For many years being a jockey was strictly a male-only profession. Although women were free to spectate or to ride a horse in a casual capacity, they could not compete at a competitive level. Thankfully, this is no longer the case and women are an increasingly important part of modern-day professional horse racing. Although they do remain significantly underrepresented, it is hoped that an increasing number of successful role models may bring more parity in the years to come.
In recent years, we have already seen many incredibly talented female jockeys that have proven to be just as good as their male counterparts. As well as looking at the leading talents and rising stars across flat and National Hunt racing, in this article we will also highlight the biggest names that have retired from the sport.
The Rise of Female Jockeys
Before we get into looking at modern-day talents, it is worth looking at just how far the situation with female jockeys has evolved over time. In 1972, Meriel Tufnell became the first-ever woman to ride a winner under Jockey Club rules. This was an all-female contest, the first of a 12-race series which Tufnell topped after finishing with three wins from seven starts. She also took part in the first mixed-sex race two years later at Nottingham before founding the Lady Jockeys’ Association.
Despite the 1970s being a breakthrough decade in many respects, female jockeys still represented a tiny minority. It is only in more recent years that they have enjoyed something of a sizeable presence. Between 2015 and 2019 for example, there was a 76% increase in the number of winning horse with a female rider (79% in flat racing, 69% jump racing). Towards the end of this period, women were responsible for 11.3% of professional jockey licences. Although this is nothing like parity, women were at least no longer just a tiny minority.
It is worth knowing that the rise in female jockeys is not simply limited to racing across the UK and Ireland. As reported in 2019, the situation in France was that women were responsible for winning nearly 15% of all flat races in the country, up from 4.63% three years earlier. This is not an isolated case either with the presence of women in racing growing across the world.
Are Female Jockeys as Good as Male Jockeys?
There is plenty of data suggesting that the top female jockeys are just as able as their male counterparts. In the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, for instance, female jockeys won four of 28 races (14%) despite representing just 9.2% of all jockeys. They had won just as many races the year before too while in 2021, a woman was crowned the festival’s top jockey for the first time.
We obviously cannot draw strong conclusions from one four-day Festival but more statistically robust approaches have been taken. One of which, published in 2019, showed that female jumpers offered better value for money than men. The University of Liverpool study, reported in the Racing Post, found that “a jumps horse ridden by a female jockey at odds of 9/1 has the same chance of winning as a male-ridden horse at 8/1.” Furthermore, the study reported that “when riding a horse who starts at even money… a female jockey can be expected to win the race 52 per cent of the time.”
A similarly in-depth study, carried out the year before looking at flat and jumps racing, found no meaningful differences between the sexes. Looking back at 14 years’ worth of data and controlling for the quality of the horse, the model said “there was no difference between male and female performance.” It was also noted that the perception that women win less often is only because they are typically given worse horses to ride. It is not that they are underperforming, however, merely that they often have limited tools with which to work.
Top Flat Racing Female Jockeys
We will now take a look at the women who are making a major mark on the flat racing scene, as well those that have retired as a big name.
Awarded an OBE for her services to horse racing, Hayley Turner is the most high-profile female flat jockey around, and for good reason. Since starting in 2000, she has won well over 800 career races with two domestic highlights from these being the July Cup (2011) and the Nunthorpe Stakes (2011). Turner has always spread her wings though in pursuit of even more glory. Not only did she become the first woman to compete in the Dubai World Cup night but she was also the first British woman to win an international Grade 1 race, doing so in the Beverly D Stakes in the United States.
Born in 1996, there could well be plenty more to come from Hollie Doyle who has already made an incredibly bright start to life as a flat jockey. In 2019, she set the women’s record for the most victories in a calendar year (116), beating the previous record of Josephine Gordon by 10. It was the following year that Doyle probably cherished more though as she got a chance to shine on a bigger stage. A triumphant season saw Doyle win prestigious affairs such as the British Champions Sprint, the British Champions Long Distance Cup and the Princess of Wales’s Stakes. The first two were particularly important as she became the first woman to win on Champions Day at Ascot.
Doyle ended the 2020 season as the fourth-highest ranked flat jockey, the highest-ever ranking for a woman. She only appears to be getting better too as in 2020 she broke her own record for the most female wins in a year with 151 and then surpassed this record yet again in 2021.
There was an 18-month gap between Josephine Gordon’s first and second winners but she does not have to wait so long between them these days. In 2016, the promising jockey made her breakthrough when securing more than 70 winners, a record that saw her crowned British flat racing Champion Apprentice. In addition to this, she also scooped ‘Apprentice of the Year’ and ‘Lady Jockey of the Year’ at the Lester Awards. During the 2017 season, she surpassed 100 winners, a feat that no woman had managed since the aforementioned Turner in 2008.
We are crossing the globe for our next selection as Jamie Kah is an Australian jockey. A far more well-recognised name Down Under, she became the first woman ever to ride 100 winners in a Melbourne Metropolitan racing season. At the time of writing, she had an impressive six Group 1 victories to her name and over 1,000 wins overall. In October 2020, she was ranked as the leading female jockey in the world and she improved on this by February 2021, reaching 41st. This may not sound especially high but bear in mind she was the only woman to feature in the top 100.
Across the Channel, it is Mickaelle Michel that has been something of a poster girl for female jockeys. In 2018, she hit 72 winners in France, the highest number ever for a female jockey. Concerned that French racing was not ready to accept women in bigger races, she has continually looked overseas for big opportunities. As well as racing in the likes of Germany, Greece, Italy and Dubai she also went to Japan where she set the most wins for a visiting jockey on a short-term licence. A Group 1 win is yet to come her way but she has won as high as Group 2 and took part in the 2020 Sherger Cup (her British debut) alongside Hayley Turner and Nicola Currie.
Krone has not raced since 2004 so her racing days are long behind her but many of the records she set are yet to be broken. As things stand, she is the only woman ever to win an American Triple Crown race (the Belmont Stakes) and over the course of a star-studded career, she amassed an astonishing 3,700 wins. No woman has come close to matching this, nor the $90m+ she earned in prize money. With few other women racing at the time, she was also the person to reach many key milestones. Among others, she was the first female to be accepted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and the first to win a Breeders’ Cup race.
The US is no stranger to having talented female jockeys with Rosie Napravnik being another. Although when retiring in 2014 she had not won as many races or earned as much in prize money at Krone, her figures are still mightily impressive. Ending with 1,877 victories and over $70m in earnings, the New Jersey-born rider had enjoyed many highlights including two Kentucky Oaks victories. In 2012, she also enjoyed a season more successful than anything Krone ever managed, winning more races and earning more in prize money. It was this year that saw Napravnik reach eighth on the jockey charts and she stayed in the top 10 for the following two years.
Top Jumps Racing Female Jockeys
Jumps racing is much more popular in UK and Ireland than anywhere else in the world so we will be sticking close to home for the list of top jump jockeys.
Having secured her first-ever win as an amateur in 2011, at the age of 21, Rachel Blackmore quickly acquired a taste for racing. She turned pro in 2015 and won the conditional riders’ championship in Ireland two years later, the first woman to do so. Blackmore is perhaps the best-known female rider on the jump racing circuit thanks to two extremely prolific records she broke, both in 2021. The first was becoming the first woman to top the jockey standings at the Cheltenham Festival, doing so with a very impressive six wins.
There was more elation to follow just a matter of weeks later as Blackmore guided Minella Times to Grand National success. There had been 32 attempts from female jockeys before this (including two from Blackmore herself) with the best being Katie Walsh’s third-place effort in 2012. This historic achievement saw Blackmore shortlisted for the World Sports Star category at the 2021 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards.
There is a strong Irish contingent among the leading female jump jockeys but Bryony Frost has been flying the English flag for several years. Born in Devon, she registered a Cheltenham Festival win as an amateur jockey in 2017 before turning professional later in the year. A victory in the 2017 Kauto Star Novice Chase meant she was only the second British woman ever to win Grade 1 contest, two years after Lizzie Kelly managed to become the first.
Soon after, Frost steered Frodon to victory in the Ryanair Chase and in doing so registered the first female win for a top-ranked jumps race at the Cheltenham Festival. Partly thanks to this win, she claimed the British conditional jockeys’ title a month later. By early 2021, she had racked up close to £3m in earnings while also becoming the most successful female British jumps jockey ever.
Her record may well end up being broken but as of 2021, nobody had enjoyed more victories in National Hunt races than the fairly recently retired Nina Carberry. She first made the headlines in 2005 when winning Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Handicap Hurdle as she was the first woman in 18 years to strike gold at the Cheltenham Festival. Future success came at National Hunt’s biggest event including three successive wins in the Cross Country Handicap Chase.
Just four months after giving birth to daughter Rosie in May 2017, Carberry returned to the saddle for a brief period, eventually hanging up her boots at the end of the 2018 Punchestown Festival.
Racing is something that often runs in the family and Katie Walsh is a great example of this. Sister of legendary jockey Ruby Walsh and daughter of trainer/pundit Ted Walsh, she certainly had the connections to help her get started. You cannot pin her success on nepotism though as the Kildare-born rider won three Cheltenham Festival races, two Grade 1 events and an Irish Grand National. She was not the first woman to secure the Irish National but only two had managed it before her, Nina Carberry in 2011 and Ann Ferries in 1984.