Horse racing within Britain has been a stringent part of the sporting calendar for decades. Scores of individuals attend the most prestigious races such as Ascot, Cheltenham and the Grand National throughout the racing season. These festivals are steeped in history and have been the cornerstone of British racing for decades. Traditionally, jockeys have been exclusively male and it wasn’t until the 1970’s that women were allowed to race alongside men, even though the decision faced fierce criticism.
For the jockeys, rightly or wrongly, they are synonymous with male riders to this day. A sport that is dominated by men at the elite end of performance racing has seen few disruptions and has subsequently seen a male jockey crowned as lead jockey at every Cheltenham Festival since 1860 as well as a male jockey winning all 172 editions of the Grand National. That is, until this year…
Having started in 1860, the Cheltenham Festival is one of the most prestigious events in the racing calendar. Across the four days of competition, an average attendance of 65,000 people flood into the racecourse to cheer on their favourites. With the impact of COVID-19 extending to competitive racing, an evidently minimised crowd was in attendance for what turned out to be a historic series of races. It wasn’t until 1972 that female jockeys were allowed to race alongside men at Cheltenham and it was in that year that Meriel Tufnell became the first female rider in Britain to win an official horse race.
Whilst there have been other successes involving female jockeys in the years since, few can live up to the impact of Rachel Blackmore in 2021.
Blackmore, 31, rode to 6 wins across the 4 days of competition, amounting to more victories than the entire British training contingent. Within this, Blackmore claimed victory in the prestigious Champion Hurdle, the first female to do so in the history of the race. As a result, the 31 year old Irish racer was awarded the Ruby Walsh Trophy for leading Cheltenham Jockey. Across a historic 4 days of races, Blackmore’s 6 victories has been topped by only one other jockey in the history of the event; Ruby Walsh – the man after whom the trophy is named.
The Grand National
The Grand National at Aintree, Liverpool, is regarded as one of the most exciting and prestigious events in British horse racing. The handicap steeplechase of just shy of 7km sees the field jumping over 30 fences in 2 laps of the course.
Shortly after her success at Cheltenham, in early April, Blackmore returned to the summit of British horse racing with another historic performance at the Grand National, romping home atop the 11-1 Minella Times by a margin of 6 and a half lengths. A lack of crowd did not subdue the importance of the her victory however, with BBC Radio 5 Live’s John Hunt describing Blackmore as a”flag bearer for the sport”. In her own words, Blackmore described the feeling as “unbelievable” as the magnitude of her achievements came to the fore during a post-race interview.
Female Jockeys in British Horse Racing
Despite Blackmore’s resounding successes at the start of 2021, there is still a considerable disparity between male and female jockeys within the industry. As of the start of 2018, only 11.3% of professional jockey licenses were currently held by women, despite a 14-year study by the University of Liverpool concluding that there was little disparity between the performances of male and female riders. The same study identified that of the 1.25million individual rides carried out during the study, only 5% were conducted by female jockeys, despite over 50% of all stable staff being women.
A male-dominated industry of jockeys doesn’t appear to deter female attendance at events, with the British Horse Racing Authority claiming a “40:60 female male gender split amongst racegoers”. Outside of racing, almost every other form of Equestrian sport sees men and women compete head to head on a level playing field. Deeply engrained stereotypes regarding the physical composition of the female body in relation to a mans have been entrenched in the minimal opportunities available to female jockeys however Blackmore’s performances, along with elite female jockeys of the past have quashed any prospect of a disparity in capability.
The Future of Horse Racing
Renowned female jockey Gemma Tutty, with almost 50 winners from over 600 career rides, claimed that there are a considerable number of trainers who flatly refuse to use any female jockeys. Naturally, a diminished opportunity to performance minimises any prospect of female jockeys competing at the same rate as male jockeys under the current circumstances. Despite this, female jockeys have enjoyed success when they have been granted the opportunity to perform. In the years’ since women’s first inclusion in competitive horse racing in Britain, female victories have slowly been increasing. Since 2015, there has been a huge increase of 76% in the number of female jockeys claiming victory at Cheltenham.
Last year at the festival, 14.3% of the 28 winners across the 4 day were ridden by female jockeys, despite only 9.2% of the rides being taken by women.
Traditionally, opportunities have been limited due to a perception that men are more able to restrict body fat percentages whilst maintaining a greater strength to weight ratio. As has been highlighted with greater emphasis in recent years, the technique, balance and a reading of your horse are considerable components of a successful jockey and a principle that has seen the meteoric rise in female success over recent years.
Moving forward, elite success by female jockeys, led by the humble Rachel Blackmore in 2021, appears to be paving the way for a renewed perception into what makes a successful jockey. Old stereotypes appear outdated and close minded in the face of her successes that will only serve in inspiring a future generation of female jockeys looking to emulate her achievements a the very top fo the sport.