Fashion and stereotypes collide in Ladies Day hoopla
Yesterday was Ladies' Day at Cheltenham: fashion, frocks (and furs), and a female winner in the last race as Katie Walsh landed the bumper. But what does a day for "ladies" represent in 2018? Is there a dissonance in a sport where some women win the major prizes while other women are invited to consider that their presence ought to be decorative? Is the idea an anachronism: does it imply that women cannot or should not enjoy the sport on other days?
"Girls love to dress up, to peacock," said Cheltenham spokesperson Sophia Dale. "More women come to Ladies' Day than the other days, and we had a record 58,932 people here today. Overall, the gender split of our patrons is 60-40 in favour of men, but that's not at all bad compared to some sports. We don't really see a connection between having a Ladies' Day for racegoers and the female competitors as such."
Fair enough. But as BBC Radio Five Live presenter Gina Harding said: "There was a study done at the University of Liverpool which looked at a million races over 14 seasons and found that women riders perform no better or worse than men, but nevertheless only one in 100 rides in top races go to women. So that is a story about a lack of opportunity at the highest level."
The mood in many quarters these days is "this girl can", not "this girl can wear a nice dress".
Alice Plunkett, who is on the Board at Cheltenham, said: "The focus is on women and society, no doubt, but Ladies' Day is a celebration of women, be it wearing beautiful clothes, or being a jockey like Katie Walsh (right) or a broadcaster. We all love Cheltenham for different reasons."
Those saddling the horses rather than riding them are certainly setting a fine example. The current champions of jump-racing's two most storied races are both trained by women: Lucinda Russell with the Grand National winner One For Arthur, Jessica Harrington with the Gold Cup hero Sizing John. It compares favourably with other sports in terms of women at the top: racing could quite reasonably ask how many Premier League teams are within a country mile of even considering a woman manager.
By the same token, the gender pay gap at the Jockey Club is three per cent (mean figure), the Football Association is 23 per cent and the Lawn Tennis Association is 31 per cent. Many other sectors of society have pressing cases about equality or discrimination to answer.
Not unreasonably, some women jockeys are growing weary of being asked about being women jockeys, as opposed to being just jockeys, and it must feel sometimes like an extra 10-pound burden in the saddle. Trailblazing does burn a lot of fuel.
And warmth was at a premium on a surprisingly chilly day: trade was brisk in the boutiques and hat shops of the shopping village.
Aoife Hannon, a milliner working with Laland and Bo tweed, said: "When you're not warm enough you don't look well. We are seeing lots of tweed and fur. I'd say the crowd looks a little younger this year. And where you draw young women, soon enough young men will follow."
On the one hand, if people can be brought in through the gates by horses, hats or whatever other hoopla, then good for the sport.
On the other, does it not seem terribly old-fashioned when you get press releases about surveys where "2,000 women picked their 'winners' by Royal connections or a horse with a Royal name, or the colour of the jockey's silk"? Did they pick them with a special pink delicate lady pencil? This data would appear to suggest that they have asked 2,000 idiots, not 2,000 women.
Jessica Rowles Nicholson, of Jessica Mary Designs, makes hats from repurposed vintage materials, very smart, very classic. She said: "We don't pay much attention to fashions, we stay blinkered I suppose. If something is beautiful it stays beautiful. We don't really do trend."
Not everything feels obliged to move to the latest beat. (© Daily Telegraph, London)