Women's Racing in the Clarence
This exhibition explores the important position women hold in Clarence Valley horse racing.
As little as 50 years ago women were seen as little more than ornaments in the racing industry, their roles limited to “Fashions on the Field” type events. They couldn’t race or train horses, place a bet, become members or even enter the ‘sacred’ Members’ enclosures at tracks around Australia. In such a male dominated industry Michelle Payne’s victory on Prince of Penzance in the 2015 Melbourne Cup raised the public’s awareness of the quality and ability of female jockeys. Her task was still not easy but her predecessors helped pave the way to make it possible.
The list of pioneering female jockeys is not long, but the height of the hurdles they had to jump was imposing, making their success that much more admirable. The first recognised Australian female jockey was Wilhemena Smith, although those around her were unaware of it at the time. Riding in North Queensland in the 40’s and 50’s she rode under the name of Bill Smith, having to disguise herself as a man to avoid the ban on female jockeys. Although suspected, she managed to conceal her gender from the racing industry until her death at the age of 88.
Pam O'Neil (Queensland) and Julie York (Coffs Harbour) were the first Australian women to be licenced to ride in official country NSW meetings and that wasn’t until 1979. Five years later there were still only six women licensed to ride by the Northern Rivers Racing Association. This included Grafton women Julie Shephard, Jackie Bennett and Beverly Want. Other women involved at the time were Melaine Dougherty (formerly Meers), Donna Dodson, Denise Wright, Jenny Austin, Lyn Thompson and Theresa Mills. Unfortunately the scope of this exhibition doesn’t allow a complete list of the women who helped to break into the industry but the female jockeys of today owe them their thanks.
Prior to licenses being granted the only options for a female jockey were to compete in ‘exhibition’, ‘novelty’ or ‘Ladies Only’ races – an insult to many female jockeys who rode as well, if not better, than their male counterparts. Acceptance was slow in coming but the increasing numbers of women jockeys across Australia provides confirmation that the hard yards put in over the years for equality is slowly paying off. At present, in some regions of Australia, nearly half of the apprentice jockey intakes are women.
It wasn’t only in the saddle that women have made an impact in the racing industry. More work has been done by women behind the scenes than is generally known. Trainers, owners, administration staff, track riders, strappers etc. have all been positions filled by women although it wasn’t until the late 60’s that restrictions against women trainers were lifted. Quite hard to believe given the success and recognition that Gai Waterhouse has received in recent times.
This exhibition pays tribute to the women of racing, both past and present, that have contributed to making it not only the sport of Kings, but now of Queens as well.
Image credit: Julie Hutchings - The Top Weight 2017