Royal Ascot is here. A quintessentially British festival that is almost as well known for glitz, glamour and fashion as it is for racing.
Yet whilst the media will report and rank the outfits worn by female attendees at the festival, from the chic to the garish, the most significant ensemble could yet be worn by one of jockey pair Nicola Currie and Hollie Doyle.
For, if one of them do land a victory, they will, barring a minor miracle on the opening day, become the first female jockey to do so at Royal Ascot since Gay Kelleway won the Queen Alexandra Stakes on Sprowston Boy in 1987. Shockingly, Kelleway’s victory is the only one achieved by a woman in Royal Ascot history.
When searching for answers as to how such a remarkable statistic could come to pass, it is difficult to to avoid the inescapable truth that it ultimately appears to be through a blatant lack of opportunity. In the intervening years since ’87, 115 rides have been awarded to women at the festival, an average of just 3.7 per year. With a mean starting price higher than 40/1, a clear picture begins to form.
Even during this week’s festival, 32 years later, Doyle and Currie represent the first realistic hopes of female victory in the 8th and 11th races respectively and on the second day. In fact, of the 211 declared rides on the first two days, only seven have been given to women, just 3.3% of the total.
Of those seven rides, Doyle (Nate The Great – 12/1) in the Queen’s Vase and Currie (Raising Sand – 11/1) in the Royal Hunt Cup are the only credible chances of victory with the other five horses (Yabass – 40/1, Applecross – 40/1, Emten – 50/1, Taxiwala – 22/1 and Paper Star – 100/1) all significant outsiders. The average price of the entire group is 40/1.
So why are female jockeys facing such a restriction of opportunities at Royal Ascot? Kelleway, the outlier, said in a 2015 Daily Mail interview;
“You can’t tell me that we are not surrounded by prejudice. You hear people say that a jockey rides well but they also say she rides well for a girl. And you don’t see the big Arab owners queuing up to put woman riders up. There is still a barrier. It’s not a big deal to see four races a day at an ordinary meeting being won by girls but Royal Ascot is different.”
The assertion that women are enjoying success at other meetings doesn’t appear to be wide of the mark. In 2018 a University of Liverpool study found that there was minimal difference in terms of overall performance between women and men. Yet the study, taken over a 14-year period and factoring in 1.25 million races, also revealed that just 11.3% of professional jockey licenses and 5.2% of available rides are accounted for by women.
It also indicated that that there is a massive discrepancy in the quality of the rides handed out, with women making up 1.1% of rides in Class 1 flat races versus 10% in Class 6 and equivalent numbers of 0.8% and 5.4% in the jumps. In response to the study, jockey Gemma Tutty said;
“There are trainers who, point blank, do not use female jockeys. Before we’ve even had a ride we’re at a disadvantage because there are less trainers willing to use us.”
It is a phenomenon that makes little sense. Horse racing is one of the few sports where men and women are able to compete against one another on a completely level footing with physical differences between the genders irrelevant. So you might assume that encouraging female represenation amongst the jockeys would allow the horse racing authorities to commercially appeal to both sexes, at a time when meeting attendances have been dwindling.
You also can’t argue that it is due to a lack of women attempting to enter the sport, as the study also revealed that women make up a small majority (51%) of stable staff, ruling out participation as grass roots level as a cause.
The lack of opportunities given to women at Royal Ascot looks particularly bad with the event running in tandem with the Women’s World Cup, an event that can be viewed as a triumphant example of a traditionally male-dominated sport attempting to grow, develop and publicise female participation.
With an apparent hesitance to follow suit, it appears that women will have a wait before significant strides are made towards parity. However, a win for Hollie Doyle or Nicola Currie on the second day of Royal Ascot would be a welcome start.