Female jockeys in South Africa are to get a permanent 1.5kg allowance from the start of the new season on 1 August.
This hand grenade was lobbed into the racing world at the weekend, courtesy of a directive from the National Horseracing Authority, the controlling body of the game.
The allowance will apply to all events apart from black-type and sales races.
At present there is only one female jockey working in the country, Rachel Venniker, who is certain to be crowned the 2021/22 champion apprentice in a fortnight’s time. Currently, Venniker has no allowance as she has ridden more than 50 winners. So, on 1 August she will be handed back the 1.5kg advantage she shed some months ago – and possibly keep it for the rest of her career.
Apprentices start out with a 4kg weight concession on all mounts, which is reduced to 2.5kg after 20 wins, 1.5kg after 40 wins and zero after 50.
Predictably, there has been a mixed response to this news. Equally predictably, talk about woke-ism and gender identity is seeping into the debate.
One side of the opinion spectrum maintains that equestrianism is among the few sports where women can compete equally with men – and have done for decades, in eventing, showjumping and racing.
The opposing view that women are physically weaker than men, get muscled out of the game and need encouragement to stay in the saddle to achieve a better gender balance in an industry in dire need of a better image.
Officialdom has gone with the latter argument and will no doubt point to the situation in France, where a gender allowance in the past few years has notably boosted the number of female riders – and winners. Official body France Galop recently reviewed this issue and reduced the “permanent” allowance from 2kg to 1.5kg.
However, all other major racing countries, such as the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, don’t have this rule – and are producing growing numbers of high-quality female jockeys, if not as quickly as France.
Hayley Turner in the UK is aiming for 1,000 career victories and has been honoured with an OBE, while compatriot Hollie Doyle is following hard in her footsteps and has become one of the most sought-after riders in the world.
In jumps racing, Rachael Blackmore is rewriting the history books – not least with a Grand National victory in 2021.
Commenting on this momentous moment in a notoriously rough-and-tough code, Doyle said: “I wasn’t surprised because I think she’s just as good, if not better, than all the lads. But I just felt a sense of relief, because there’s so much conversation about whether women are as good as men and all this. But then Rachael Blackmore’s just won the Grand National, so there’s your answer.”
In Australia, Michelle Payne won a Melbourne Cup, in the US Julie Krone won a Belmont Stakes and New Zealand is nearing parity in the jockey/gender equation.
All these women have become superstars of the irons without any help from an allowance.
The other side of the coin is France’s Mickaelle Michel, who is also making world headlines – and serving as an inspiration for hundreds of her countrywomen who want to get into racing.
South Africa has had a few talented female jockeys over the years, notably glass ceiling-smasher Genevieve Michel, in the 1980s the first girl to graduate from the SA Jockey Academy. Lisa Prestwood served her apprenticeship in New Zealand before returning home to become the first woman to win a Grade 1 race – on Al Nitak, trained by the late Buddy Maroun.
Famously, Al Nitak was a nasty piece of work who other jockeys shied away from, but Prestwood could get relaxed and get the best out of.
The argument stemming from such a situation is that women have “soft hands” and a quieter persuasiveness than men, which makes up for their relative lack of muscle power – and, indeed, gives them an advantage in some cases. In which case, do they need an allowance? What about older male jockeys losing their physical powers – should they get an age allowance?
We know instinctively there’ll never be consensus answers to such questions.
Women who have made a go of race riding in South Africa have mostly had to retire due to injury. Many promising apprentices drop out when they lose their allowance and trainers lose interest in their services.
An economic study by American professors in 2021 came to the conclusion that “all things being equal” a female jockey is just as likely to win a race as a male. The authors conceded the “all things being equal” contained a little guesswork as only 12% of jockeys in the US are female and they tend to ride lower-grade horses. Directly comparative samples are non-existent.
They looked at race results between 2016 and 2018 and determined that men were likely to win on 13% of their rides and women 10.5%. However, trainers and owners admitted they were more likely to engage males than females on good horses due to perceptions that men were stronger and more likely to prevail in a close finish.
Some might call that prejudice, others simple reality.