Time Ireland gave its female jockeys a leg up

To support and encourage more female jockeys on the race tracks, France has introduced a new weight allowance. Should Ireland follow suit? As all eyes are on Cheltenham Festival this week, Jane Mangan talks to Cork women involved in the sport for their opinion
Time Ireland gave its female jockeys a leg up
Maxine O'Sullivan

EARLIER this year, France Galop broke new ground by announcing the introduction of a 2kg (4.4lbs) allowance for all female jockeys. It was a radical and unexpected move which caught the Irish and British racing communities by surprise.

It inevitably raised the question, should such an allowance be introduced here? Do our lady riders need such assistance?

There are two arguments to consider regarding the female weight allowance debate: The scientific evidence and the past and present performances of lady riders in this country.

The biological facts are that female upper body strength is 40-60% weaker than males and that lower body strength is 25-30% weaker also. The Turf Club’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Adrian McGoldrick is in favour of implementing an allowance in Ireland due to the aforementioned facts and is working on more studies to back up this notion.

However, leading jockey’s physiologist Dr George Wilson has argued that women possess an advantage over their male counterparts due to the effects of wasting. Females are naturally lighter than males, thus don’t struggle to make weight nearly as much as male jockeys.

Following a recent study, Wilson proved that males are far more commonly in a dehydrated state when race riding than female riders.

I’m not a doctor, so I prefer to concentrate on what I know best — riding horses. I’m of the belief that a good rider must possess a raw natural ability, a finesse that cannot be taught or harnessed in a gym. Fitness plays a huge role, but brute strength will not make someone better than another when it comes to race riding. Those in power at The Turf Club and Horse Racing Ireland will mull over these arguments — but what do the people it will affect most think of the idea?

Maxine O’Sullivan, from Mallow, is one of Ireland’s leading lady riders and is particularly well known for her exploits in the Point to Point field. Speaking of the initiative, she said: “I’m very much in favour of the idea. It doesn’t necessarily need to be across the board — If someone has a 7lb claim then they probably shouldn’t need an 11lb allowance.

“But if someone is struggling on a 3lb claim or has lost their right to claim and is having a barren spell then it’s a great idea. It should be seriously considered.”

When asked how it would effect her own situation, she said: “From a point to point perspective it would be brilliant as 12 stone is a heavy weight and most girls are lighter than their male colleagues.

“There isn’t a girl in the weigh tent that doesn’t have a heavy lead cloth to help make up 12 stone and too much “dead” weight can actually act as a deterrent for trainers.”

Of course, many people think that a current rider’s opinion will naturally be in favour of the allowance so I thought it would be interesting to get the voice of someone who has been there and done it.

Aileen Slone Lee
Aileen Slone Lee

Aileen Sloane Lee is a well known racing personality and was one of Ireland’s leading ladies during the Caroline Hutchinson and Kathleen Walsh era — after Joanna Morgan and the Rooney sisters had set a new bar for lady riders but before Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh came along and shattered records.

Aileen recognises a trend developing, something different from when she was in the weigh room. “There was definitely more lady riders in my time. You notice more girls staying in education rather than pursuing a career in racing. There are very few young lady riders coming through.”

When asked about the French initiative she stated: “I think it is a brilliant idea and one that is much needed, particularly on the flat. You see ladies like Julie Khrone in America, Michelle Payne in Australia and Hayley Turner in Britain — we have nobody like that here.”

It’s a valid point and one that is made more evident by one particular rider.

“Just look at Cathy Gannon. She was Champion Apprentice here but had to move across the water to get opportunities. For someone of her ability to move was a loss for Irish racing and just proves that there is a place for this allowance in this country.”

Asked if she would like to see it implemented in the National Hunt sphere she admits the situation is a little bit different.

“Rachael Blackmore has done wonders for lady riders. She has proved it can be done. But she isn’t an overnight phenomenon, Rachael has been going unrecognised for years.

“I think if someone has stood the test of time they should be given the allowance to reward their perseverance. It’s not necessary for a 7lb claimer but could work for someone who is struggling with a 3lb claim or with no claim at all.”

This debate is multi-dimensional and while rules and regulations are enforced in The Turf Club it is paramount to hear the voices of those in question. Being a jockey is much more than strength. It’s about having a tactical brain and being in harmony with the animal you are riding.

I have no doubt that the scientific evidence will prove men are physically stronger than women — that’s a well known and indisputable fact — but there is no scientific test for riding ability, that’s plain for all to see on the race track.

We are extremely fortunate to live in a time where a few lady riders are breaking the mould. Josephine Gordon was crowned Champion Apprentice across the water last season, Lucy Alexander became Britain’s first Champion Conditional rider back in 2013 and Rachael Blackmore leads the way in the same table here at home this season. These women are proof that ladies can compete on level terms with their male counterparts but these names are few and far between.

I think there is a place for an allowance system in this country but there would need to be a certain criteria for implementing a new strategy. Is it only necessary for someone who has lost the right to claim 5lbs? Does it need to be 4lbs? If it were to be enforced on the flat then it must also be in place for the National Hunt.

I’m sure The Irish Turf Club will monitor the French situation before making any definitive decision and I think it would be narrow-minded to not have an open mind.

What the French are doing is admirable, to say the least. They recognised a problem and took appropriate action to help women in the sport — considering they could have turned a blind eye and ignored the problem, they should be commended for taking initiative.

The new rule was officially enforced on March 1 and it was only fitting that a battle- hardened lady jockey such as Delphine Santiago be the first to take advantage.

Delphine has averaged 19 winners over the past four seasons but theoretically she should surpass that figure this season with the assistance of the new allowance. She is now on the four winner mark — I wonder what her end of season tally might be?

When Joanna Morgan came to Ireland in 1974, the Turf Club had only began permitting women to race ride two years previous. She essentially broke the glass ceiling for women in racing with a string of ‘firsts’, as it were. The first female professional rider to ride at Royal Ascot. The first to ride in an Irish Classic (Irish Derby). The first to ride over 200 winners on the flat in this country. So why didn’t this revolutionary figure pave the way for more women on the flat? Was the talent not there or did trainers perceive her as a “one-off” talent?

More recently, women in Ireland are far more competitive on the jumps scene. Riders such as Carberry, Walsh and Blackmore have broken the mould, etched out their own niche and have established themselves as some of the best jockeys around. No lady rider in teh right frame of mind will dismiss a 4 lb allowance. Should it prove a success in France then I think the Irish authorities should at teh very least trial the initiative. 

Lady jockeys have long been the minority in horse racing and those male riders who will inevitably feel discriminated against should be sharply reminded of that.

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