In January Hayley Turner was punished for not riding out a finish to be placed third in a race at Lingfield. Stewards imposed a 10 day ban.
She admitted the error saying it was the first time in her long career that she had done that.
Hayley said: “I deserved it. I’ve never done it before in all my years riding, but it was human error and I hold my hands up. I didn’t ease up though. I mistook the winning line. When I stopped riding I thought it was the winning line. I can’t argue with the punishment.”
The level of abuse directed at her in some quarters made for depressing reading. The more polite comments included: “How do the Stewards know she didn’t ride out? It looked like a normal feeble, girly ride by Turner.”
An attitude that is not the sole preserve of punters. There are senior owners and trainers who still believe there is no place for a female in the saddle of a racehorse.
And such thinking may be the reason behind the decreasing number of rides offered to the girls.
In the 2011 flat season Turner and Cathy Gannon rode over 150 winners between them. At the same time Kirsty Milzczarek rode 35 winners, Julie Burke 30 and Amy Ryan 27. More recently, in the 2014 Flat jockeys’ championship that runs between March and November, only three women jockeys rode more than 10 winners – Hayley Turner, Jenny Powell and Megan Carberry. Not one female jockey won more than 30 races in that 2014 season. The total of 149 winners ridden by women jockeys were shared between twenty four different riders.
Nice work if you can get it. But few women can.
One jockey who has made the men sit up and take notice this current jumps season is Lizzie Kelly. She principally rides horses owned by her mother and trained by her stepfather. Does she believe she would have got more rides for other owners and trainers had she been a man?
“Yes, I think so. It’s one of those things. I realise that there’s a ‘trainer’s daughter’ and a girl stigma about the whole thing and I want to step away from that, but it’s difficult.
“It’s a lot to do with females in general in the sport, but also the females who are in the sport perhaps have been lucky enough to have contacts already. My contacts would be my stepdad and my mum, and I’m in a great position and very lucky to be where I am, but I’m also aware that I have to be riding as well as the lads, and I have to be confident that my skills are just as good as theirs, because a lot of racing isn’t gender-specific.
“Whether you’re a boy or a girl, being a judge of pace isn’t gender specific, and you don’t have to be a boy to be able to see a stride at a fence. Yes, OK, you’re stronger if you’re a lad, and you have to be able to hold a strong horse and do it for three miles, and still have the strength to push them out when it comes to the business end.
“But if you go to the gym every single day then you’re as fit as everyone else, or fitter. And you have to remember that this is the top of the top. If I ride in a race against AP McCoy, that’s like a footballer running around on a pitch with Steven Gerrard. You don’t see girls running around for the England football or rugby teams. I’m proud to say that I’m riding against the top lads in their professional sport, and it’s such a unique thing in our sport.”
Lizzie has proven she can win big races up against the most experienced of male jump jockeys.
Hayley Turner has won three Group 1 races on the flat. Some argue her best days are behind her and she certainly doesn’t seem to be picking up the quality of rides she once did.
She says: “With all the different types of track, it’s never going to be equal numbers men and women. In the US and New Zealand, the tracks are flat, so it’s more about balance than strength. Riding a big, backward two year old round Epsom you need to be physically very strong. I wouldn’t put a girl up on some horses.”
Turner sees no reason to be alarmed about how few female jockeys are hired and suggests the problem may be with the girls who aspire to ride.
She says: “You’ve got to have the drive, the ambition, you’ve got to work really hard and you’ve got to enjoy it. I’ve done it. Kirsty has done it and so has Cathy. Nothing’s changed and I don’t see what the panic is.”
Even Lizzie Kelly made comments she now she “possibly” regrets. In 2014 she was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying: “The girls aren’t as good as the lads and that’s it.”
On reflection she now says: “Girls have got to prove themselves. I’m trying to ride to the best of my ability. As long as girls know that it’s not going to come easily. I’ve put in so much work and I know that I still have so much left to put in.”
I hope attitudes will change as those at the heart of racing grow ever younger, writes Vernon Grant.
In the past I’ve been embarrassed to hear comments made by the more senior in years owners and trainers who think the only place for a girl in racing is in a stable, mucking out.
Perhaps it will require the likes of Lizzie Kelly to win a feature race at Cheltenham or the Grand National before some people with their heads in the 19th century realise that equal opportunity has a place in racing.