News analysis

Melbourne Cup: Michelle Payne's win a breakthrough for women?

Australian Michelle Payne with the Melbourne Cup trophy yesterday, a day after she became the first female jockey to win the 154-year-old "race that stops a nation" when she rode outsider Prince of Penzance at Flemington. Despite this success, women
Australian Michelle Payne with the Melbourne Cup trophy yesterday, a day after she became the first female jockey to win the 154-year-old "race that stops a nation" when she rode outsider Prince of Penzance at Flemington. Despite this success, women face huge challenges.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Michelle Payne is the latest of many jockeys to prove that women can compete on equal terms with men in the saddle. But all the evidence in the form book suggests that her Melbourne Cup victory will be another false dawn, rather than a harbinger of imminent gender equality in horse racing.

Men can continue to expect a near monopoly of the best opportunities in all the main racing nations, and it is telling that the 30-year-old got her moment of glory aboard a 100-1 shot.

If a woman is ever booked to ride the hot favourite in a £2 million (S$4.3 million) race, then perhaps we can consider whether equality really has been achieved.

In the meantime, it is sobering to reflect that in the 235-year history of the Epsom Derby, just two runners have been partnered by women and both were outsiders that proved unable to beat a single rival.

There remains something exotic about a woman taking part in a big race, which is surely a depressing state of affairs given that female jockeys have been making headlines at intervals for decades.

Men can continue to expect a near monopoly of the best opportunities in all the main racing nations, and it is telling that Payne got her moment of glory aboard a 100-1 shot.

It is 22 years since Julie Krone rode the winner of the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the US Triple Crown, while, over jumps, Gee Armytage rode a double at the Cheltenham Festival all the way back in 1987.

 

Three years before that, Ann Ferris won the Irish Grand National, but the lack of progress since then meant it was still a big deal when Katie Walsh became the third woman to win that race in April this year.

Walsh has also finished third in the Grand National itself.

This week will bring the retirement at 32 of Hayley Turner, Britain's most successful female flat-racing jockey, the winner of two Group 1 contests, who has opted for a broadcasting career over the endless travel of a rider's life.

She has always taken the view that female jockeys will be used if they can prove they are good enough, though she has become so tired of the topic that her most recent reaction to the familiar question was "bore off".

But her 42 winners in Britain this year put her joint 48th in the jockeys' table and she is the only woman in the top 50.

Richard Perham, senior jockeys' tutor at the British Racing School, recently said some trainers and owners were "still living in the dark ages" in their refusal to employ female jockeys.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'Women break through but progress hard'. Print Edition | Subscribe