Saturday 24 September 2016

Sexism a complex issue but Payne entitled to speak out

Published 09/11/2015 | 02:30

Michelle Payne acknowledges the crowds at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne after her historic Melbourne Cup win on Prince of Penzance
Michelle Payne acknowledges the crowds at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne after her historic Melbourne Cup win on Prince of Penzance

Michelle Payne certainly got people's attention after her historic Melbourne Cup success on Prince Of Penzance.

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"It's such a chauvinistic sport," she boomed. "I want to say to everyone else, get stuffed, because they think women aren't strong enough but we just beat the world!"

You'd think that sexism in racing would have been the debate that followed. It was and it wasn't.

Some discussed the issue, others shifted the focus onto the timing or appropriateness of Payne's statement. Clearly, the number of women jockeys competing at a high level is small, given that it is a sport in which men and women can in theory compete as equals.

However, being a jockey is an inherently dangerous job, one that I would never encourage any of my three daughters to pursue. That's rich, I know, from someone who left home at 15 to follow the dream, but there it is. They will doubtless do what they want anyway.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Jessica Charles Jones and Sharon Murgatroyd, who died last year, were paralysed in racing falls; Venetia Williams broke her neck and Gee Armytage her back. Jayne Thompson suffered fatal head injuries in a 1986 fall. It is an attritional, punishing sport. It is as dangerous for men as for women - we are frequently reminded of that - but it is a minority sport for females. Notwithstanding the complexity of the issue, there is an element of a lifestyle choice at play.

Figures suggest that between 33pc and 50pc of stable staff and apprentice school entrants in major racing nations are female. When it comes to acquiring licences to ride and persisting with the vocation, though, the numbers drop.

The reasons for that are myriad, and a hint of sexism will be a factor, maybe more so than in other walks of life and maybe there is a subtle, early vicious circle-like dissuasion at play. But it can be done.

Distinguished

On Saturday, Hayley Turner retired after a distinguished career. She was the first female rider to partner 100 winners in a calendar year and the first to be crowned champion apprentice in England. Cathy Gannon had previously won the apprentices' title here and continues to eke out a fine career. They are shining examples of what can be achieved by women riders without a background in the sport.

Generally speaking, because of the risks, the majority of successful women riders are born into the game. It's in their genes. It's their life. Nina Carberry, Katie Walsh and Jane Mangan are prime examples of that, and each has come out recently to vouch that Irish racing doesn't suffer from the chauvinism that Payne (below) alluded to in Australia.

There is an element of, well, they would say that, wouldn't they? They come from rich racing stock, as do the likes of Ana and Sarah O'Brien, Kate Harrington, Liz Lalor, Maxine O'Sullivan, Laura Hourigan, Lizzie Kelly and Lucy Alexander, who emulated Turner and Gannon by topping the conditional jockeys' pile in 2013. They start in an undeniable position of privilege, but such is life.

Like Joanna Morgan before them or Julie Krone in the States, what Carberry, Walsh, Gannon and Turner have done is reiterate that, if a female rider is sufficiently talented and committed, the opportunities are there for them to excel, though you couldn't say with any conviction that they exist in an especially level playing field. While Carberry and Walsh have ridden Irish Grand National and Cheltenham Festival winners as amateurs, the prospect of competing daily for rides on a pound-for-pound basis with the best men would have been a deterrent to them turning pro. No elite jumps Grade One has ever been won by a female rider, a bridge that Lizzie Kelly so nearly crossed aboard Aubusson at Auteuil on Saturday. She was foiled by a nose on the line by the Ruby Walsh-ridden Thousand Stars. It was a galling near miss, but Kelly lost nothing in defeat. Rachel Blackmore is the first female professional jump jockey that Ireland has produced in aeons. Like Gannon, she has no racing pedigree and she is making an early impact.

So, while female pros in this part of the world remain few, their exploits are becoming more prolific. If that were due to meritocracy, the implication would be that women are evolving into better riders. That is no more true than it is for men, but the racing and wider worlds are evolving into more equal places.

Born into a racing family, Payne has devoted her professional life to her vocation and was entitled to air her views when she had a platform to do so. This isn't some fly-by-night looking for attention. She is a skilled professional who is immersed in the industry in Australia, and, in her crowning moment, felt compelled to speak out against what she perceived to be institutional chauvinism. That compulsion is worthy of respect. It wasn't the act of a bitter individual lost on the periphery. Quite the opposite; it was an act of defiance. She earned the right to be heard and seized her moment.

While not for a minute suggesting that they are borne of discrimination of equal magnitude, think of Tommie Smith and John Carlos's Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, or even Davy Russell's strident defence of Brian O'Connell at Cheltenham in 2010. Russell, whose dignified and ultimately emphatic response to his sacking by Michael O'Leary remains the definitive template for any jockey who has been the victim of a perceived slight, vented his fury live on Channel 4 after winning aboard Weapons Amnesty.

Russell knows that there is a time to keep schtum and a time to speak out, and he was roundly applauded for doing so on that occasion. That is why it was regrettable to see Payne castigated for her straight talking. If chauvinism has defined her racing life, she had a moral obligation to speak out.

Instead of applauding her courage, she was patronised for not keeping her disruptive opinions to herself. As racing writer Rory Delargy observed on Twitter with a nod to Emily Davison and with his tongue in cheek: "Suffrage is fine, but don't spoil the Derby, love!"

We spend enough time bemoaning the dull, monosyllabic, inoffensive victory speeches that now blight the world of sport. There was nothing bland or anodyne about Payne's charged contribution. People are entitled to disagree with her, but you can't advocate free speech only to condemn someone for having the courage to start the debate.

Chasing stars back in the fold

Coneygree's odds for Hennessy Gold Cup glory were trimmed to 9/2 after he danced up at 1/4 on his Sandown reappearance yesterday.

Mark Bradstock's Gold Cup hero ran his two inferior rivals ragged for Nico De Boinville. In a thriller over hurdles at Aintree a day earlier, the De Boinville-ridden 2013 Gold Cup victor Bobs Worth denied Simonsig on its comeback. The lack of a run and a longer trip on soft ground found out Simonsig. He could be an intriguing Tingle Creek contender over two miles, likewise a rejuvenated Bobs Worth in the Hennessy.

Tweet of the weekend

Katie Walsh (@katiewalsh9)

Thousand Stars... Need I say any more!!

Hardly. Willie Mullins's redoubtable 11-year-old grey prompted this offering from his 2010 County Hurdle-winning rider after his fourth Grade One win.

Numbers Game

100k Takings from the Robbie McNamara/Injured Jockeys fundraiser at Limerick, with the top auction lot being a €10k round of K Club golf with AP McCoy and John Francome.

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