I was having a chat with Laura Cheshire the other day about her career, and I was telling her how I saw her ride many times as a young apprentice in New Zealand and was super impressed with her skills, and had marked her down as a rider who was going places in the years to come.
Laura’s gone places alright, but its not been into the top ten of a metropolitan meetings as I had envisaged back then, but rather into the relative anonymity of riding relatively full books of mainly outsiders at non-metro tracks in South-East Queensland and Northern Rivers of NSW. I put the difficult question to her about why she thought this was, and in the asking offered up the ready explanation/excuse that her career has been plagued by serious injuries caused mainly by sheer bad luck, including breaking her neck at age 26 when a horse broke down and collapsed under her.
The fiery Miss Cheshire was having none of my excuses, and fired back that “that’s nonsense Arch, that’s not the reason”.
‘What is it then Laura?” I asked.
“It’s because I’m a woman”.
I was for a second taken aback. People think that because I like a bit of tits and arse and shagging good sorts, and because I call blokes blokes and sheilas sheilas it means that I’m a misogynist, sexist sort of cove but the reality couldn’t be further than the truth. I’ve spent my whole life surrounded by women, and strong ones too; my grandmothers on both sides, Mum, my sister, my aunties my cousins, not a day went by when I wasn’t outnumbered by females and I never considered them as anything but equals.
It’s been the same in my adult life. I met the right gal young and she was a staunch feminist who as a young uni art student and QUT Student Guild President organised women’s collectives and anti-violence rallies and childcare for single students and all manner of other things, and as an adult went on to work in women’s legal services and working women’s centre’s and in shelters and all sorts of things.
The foals – both fillies – have thrown to their dam’s side too, and both are staunch and active feminists and I am 100% for it and their greatest supporter; and on a personal note I spent many years supporting and fighting for women’s rights and equality in the workplace and in law, so I reckon it’s fair to say that the sexist/misogynist labels are wrong, although I am sure that some very serious and literal types who don’t get satire are bound to continue to disagree.
So I was surprised when Laura said that women were heavily discriminated against in their chosen field of race riding, and then shocked when in response to gentle probing about her claim Laura was able to detail a litany of examples where she and many other female jockeys (she named them, but without talking to them first I won’t) would ride a horse in its first few starts, and in a large number of cases win on them, and then for no reason other than their gender would be taken off the horses that showed promise under their handling as the gallopers stepped up in the grades.
“But what about Michelle Payne” I cried, “She’s won a Melbourne Cup!”
Laura shot back by asking me to name all the Group 1 races won by women jockeys during the season 2016/17 just gone.
It was a damn good question. Know what the answer is?
Rosie Myers in the Thorndon Mile and Alysha Collett in the Zabeel Classic, both races run in North Island of New Zealand.
Two, out of eight Group races run, and not one of them in Australia.
The young Cheshire hoop was right, but this was wrong. Women are equally as good jockeys as men, and in many cases better. It’s not a sex thing, it’s just that apart from marathon swimming and harness racing, thoroughbred race riding is one of the only sports that I can think of in which gender is neutralised and men and women can compete on their merits as equals, and the most skilled jockey will prevail.
Well that’s what I though anyway, but the stats make a lie of it and a misguided fool of me, and I reckon it’s a bloody tragedy because the facts clearly demonstrate that Laura is 100% correct and that there is deep-rooted and widely ingrained sexism in the racing industry, and that highly skilled and vastly talented women riders are being denied the opportunity to reach their potential due to systematic prejudice and discrimination that prevents them gaining or retaining mounts on quality horses.
As evidence just look at the current jockey premiership standings in each eastern mainland State.
Do you see what I see?
Only three women in the top forty riders by wins across the four states, and all of them in Adelaide. And not a single woman in the top tens in Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne.
Take Brisbane for example.
Now there is no way anyone is ever going to tell me that riders like Tegan Harrison and Tiffani Brooker and Bridget Grylls – and so many more, including Laura Cheshire – aren’t equally as good as, and I would argue in every case better, than a jockey like Luke Dittman. I mean no disrespect to the young bloke at all, and sincerely hope that he is able to climb to the apex of his profession, but the truth is that he’s put in a couple of absolute Cedric Rocker’s of rides recently and still has quite a way to go at this stage of his development as a rider.
So why is Dittman getting so many rides on winning chances and Harrison, Brooker and Grylls aren’t?
The answer is simple: because he’s a bloke and the other three are sheilas. It’s as simple as that, and it’s bloody wrong, and if you want to see why just take a look at the New Zealand jockey’s premiership table.
Six of the top ten riders are women.
Sixty bloody percent of them!
In Australia the percentage of women is just 7.5%, but of course if you take Adelaide out of the equation the percent is zero. Nil, zip, nada, none. Yet Bridget Grylls and Laura Cheshire at least, and Vanessa Johnson (sister of Danielle, the no 9 hoop in NZ) – who is riding in North Queensland – have competed at all levels including the highest against each of the women in the NZ top ten and have on all occasions held their own or better.
So why can’t they translate that Kiwi success across the ditch here in Australia? We know that New Zealand racing is no sub-standard backwater where its just dud jockeys riding dud horses – just take a look at the Derby results in recent years among other Group races – so why are these and all the other riders being denied the opportunities that the male jockeys like Cory Parrish, who is no better at all than any of riders I have named, are receiving from big stables to ride good horses? Why are the local women jockeys?
Sexism and gender-based discrimination, that’s why. Laura Cheshire is right, and the figures show it in black and white.
It’s just not good enough, and something needs to be done to eliminate this stain of sexism from our great sport.
I don’t profess to have all the answers, or even any really. I’m just a writer not a racing administrator or professional in the industry, and the way to end discrimination in the game is a matter for the experts.
What I do know though is if we are to practice what we preach when we proclaim the Racing Creed and say that that we are all equal above and below the turf, we have to make sure that we walk the talk and live by it too.
The first step to any solution is to acknowledge that there is a problem.
It’s high time that everyone in racing admitted and agreed that we do have a problem. And that it’s one that needs urgent repair.
Let’s act now so that the next time a women jockey wins a Melbourne Cup she is applauded for her skills and the quality of her ride, not predominantly because she is a curiosity and has boobs and a bum.
Let’s leave handicaps to the handicappers.
After all everyone deserves a fair go at the races.
It’s only right, and it’s only fair.