Today’s article is about an issue that will definitely not engender intense debate and cause arguments! I elected to write about this topic because I felt as if we need harmony in the UK in the midst of the Brexit chaos. In all seriousness, I have heard fellow punters openly exclaim that they never back a horse with a female jockey.
Indeed, the dismissiveness of female jockeys goes right into the heart of the sport. According to jockey Gemma Tutty, certain trainers outright refuse to hire female riders. The percentage of female jockeys rose slightly from 2009-2012, but by 2015, they reverted to the pre-2009 level. For the record, 2012 saw the highest percentage of female riders at 8%, but by 2015, it had fallen to 6.2%.
In February 2017, the French racing authority announced a 4.4-pound weight allowance for female jockeys. It caused trainer Gay Kelleway to publicly state that women would take the opportunities available in France because trainers there seem to like hiring British riders, regardless of their gender. Since then, the number of female jockeys in France has more than doubled, along with a 165% increase in female winners in under a year.
In another shocking statistic from 2015, 17.5% of British trainers had zero female riders in the entire year! Another 50% had 1-9 rides with a woman onboard, while only 7.8% had 50+ female riders. Another damning stat from 2015 showed that despite comprising 6.2% of riders, female jockeys only rode 3.1% of favourites. In other words, women don’t get the best horses.
Hayley Turner is regarded as one of the best female jockeys yet since the beginning of 2014, only 8.15% of the horses she rode were the betting favourite. Perhaps more pertinently, only 49.15% of the horses she rode were in the top 5 in the betting market. Remember, approximately 85% of winners come from the top 5 in the market. Turner is already at a significant disadvantage.
In the meantime, Adam Kirby has had over three times as many rides as Turner. Almost 14% of his rides were the favourite, and 67.6% of his rides have been in the top 5 in the betting market.
Yeah, But Girl Jockeys Are Inferior, Right?
Not according to a detailed study conducted by the Thoroughbred Horseracing Industries MBA at the University of Liverpool. This was no slapdash study. It involved the use of detailed data analysis techniques over a period of 14 years.
The crucial conclusion was this: Female jockeys are effectively the same as their male counterparts once the quality of the horses ridden was taken into consideration. Overall, the data covered an incredible 1.25 million rides as no stone was left unturned. For the record, the period covered was between 2003 and 2016.
Vanessa Cashmore led the research team and focused on a comparison of female and male jockeys riding horses with the same racecard number. On the Flat, their performance was almost the same except for numbers 3, 4, and 5. In National Hunt races, performance was almost identical barring number 15.
According to Cashmore, when you look at the spread across cloth numbers in handicap races, there was a major skew toward lower numbers with female riders. Basically, women are on horses with a lower chance of winning.
The study discovered that only 5.2% of available rides were taken by female jockeys; 6.5% in Flat races and just 2.9% in Jumps. Another important discovery was that 10% of riders in Class 6 races and 9.3% of riders in Class 7 races were female. In comparison, only 1.1% of rides in Class 1 races had a female jockey.
It isn’t a question of women being less likely to ride horses either. 11.3% of professional licenses are held by women, and according to the British Equestrian Trade Association, almost three-quarters of ‘pleasure’ riders are female.
Interestingly, over half of all stable staff are female. It is clear that women have a major interest in horse riding. If they are effectively as skilful as their male counterparts, is it a case of good old-fashioned sexism?
There is a suggestion that women are less reliable in pressure situations in horse racing. However, jockeys such as Hayley Turner and Josephine Gordon routinely outperform the likes of Silvestre de Sousa, Joe Fanning, and Adam Kirby in so-called ‘tight’ finishes.
Why Is This Happening?
Physiologically at least, women are smaller and lighter than men on average. In Flat racing in particular, where horses may carry little more than eight stone on occasion, it should be theoretically easier to find female riders. Some would argue that because horses in lower class races carry less weight, it is the primary reason why more females are chosen in Class 6 and 7 races.
Indeed, I opened a Class 6 All-Weather race at random on the day I wrote this and three of the nine horses had female riders. Yet this doesn’t begin to explain why female riders have such a hard time getting better class horses when data shows little or no difference between them and their male rivals concerning performance.
If you listen to female riders, who, after all, have experience in the sport, it is usually down to chauvinism on behalf of trainers. Back in January 2016, Lizzie Kelly pulled no punches in an interview with the Telegraph. She said that the “subconscious idea of females being the ones who should be at home, looking after the children, is part of our make-up.”
Kelly is a National Hunt jockey and has ridden just over 300 horses since the time of that interview. Incidentally, backing all of her horses would earn a profit of over 5%, despite a win rate of 12.86%. In contrast, Richard Johnson has ridden in over 3,000 races in the same timeframe.
Johnson’s win rate is almost 20%, significantly higher than Kelly’s. Then again, over 25% of Johnson’s rides were the clear favourite, and 85.76% have been in the top 5 of the betting market. In contrast, only 11.9% of Kelly’s rides were favourites, and 70% were in the top 5 of the betting market.
You could claim the mere fact that a horse has a female rider causes the odds to drift. However, the A/E for Kelly and Johnson’s rides in the top 5 of the betting market was 0.85 and 0.86 respectively. In other words, you get more or less the same value for both riders.
The results from the University of Liverpool study appear to confirm what many in the industry already believe: Female jockeys are the equal of their male counterparts. Women receive less than half the rides they should (according to data on licenses), and typically ride lower quality horses.
There is little or no evidence that male jockeys are superior in tight races, yet UK trainers at least, appear to have a reluctance to choose women to ride their horses. Given all that we now know about the performance of female riders against the number of opportunities they receive, can we now safely say that horse racing is guilty of sexism? Have your say in the comments section, but please keep it respectful!