My first ride as an amateur jockey, I decided, would be back home at the Bong Bong Picnic Racecourse in the NSW Southern Highlands. This was a place where, many years ago, I’d competed in my first show-jumping competition as an eight-year-old girl in baggy jodhpurs. It was a place where I’d competed many times over the years, with some success; now that I was a jockey, I saw it as the perfect place to catapult my new career to similar heights.
I grew up riding in equestrian sports, but always harboured a desire to be a jockey, so when I left school I found work in a racing stables. No one I knew had anything to do with racing, and people raised their eyebrows if I mentioned it – I was nothing but a scrawny little girl, and not an especially brave rider – but their expressions only made me more determined. It was my first stirrings of feminism, I suppose; I knew it was a harder road for female jockeys, with the widespread belief that girls couldn’t cut it in the tough world of racing – but that made me want to do it even more. The other reason, though, the main one, was that I was addicted to the feeling of galloping. I often hooned my horse through the local forest, and I wanted to hold on to that feeling as the pine trees blurred past me, the danger, the freedom.
I’d moved to Melbourne the year before my race at Bong Bong, to work for a well-respected trainer and gain my jockey’s licence, but Melbourne weather had caused the cancellation of the first few picnic races of the season, so I hadn’t had a ride there yet. I rang every NSW trainer on the Bong Bong nominations list, and managed to score two rides for someone who was keen to use my apprentice claim, and believed me when I assured him that I was ‘really good with the whip.’
I had about five days to get ‘really good with the whip.’ I hunched over a hay bale and whacked and whacked away. I galloped around at trackwork, imagining how I would ‘pull the stick’ on race day. The leading Victorian picnic jockey rode up beside me yelling, ‘Bong Bong! Do they all smoke bongs?’
‘It’s a joke.’
I’d forgotten that you’re meant to laugh at men’s jokes, even when they aren’t funny. I was grateful to him though; a few months earlier, as I rode in after my first race trial wiping mud from my eyes, he’d thrown me a pair of goggles. No one had told me prior that the mud smacks you in the face and blinds you without them. Of course, he wasn’t so generous once I began beating him; this was the man who would later ram my horse into the running rail after the winning post, screaming ‘How the fuck do you like it?’
How did I like winning? Very much.
I’d forgotten that you’re meant to laugh at men’s jokes, even when they aren’t funny.
I flew home and turned up at Bong Bong, pulling my race bag behind me. I was seeing the place from a new perspective. I wasn’t sitting in the back of the horse truck, watching the show jumping ring in the centre of the track, I was heading past the scales to the jockey’s room, on the outside of the track. I stopped short. There was only one door and it led to the male jockeys’ room. A steward approached me.
‘I’m afraid we don’t have a female jockeys’ room – we’ve actually never had a female jockey ride here.’
This took me aback slightly, I knew a handful of female picnic riders in Melbourne, and even more in the professional ranks. Female jockeys have been slowly increasing since the first official licenses were handed to them in 1979, and today women make up 48 per cent of jockey apprentices. We’ve even seen a woman win the Melbourne Cup. My first ride was in 2004, and by then I would have expected female jockey change rooms to be standard everywhere. But Bong Bong was just a rough old rural track, and equality spreads slowly, reaching the farthest points much later than the epicentre.
They gave me a corner of the male jockeys’ room, sectioned off with a curtain so I could change. I couldn’t hide behind the curtain the whole time, though; the men walked around semi-naked in front of me, while I sat in my silks, pretending to study the race book. I kind of liked being there with the men, seeing how they interacted with each other; I felt like I had been allowed into a secret room. They were mostly unconcerned by my presence, though I sensed a certain electricity, an extra bravado in the way they walked around. A little bit for show. Was it strength in numbers, or something else, that gave them such confidence?
The men were mostly unconcerned by my presence, though I sensed a certain electricity, an extra bravado in the way they walked around. A little bit for show.
Later, when I was riding back in Melbourne, with a room of my own and a few other women to share it with, I’d learn that our separation came at a price. I remember one race, the male jockeys set their horses up either side of me – I was riding the favourite – giving me a squeeze to make my horse pull too hard and knock up early. We didn’t plot like that, in our room. We wished each other luck, and studied the form to work out how best we could ride each race on our merits. Isn’t that enough? To ride on our merits?
At Bong Bong, the strapper legged me up and I heard some punters yelling, ‘Go girl! Look at her ride!’ I might have flashed them a nervous smile as I was led around the parade ring. It was strange to think that people were putting money on me. I put my hand on the little mare’s neck, letting that simple, well-practiced gesture steady me. My silks felt slippery in the saddle.
‘Don’t miss her with that stick, love, make sure you don’t miss her.’
I nodded down at her trainer as we circled the ring. It was here, two years ago, that I had legged up another jockey, too afraid to ask if I could ride trackwork myself. I was working my first job out of school, cleaning stables and strapping racehorses. Earlier that day, my boss had asked me to come back and take some horses to Bong Bong for a workout. I went home and told my mum.
‘He wants to test you out on the track,’ she said.
I hadn’t ridden any of his horses before, but it was all I’d wanted to do since starting at the stables. I’d been leading the thoroughbreds around, caring for them, cleaning up their shit, admiring their athletic bodies as I brushed their glossy coats. All the time I was itching to climb on top and test one out, to see how fast I could go. I would get this chance, but not as soon as I wanted. Only after many early mornings and much sucking up to the boss was I finally given the old companion pony to try out around the track. Then eventually, thrillingly, I was taught to ride trackwork gallops on the racehorses.
I’d been leading the thoroughbreds around, caring for them, cleaning up their shit… all the time I was itching to climb on and see how fast I could go.
‘I don’t think so,’ I said to my mum.
‘You never know.’
‘But…I can’t just turn up in riding boots, I’ll look stupid!’
‘Just walk towards the horse truck, making it absolutely clear you have nothing with you, and ask if you need to take anything.’
Feeling ridiculous, this is what I did. Stupid! I thought later as I legged the male jockey up. Of course he wasn’t going to let me ride.
The clerk of the course led me out to the track for my first race.
‘She can get a little strong, so I’ll get you led out,’ her trainer had told me.
I’d wanted to get a feel for the mare on the canter to the barriers, but the clerk pulled her head over his own saddle and dragged us along, trotting sideways, her white eye rolling back at me, only straightening up as she was led into the barriers. I adjusted my reins and stirrups, pulled my goggles over my eyes, and looked out through the gates at the track in front of me.
I pressed my hands down against the reins crossed over her neck. There was clanging and swearing down the line.
‘Get ya gear, riders!’
The gates opened and she leapt, jerking my hands forward along her neck. We were in the lead and charging. I steered her to the rail and reefed my hands back, leaning all my weight against the reins, desperately trying to haul her in. Steady girl! I thought. I admire your enthusiasm but this is no way to win! I could hear the field thundering behind me as we flashed past the post on the first lap. I felt exposed out there in the lead, everyone was watching me. The crowd was a blur. My mum and dad were out there somewhere, so was my old riding instructor (criticising no doubt).
We were still out in front heading into the back straight but already I could feel her strength fading. Horse after horse charged past me, making their runs for home. I watched the bums of the men in front of me, crouched low, fighting it out for the finish. We’d done everything the wrong way around. I’d done everything the wrong way around. I’d wanted to leap straight into success, I hadn’t waited for the right moment to emerge, to come out and be so good that the world would have to change its mind. Don’t miss her with that stick, love. She was going too slow to miss.
[My boss said] he wanted to make me the best girl rider around. Where’s the pride in that, I wondered, if I’m the only girl rider?
Back in the jockeys’ room, the men jostled around with post-race adrenalin, while I sat getting my breath back and pretending to study the race book for my next ride.
‘Did she piss off on ya, love?’ A jockey from my race was smiling at me with extra warmth.
He gave me a wink, an odd twinkle in his eye. I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant. When my first boss had finally started letting me ride, I remember him saying proudly that he wanted to make me the best girl rider around. Where’s the pride in that, I wondered, if I’m the only girl rider?
I scraped into fifth place on my next ride, a big gelding who ambled around to the barriers and did his part in the race without fuss. He tried less and got further. He did things the right way around. As I left the track, pulling my race bag and a mixture of feelings along with me, a young girl approached me, shyly holding out a notepad. I looked at her blankly for a moment, then realised that she wanted my autograph. I scrawled my name for her, but no words of encouragement. I didn’t know what to say.
‘You’ve done it,’ my instructor said, catching me by surprise. ‘You’ve achieved a goal.’
I didn’t feel like I had. I might have walked through the door, but I hadn’t really entered the secret room. I wondered if a woman ever really would.