There will come a time when it will be just jockeys clearing the last at Cheltenham, when we will no longer be able to distinguish a Bryony or a Rachael from a Jack or Paul. That time is not yet.
It is still relatively new to the sport, this equality business. It is still a story. And a source of no small delight.
So it’s harmless, really, even if the female riders must inwardly groan fielding the same old questions about bridging the gender gap, about being the first to this accolade or the lone achiever in that arena.
Rachael Blackmore became the first female rider to be crowned leading jockey at Cheltenham
Ever since 1972, when Meriel Tufnell became the first woman to ride a winner under Jockey Club rules, in the Goya Stakes at Kempton, those lines of inquiry have been pursued. Women as novelty items, their presence alone making news.
Tufnell was competing against an all-female field, but she was still a pioneer. So was Linda Goodwill, the first winner of a mixed race in 1974; Val Greaves, the first to beat professional male jockeys in 1976; Charlotte Brew, the first to ride in the Grand National in 1977; Karen Wiltshire, the first professional to win on the flat in 1978; Geraldine Rees, the first to finish the Grand National course in 1982.
Wiltshire recalls that when she rode, female jockeys were so uncommon the changing rooms remained communal. One day there will be no more firsts because women will have carried all in the sport. But that day wasn’t yesterday.
On Friday, Rachael Blackmore became the first female rider to be crowned leading jockey at Cheltenham, with six winners across the meeting, including five in Grade One races. Her nearest rival, Jack Kennedy, won four. Luminaries such as AP McCoy and Ruby Walsh were in agreement that she was the best around right now.
Blackmore had six winners across the meeting, including five in Grade One races
Maybe she would have been the first female winner of the Gold Cup, too, had she not chosen wrong. It happens. They’re jockeys, not clairvoyants.
Blackmore plumped for second favourite A Plus Tard, meaning Kennedy was on board her usual mount and the ultimate winner, Minella Indo. Just getting first pick, however, shows the advancements being made. Blackmore is the stable’s No 1. There is nothing special in her going first, therefore, nothing remarkable in senior male riders falling in line behind her. She’s not different. She’s not the story at home or on the gallops. She’s just good.
That was Lizzie Kelly’s point when she lauded Blackmore’s achievement after Tuesday’s win on Honeysuckle. Her brilliance is such that, increasingly, gender doesn’t matter. That was how Kelly wished it to be, too. She was the first female winner of a Grade One jumps race in Britain, yet always eschewed talk of standing tall for 50 per cent of the population.
‘I don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘I’m going to represent women today’,’ she said. ‘That kind of thing passes me by. No one ever pushed me to be a jockey. The only person who believed in me was me.
Her nearest rival, Jack Kennedy, won four over the course of this week’s Cheltenham Festival
‘My mum thought I was nuts. I stopped telling people about it because they would just laugh or say I had no chance. Girls in racing, if they’re looking at me and thinking, ‘I want to do that’ — well, go and do it then. Do what you have to do.’
One senses that would be Blackmore’s attitude, too, and all most women would want. Not to be made special or elevated, just to be given the same opportunity as men.
Isn’t that what was being demanded on Clapham Common last week? The right to walk the same streets, keep the same hours, to not be locked away, in effect curfewed?
Lizzie Kelly lauded Blackmore’s achievement after Tuesday’s win on Honeysuckle
It shouldn’t be inspiring to see women at the pinnacle of equine sports, but it is.
Just as it matters that Reanne Evans and Ng On-yee have been given professional tour cards in snooker, that Lisa Ashton is making an impression in darts.
In all the sports that men and women aren’t plainly separated by physical characteristics, the pioneers do matter, however impatient they may be for the clamour to end. Just don’t call them that. Call them jockeys, call them players.
One day soon, that is all they will be.
It shouldn’t be inspiring to see women at the pinnacle of equine sports, but it is