One of our Associates came into the office the other day with a huge grin on her face. Why? Because an all female team of jockeys had won the Shergar Cup at Ascot for the first time. As an ex-jockey, and the first female apprentice to win the British Columbian derby, Nicola (Wilson, nee Wright) appreciated what a landmark achievement this was.
We asked Nicola to explain….
What Sammy Jo Bell and team have achieved is incredibly significant for the world of racing. The Shergar Cup, racing’s team riding event, has been running since 1999 and not only did the girls smash the other teams overall this year, they managed to win three out of the six races. Sammy Jo Bell was named as leading rider, the first woman to do so. She won the Shergar Cup Classic on Shell Bay, trained by Richard Hannon, after earlier managing to score points on Royal Signaller in the Stayers’ Race. Emma-Jayne Wilson and Hayley Turner, the other team members, also had fantastic results.
Racing is rare amongst sports as the female jockeys compete on the same terms as the men. Indeed it is one of the few sports where women and men compete on entirely equal terms as owners, trainers, stable staff, racecourse staff, jockeys and breeders and this is something of which the industry is very proud..
The Racing World in Nicola’s time
We asked Nicola to explain what the racing world was like when she was riding.
“When I started in racing in the 90's it was still relatively slim pickings when it came to rides for female jockeys. I felt I could have more success abroad. The move paid off and after a stint of work riding for trainer Bob Baffert in Los Angeles I settled at Hastings Park in Vancouver. I was lucky enough to turn professional relatively quickly but I was only still only one of two female riders at Hastings Park at the time and then the only one for a while. I really had to prove myself to get the opportunities.
When interviewed there would inevitably be a question about being a female in a male dominated world. I'm sure the girls have been asked this at least once since their success in the Shergar Cup. It did get a bit ‘old’ as I wanted to be judged on my merit as a rider, without gender being a factor.
I'm pleased to say female jockeys are not such a novelty in the weighing room nowadays. However, they are still a minority. I won't deny that as a woman I have different physiology to men and I had to work very hard to be as strong as I could be but there is much more to being a good jockey than strength alone. Skill, technique, being able to read a race and your mount are equally as important, as is having good communication skills when dealing with trainers, owners and the media. Being a jockey is not for the risk averse. You need to be tough, competitive, determined and the ability to cope with rejection is also useful! I know plenty of women who have these in spades.
I hope seeing the success that Hayley, Emma-Jayne and Sammy had at Ascot will encourage more girls to continue to get involved in racing and influence trainers to use female jockeys in more high profile races. Organisations like Women in Racing weren't around when I started so it shows how much the sport has developed and I'll be routing for the girls again next year!”
British Horseracing Authority (BHA) figures show that the number of professional female jockeys in Flat racing has risen to approximately 20% of all licensed jockeys (out of around 250). This has grown steadily in recent years. The table below sets out the figures.
Professional (flat) Jockey figures 1
Flat Jockeys - 15 female out of total number of 122
Apprentice Flat Jockeys - 39 female out of a total number of 130
The BHA has also confirmed that they are seeing more and more female applications to the Racing Schools.
Whilst the Shergar Cup result presents the headline story, as ever there has been a lot of sustained activity and growth that has led to it. Recent years have seen the emergence of more fine female riders, such as Lucy Alexander and Lizzie Kelly over Jumps and on the Flat Sammy Jo Bell and Shelley Birkett, who became the first female rider to win two BHA “Racing Excellence” Series in one season. Much of the growth in female riders in Flat racing has undoubtedly been inspired by the incredibly successful Hayley Turner, the first female rider to win a Group 1 race in Britain and also the first to ride 100 winners in a calendar year in 2008.
Female jockeys are being further supported by a new initiative - the first four female current or ex-jockeys who are now training as BHA Jockey Coaches. They will be able to provide specific guidance and support to female jockeys and will understand their challenges. They will not only act as coaches but as mentors as well. In addition there is now an annual female-riders only raceday held at Carlisle racecourse, which is proving very popular.
The industry acknowledges that more remains to be done and they are committed to increasing even further the number of female jockeys, and headline achievements such as the Shergar Cup can only help in this drive.
 With thanks for this table, and other BHA information, to Tessa Smyth, Media and Communications Officer