Michelle Payne’s Melbourne Cup win a wonderful boost for females in the racing game

Great carnival, historic Cup.

The Melbourne Cup epitomises the great Aussie spirit of supporting the underdog and none more so than this year.

Nowhere else in the world is a handicap elevated to the status of Australia’s greatest race. By being a handicap, in theory, every runner is given the ‘same’ chance to win.

Nowhere else in the world is there a public holiday in the home state of a horse race (and putative holiday everywhere else in the country!)
The 2015 Melbourne is historic. It is the first time such a long-priced outsider has won. And then there is Michelle Payne’s win as the first female jockey ever. This victory has been a wonderful boost for women and racing in general, at a time when we need some help. Thank you, Michelle.

It was also a great win for the local horses, against the overseas hordes of raiders. Country-based Darren Weir presents as the classic Aussie battler. He actually has Australia’s biggest stable with an incredible 2006 starters‎ in the past 12 months, while Chris Waller had 1733 and Gai Waterhouse 788. He excels at training for distance races. Good on you, Darren.
And Payne is a breath of fresh air with her outgoing personality and positive attitude. My wife Gai had the pleasure of having Michelle spend 10 days working with her in August. Michelle had just enjoyed a six-week holiday in the US and wanted to spend some time in Sydney on the way home, visiting her sister Cathy and brother-in-law Kerrin McEvoy. Michelle told Gai she wanted to ride horses to get a bit fitter before returning to Victoria. No doubt she was also keen to learn how Gai did things training-wise, as she will take out a joint trainer/jockey licence when they are allowed next year. A good idea.
Gai had Michelle on gallops, canters, trots and jumping over cavallettis. She never stopped and Gai was very admiring of her attitude.

And Gai, not that Michelle needed any help, also made some constructive tips for her riding: “Tuck your elbows in; pivot yourself more forward.” Michelle was gracious and said she found the advice helpful.

Loyalty or Best Person for the Ride?

In her public comments, Michelle said she feels fortunate that connections didn’t take her off the mount, replacing her with another rider. She naturally feels that would have been wrong.

I can understand her attitude and am happy she puts it down to ‘loyalty’ but I believe she was given the ride because the trainer considered her the best jockey in the context of her experience and skill with the horse. Of course, generally if connections do change riders, it means they think that jockey would give their horse the best chance. After all, jockeys are ‘hired guns’ fully remunerated for each ride and they usually just want to ride the best horse. For example, if Michelle had been asked to ride the Cup favourite rather than the 100/1 chance Prince Of Penzance, one would understand if she had considered switching.

Female activism

An Opinion Page writer, Eric Dyrenfurth, in our sister paper ‎The Age, wrote last week before Michelle’s win: “Gender discrimination against female jockeys is rife.” He praised Darren Weir for his loyalty to Ms Payne.

But I don’t believe it is ‘gender discrimination’. Normally connections just want the best rider available.

Interestingly, female apprentices with their three-kilo allowances, are preferred by the connections to the male claimers, but few females are as popular when they become senior riders.

This fact is supported by the statistics. The results show that while female apprentices are invariably a bonus for their rides (and more so than males), once they lose this allowance the senior female riders, as a group, are invariably a small debit on my figures. The stats don’t lie.

Slightly poorer results for the female riders are not surprising. Outside of horse sports, is there any competitive sport where women can compete on an even playing field with men? Worryingly, it must be said, while female jockeys ride only 10 per cent of mounts (trackwork is more equal), they make up 50 per cent of fatalities..

At any rate, good on Michelle. She made history and completed the fairy tale of the long shot winning our most famous race.

Her incredible win will be life changing and obtaining the combined jockey/trainer brief is a great idea. Go Michelle!

The Sydney Morning Herald: November 6th, 2015

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