and is apprenticed to her partner and trainer Glenn Richardson in Nanango.

In her storied career so far, Brisbane's Pat Duff has been one of her biggest supporters, and Oakey's Pat Sexton gave her a lot of rides when she first started out.

But English knows the road hasn't been easy for all women entering the industry.

"I've come into the industry after a lot of females have had struggles,” she said.

"I've never felt like an outsider as such.”

According to English, trainers are growing more and more fond of female riders.

"A lot of trainers like them (female jockeys) for the fact that they have a horse background,” she said.

"Male jockeys sometimes come from nothing and they don't have that horse experience behind them.

"If they've had horse experience or a background in horses they get along with horses well and I think trainers can see that.

"The industry is changing so much, a lot of the old whip rules have changed and we just can't be as aggressive.

"Males are generally physically stronger and whip stronger, females know how to get a lot out of their horses to make them run well.”

Some in the industry say female jockeys have an advantage because of their lighter frames, while others believe certain horses respond better to women, and others to men.

But the Brisbane horsewoman who helped lead the way for female jockeys in Australia, Pam O'Neill, said being a successful jockey came down to the individual, as well as fair-minded owners and trainers willing to give those women a go.

"It takes dedication, ability to ride, horsemanship, and you've got to get on the right horses,” the 74-year-old said.

"I know myself when I was working at Eagle Farm, I could hold horses where a lot of the males couldn't. It's not strength, it's knack.”

In 1973, O'Neill established the first major Australian race for female jockeys in Brisbane - the Dame Merlyn Transition Handicap - and in 1979 she became the first Australian woman to receive an official jockey licence allowing her to race professionally against men.

At her first meeting in Southport she rode to victory, becoming the first Australian female jockey to win a professional race - not just once, but three times on the same day.

Queensland's racing history is rich with stories of women fighting to take part in the sport.

In the '40s and '50s, Wilhelmina Smith disguised herself as a man to race in Far North Queensland.

Known as Bill 'Girlie' Smith - a nickname she received because she wouldn't change in front of the other jockeys - her true identity was only revealed years later after she died, aged 88.

To this day, female jockeys are well aware they're competing in one of the world's most dangerous sports - they have the bruises, the badly healed bones and the scars to prove it.

But despite the injuries, they're fighting the good fight to be judged on their merit - and the privilege of working with horses and the thrill of racing makes it all worthwhile.

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