Despite the fact that research shows that female jockeys are just as likely to win as their male counterparts when given decent rides, horse racing remains a male-dominated industry. When said research was carried out, it was revealed that only one in every 100 top-level rides was given to a female jockey, looking across 14 seasons and both jump and flat racing events.
It is perhaps little wonder, then, that certain female jockeys are held in high esteem by those that have come after them. A virtually direct line can be drawn from Charlotte Brew, the first female jockey to take part in the Grand National in 1977, through to Rachael Blackmore, who was the first female jockey to win the event in 2021. Here’s a look at some of the pioneers of female racing and the stories that made them famous.
Female jockeys have long struggled to get rides, so it is far from a modern phenomenon. In spite of the fact that the first competitive race that is still run today took place in 1519 and that there is evidence of horse racing taking place during Roman times, it wasn’t until 1972 that a women won a race under Jockey Club rules. Meriel Tufnell was the lady in question, having been born in Winchester in 1948 to a prominent family.
Even though Tufnell had been born with dislocated hips and suffered from childhood asthma, she rode in gymkhanas and later took part in British showjumping events. Then, on the sixth of May in 1972, Kempton Park played host to the first ever ladies’ flat race that was run under Jockey Club rules. It was the Goya Stakes, with Tufnell entering to take part with her mother’s novice mare, named Scorched Earth.
Neither Tufnell nor the horse had taken part in in a proper race previous to the Goya Stakes, yet she took her to victory and wrote both of their names into the record books. She would go on to race another seven times, winning on three occasions. Tufnell continued to race competitively until 1974, being one of the women to take part in the sport’s first ever mixed race, as well as founding the Lady Jockeys’ Association of Great Britain.
What Meriel Tufnel did for female jockeys in the United Kingdom, Diane Crump did for them in the United States of America. Born in Connecticut in 1948, Crump began taking riding lessons as a 13-year-old after her family had moved to Florida. It was in 1969 when she truly made a name for herself, however, taking part in a pari-mutuel race at Hialeah Park Race Track and becoming the first women to do so in the process.
It’s virtually unthinkable today, but her presence in the race was such a controversy that Crump had to be given a police escort to the track. Such was the hostility towards a woman taking part in a race, people turned up to shout missives such as ‘Go back to the kitchen and cook dinner’ at her as she made her way to her horse. In her own words, the people thought that she would be ‘the downfall of the whole sport’.
Two years before, women had been forced to pull out of races when male jockeys threw rocks at their trailer and threatened to boycott events. Things were only different at Hialeah Park because race organisers threatened sanctions against male jockeys if something similar occurred. She finished ninth on Bridle ’n Bit, but continued making history when she became the first female jockey to take part in the Kentucky Derby in 1970.
Part of the reason why so few women took part in horse racing events in the United Kingdom was that there was nothing in the law saying that they were allowed to. It took until the passing of 1975’s Sex Discrimination Act for things to change, with another two years needed before Charlotte Brew became the first woman to ride in the Grand National at Aintree Racecourse, which is located on the outskirts of Liverpool.
Brew rode her own horse, Bryony Fort, who was able to participate in the Grand National thanks to the fact that it had finished fourth in Aintree Racecourse’s Foxhunters’ Chase in 1976. The pair got to the 27th fence, at which point Bryony Fort refused and Brew was unable to complete the race. Regardless, she made history by becoming the first women to even take part in the race, paving the way for others to follow.
The path laid out by Brew was followed by others, with Geraldine Rees being the first female jockey to actually complete the Grand National course when she took part in the race in 1982. Brew had received the Bryony Fort as a gift from her parents for her 18th birthday, learning to ride it and entering the race as a 21-year-old. She was only just out of boarding school at the time and was given her own changing room to get ready for the race.
The name of Gee Armytage is one that will forever go down in Cheltenham Festival folklore, on account of the fact that she was the first female jockey to win a race at the meeting when up against professional jockeys. She achieved the feat in 1987, partnering the Nigel Tinkler-trained The Ellier on her way to victory in what was then called the Kim Muir Challenge Cup, with the name of Fulke Walwyn added to the race title in later years.
Then aged 21, Armytage went on to win the Mildmay of Flete Challenge Cup in the same year, before the race was renamed as the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate. She won that race on the back of Gee-A, a horse that she would enter the Grand National with in 1988. Remarkably, she only missed out on winning the Leading Jockey award at the 1987 Cheltenham Festival on count back.
Not that there’s any shame in anyone missing out to Peter Scudamore, the Champion Jockey who won on account of having ridder more second and third-place horses than Armytage. In some ways, there’s no surprise that Armytage did as well as she did as a jockey, being the daughter of the National Hunt trainer Roddy Armytage and the brother of Marcus, who won the Grand National as an amateur. As a rider, she partnered 100 winners during her career.
If the name of Gee Armytage doesn’t ring a bell for you in terms of the first woman jockey to ride a winner during the Cheltenham Festival, perhaps that is because the honour actually belongs to Caroline Beasley. The difference is that Beasley rode her own horse, Eliogarty, to victory in the Foxhunter Chase in 1983 as an amateur. The race, which is now known as the St. James’ Place Festival Foxhunter Chase, is only for amateurs riders.
That’s what set Armytage apart, the fact that she won a race against professional jockeys rather than fellow amateurs. Not that that fact in any way diminishes the achievement of Beasley, of course. The jockey, who later became Caroline Robinson, went on to become a pioneer for women in the sport when she guided Eliogarty to victory in the Fox Hunters’ Chase at Aintree three years later.
In the years that followed her racing career, Beasley went on to become a leading point-to-point trainer and breeder, basing herself in Shropshire. Beasley’s two daughters, Immy and Kitty, would themselves follow in their mother’s footsteps and become successful amateur jockeys. It is the path laid out by Caroline Beasley that made that possible, though, with Cheltenham never having been the same since.
A year after Caroline Beasley had made history by winning the Foxhunter Chase, it was the turn of Linda Sheedy to write her name in the history books. In 1984, Sheedy became the first ever female jockey to take part in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, riding a horse named Foxbury in order to do so. If you want a sense of how big an achievement that was, it wouldn’t be repeated for 33 years when Lizzie Kelly emulated it.
Sheedy, who was often referred to as ‘the Welsh housewife’ in newspaper reports at the time, became just the third woman to take part in the Grand National when she rode Deiopea in 1981, failing to complete the course when the horse refused. One bookmaker at the time had offered odds of 8/1 for Sheedy and her horse to fail to make it past the third fence, showing how little female jockeys were respected at the time.
To give an indication of how much female jockeys were willing to put themselves through in order to match up with their male counterparts, Sheedy only retired in 1986 after breaking her neck in a point-to-point race. She moved to a farm in 2002 after remarrying, eventually passing away in 2010 at the age of just 57. Even so, her work in progressing the course of female jockeys was complete.
Nowadays, it is virtually impossible to turn on a sporting event other other football, cricket and tennis and not be greeted by the sight of Clare Balding presenting. She’s earned the right to do so, however, thanks to her achievements on the back of a horse. She was privately educated at Downe House School in Berkshire, but the fact that she came from a horse racing family meant that there was really only one career she was likely to take up.
Between 1988 and 1993, Clare Balding was the leading amateur flat racing jockey, becoming the Champion Lady Rider in 1990. Ian Balding, Clare’s father, has trained the winner of the 1971 Derby, whilst her brother Andrew was the trainer of the 2003 Epsom Oaks. Her uncle Tony, meanwhile, trained winners in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Grand National and the Champion Hurdle, it’s fair to say horse racing is in the blood.
Clare Balding went on to become a brilliant broadcaster, working for the BBC at Olympic Games in Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo. Her aristocratic lineage means that she’s well-placed to cover events such as the Lord Mayor’s Show, the Trooping Of The Colour and the Boat Race, but none of it would have been possible if not for her trailblazing achievements on the back of countless horses.
If you’re talking about trailblazing female jockeys performing in a way that actively leads to something, it’s impossible not to finish the current journey by talking about Rachael Blackmore. Born in Killenaule, County Tipperary in July of 1989, Blackmore is the daughter of a teacher and a farmer and started riding horses at an early age. She went to the University of Limerick and gained a degree in equine science, competing as an amateur jockey at the time.
Her first win as an amateur jockey came in February of 2011 and she turned professional a little over four years later. That came on the back of winning 11 point-to-point races as well as seven winners as an amateur rider. She began truly making history in 2017 when she became the first female to win the Conditional Riders’ Championship in her native Ireland, but it’s something of an understatement to say that more was to follow.
She enjoyed her first run in the Grand National in Alpha des Obeaux, falling at the 15th. Blackmore won at the Cheltenham Festival for the first time a year later, leading A Plus Tard to victory in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase. That gave her something of a taste for the meeting, winning her first Grade 1 event in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle the same year. It was 2021 that Blackmore made history, though.
Her first noteworthy achievement came when she became the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle, adding another five winners across the four days of the Cheltenham Festival in order to take the Ruby Walsh Trophy for the Leading Jockey at the event, again being the first woman to do so. More history was made on the 10th of April, however, when Blackmore and Minella Times won the Grand National, writing her name in the record books as the first female jockey to win the ‘World’s Greatest Steeplechase’.