TIME TO INTRODUCE A WEIGHT ALLOWANCE FOR FEMALE JOCKEYS IN BRITAIN AND IRELAND
Four years ago, this column kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest when making the case for female jockeys being given a weight allowance in Britain and Ireland. A few months later, AP McCoy went public with similar views which served to bring the issue to the front pages of the racing press.
I won’t repeat the case that I made back then, as my views remain the same. The original article (with updated stats on female participation in racing) can be found here and is recommended reading before continuing this article.
Whenever this debate comes up, the opposing views tend to be entrenched on one of two sides. Some feel that female riders are just as capable as male riders, but are held back in their careers by deep-seated prejudices and sexism by trainers and owners.
Others feel that female jockeys don’t succeed at a rate their participation levels suggest they should due to the disadvantage of being obliged to compete on level terms with males in spite of fundamental physical differences that only the most elite female riders have a realistic chance of overcoming.
At the time the original article was published, all any of those on either side of the debate could do was theorise and speculate as to whether giving female jockeys a weight allowance was appropriate and what impact it would have if introduced.
However, since then there has been some highly-relevant evidence and data introduced into the mix from France that demands that the subject is revisited and discussed in Britain and Ireland.
In early 2017, the French authorities shocked the racing world by announcing that from March 1st 2017 they would introduce a 2kg (4.4lb) weight allowance for all female riders that would apply to 90% of their races both on the Flat and over jumps, with the exceptions being Group/Graded/Listed races and Quinte+ races.
They couldn’t have applied the allowance to Group/Graded/Listed races even if they wanted to, as any rider allowances such as an apprentice’s claim are not allowed to be utilised in such races.
The stated aim of this brave and pioneering move was to incentivise owners and trainers to give more opportunities to female jockeys who had historically struggled to make a meaningful impact in French racing. The underlying hope was that increased numbers of rides for female jockeys would give them more opportunity to improve their skills on the job and develop into successful professional riders.
However, it was a decision that was widely derided, with it being labelled as “offensive”, “sexist”, “unfair” and a “backhanded insult” by various female jockeys around the racing world.
Despite the frosty reception it received, it was a move that has allowed the racing world to evaluate the real-world impact that a weight allowance has on the performance of female jockeys in a major racing jurisdiction.
The change also promised to help answer the longstanding question of whether prejudice and sexism are indeed the root of the struggles of female jockeys. If that was the case, it wouldn’t have been expected to make a meaningful difference, as if the sex of the jockey was the primary issue, giving them a weight allowance wouldn’t change much.
So, with well over two years of data in the books, what impact has the female weight allowance had in France?
Firstly, considering just 14 female jockeys having ridden over jumps in France this year compared to 110 on the Flat in the same period, the impact of the weight allowance will be assessed using data solely from Flat racing.
To establish the context for all of the numbers that follow, here are the year-by-year figures for rides, wins and strike rate of all jockeys on the Flat in France from 2015 to 2019. The 2019 numbers run up to July 31st.
|Total Rides||Total Wins||Total Strike Rate %|
Here are those same figures separated by the sex of rider. Bear in mind, the 2kg female weight allowance was introduced on March 1st 2017 and was reduced to 1.5kg from March 1st 2018.
|Male Rides||Male Wins||Male % Strike Rate|
|Female Rides||Female Wins||Female % Strike Rate|
The final numbers illustrate the changing proportion of rides and winners for female riders in those years in France.
|Female Rides as % of total rides||Female Wins as % of total wins|
As can be clearly seen, the impact of the weight allowance for female jockeys on the Flat in France has been quite sensational.
In less than two years of the allowance being in play, female jockeys in France went from having just 5.92% of the total rides in 2016 to 15.72% of them in 2018.
In the same time period, they went from winning just 4.29% of the total races to winning 14.8% of them.
The strike rate for female jockeys increased from 6.84% to 9.03% in that time. This is particularly significant as their 9.03% strike rate was only slightly less than the 9.59% average strike rate across all jockeys in 2018.
In 2016, not a single female jockey appeared in the top 50 riders based on either wins or prize money earned. In 2018, seven female jockeys did just that in the tables under both criteria.
Those stats for 2018 read even better when one considers that the French authorities reduced the female allowance from 2kg to 1.5kg (3.3lb) from March 1st 2018. Thus, the reduced allowance was in play for the majority of racing in 2018, yet the female jockey stats still surged forward.
While the female jockey win rates in 2019 up the end of July have slowed down a shade, an injury to the leading female jockey in France in 2018 Mickaelle Michel is likely to be a factor.
Despite that, the percentage share of rides that female jockeys are getting has stayed much the same in 2019 as in 2018 and there are currently seven female jockeys in the top 50 riders in France.
In a nutshell, in a very short space of time the female jockey weight allowance has all-but levelled the playing field between male and female riders across the full population of jockeys in France. For it to have such an incredible impact in just a handful of years is a ringing endorsement of the French authorities’ brave decision to implement it.
One theory that the statistics blow out of the water is the view of some opponents of a female jockey weight allowance that it would be unfair as it would give too much of an advantage to them. If that was the case, the strike rate of horses ridden by females since the allowance was introduced would have been likely to be above the average strike rate across all riders.
As the above statistics show, this hasn’t been the case. The allowance has resulted in the strike rate of female jockeys improving to marginally below that of the overall population, but no higher. This evidence suggests that the French authorities were accurate with their assessment of how much of a female rider allowance would be required to level the playing field across the full population of jockeys.
This evidence also flies in the face of the oft-opined view that it is sexism amongst trainers and owners that holds back female jockeys. Given that the strike rate of female riders hasn’t risen above that of male riders since the allowance has been introduced, this strongly suggests that all involved were justified in using female jockeys much more sparingly prior to the allowance. Thus, the relative lack of female success was primarily driven by meritocracy playing out in an unfair system rather than sexism.
Of course, just as the apprentice claim system is more advantageous to the best apprentices, the weight allowance for female jockeys will be most beneficial to the most talented female jockeys. However, rules should be set based on the average performers in a field, not the elite.
These numbers show that across the entire population of female riders, the weight allowance has greatly increased opportunities and brought their overall level of success up to the average. In short, it has achieved exactly what it set out to.
Just how successful the weight allowance for female jockeys has been in France is likely to come as a surprise to many on these shores. That is because it has hardly been covered at all in the British or Irish racing press, despite its significant relevance to those racing jurisdictions.
It seems that both the racing media and authorities in both jurisdictions are far more comfortable maintaining the status quo than asking what can be uncomfortable questions.
The extent to which British racing in particular is pushing the “male and female jockeys are equal” narrative has been vividly illustrated by the media and most tellingly the BHA’s public promotion of two studies by a University of Liverpool PHD student named Vanessa Cashmore in the last 18 months.
Those with a basic working knowledge of statistical analysis are likely to have some serious queries about the methodologies used and the conclusions drawn from them based on the summaries given.
However, it is difficult to give a fully-informed view on the credibility of the studies as enquiries revealed that neither study has been published in full or made available for scrutiny. In fact, the first of the studies for which the conclusions were publicised by the BHA and other media outlets over 18 months ago reportedly hasn’t even been completed yet.
For various international media outlets and particularly the BHA to blindly promote the conclusions of these incomplete and unpublished studies, simply because they fit the narrative they want to push, seems irresponsible and unhelpful to the wider debate.
The extent to which the publicising of them has influenced the wider discussion were shown by the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins publicly referring to them at the Galway races last week.
Given the statistical significance and relevance of what has happened in France since the introduction of the weight allowance for female jockeys, one wonders will the BHA and indeed the other media outlets that were so keen to promote the Cashmore studies be as quick to trumpet the numbers revealed in this article. I won’t hold my breath.
Ultimately, we as a racing industry have to decide what we want for female jockeys. While those that push the jockey equality narrative and oppose a weight allowance may believe they are furthering the cause of female jockeys, I would suggest the opposite is this case.
The historical origins of female jockeys being obliged to compete on level terms with males were undeniably rooted in sexism and designed to keep female riders down. That many excellent female riders have overcome what is a fundamental disadvantage is to their great credit, but that doesn’t mean we should impose the same rigged playing field on the female riders of the future.
We have decades of evidence of vast amounts of female participation in horse racing being diminished down to a tiny number that have had lasting successful careers as jockeys. The number of them that have made a consistent impact at the highest level of the sport is so small as to be all but non-existent.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result, but that is what the racing industry in this part of the world is doing when it comes to female jockeys.
That men and women compete directly against each other in intense competition is one of horse racing’s greatest selling points. There is no question that increased success of female jockeys would be very much in the interest of the greater good of the sport. Yet, maintaining the status quo will condemn the careers of the majority of female jockeys before they get started.
It will mean that only outstanding physical and mental outliers such as Julie Krone and Rachael Blackmore will be able to make a lasting impact at the highest level of the sport.
Thus, the proposed introduction of a weight allowance for female jockeys in Britain and Ireland is a discussion that simply has to be had. While it may sound like an odd thing to say, it is also important that this discussion isn’t driven by the views of jockeys.
Male jockeys will obviously oppose a change that is to their disadvantage and most female jockeys have tended to come out against such proposals in the past as to publicly support it could be interpreted as an admission of weakness.
Rather than leaning on biased and compromised views, we now have highly-relevant data from France to drive this debate. What is needed now is bold leadership from the top of British and Irish racing to take this crucial evidence on board and make the right decision for the female jockeys that are such an important part of horse racing.
The French led the way by bravely risking the wrath of gender politics in introducing a weight allowance for female jockeys. It has been such a spectacular success there that it cannot be ignored any longer.
Indeed, Japan has recently followed them in by introducing a 2kg (4.4lb) weight allowance for female jockeys from March 1st this year. This is the direction that progressive racing nations are moving in. In the best interests of their female jockeys, Britain and Ireland should not allow themselves to get left behind.