Kevin Blake

Following on from last week's piece about the potential of female jockeys getting a weight allowance in Britain and Ireland, Kevin Blake follows up on the hot topic and how it has been received within the industry.

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In the week since the debate about a weight allowance for female jockeys was reopened in this space it has been fascinating to read and hear so many opinions, points and counter-points on the subject on multiple platforms.  

Wherever one stands in the debate, the French racing authorities have done the racing world a great service by showing the bravery to introduce a weight allowance for female jockeys, as the evidence from there has served to advance the discussion no end.  

As well as that, it has resulted in more people being willing to openly and honestly discuss what is a notoriously tricky subject. 

However, for all the positive discussion and learning that the debate has brought about, without question the most frustrating aspect of it has been how commonly the case in favour of a female jockey weight allowance has been misinterpreted.

A significant number of people, some of them perhaps deliberately so, have mistakenly characterised the proposal as being one that serves to denigrate female jockeys as a group and suggest that they aren’t good enough to compete. That couldn’t be further from the truth.  

The entire premise which this proposal is based on is that the playing field has been rigged against female riders from the very first time they were obliged to compete on level terms in racing. I won’t repeat them here, but the physiological case, evidence of clear differences in peak performance levels in other sports and most importantly the long-term gap between the genders in horse racing itself that were all covered in this space last week very much support this theory.  

Thus, taking the view that female jockeys have been competing at a disadvantage from day one only serves to elevate the achievements of those that have overcome that reality to accomplish so much in the sport despite an unlevel playing field.  

The real irony here is that while those that oppose a weight allowance seem to believe that they are supporting female jockeys by doing so, that view is very much open to question. Indeed, if one actually had an issue with female riders and didn’t want them to succeed for whatever reason, the side they would take in this debate is unquestionably the one opposing an allowance.  

The current system has succeeded in keeping all bar a handful of female riders out of the top 50 riders in every major racing nation for decades now, so why would those that want to keep female jockeys down want to change it?  

To further illustrate the extent to which the current system fails female jockeys, it is worth considering the Thoroughbred Racing Commentary Global Rankings. They maintain a system of worldwide jockey rankings based on performance in Group/Graded races in the previous three years.  

In advance of the Shergar Cup, they isolated all the female jockeys in their rankings and the results were clear. The Australian-based Jamie Kah came out as the highest-ranked female jockey in the world, but she languished back in 152nd position in the world. Does that suggest equality between the genders in the jockey ranks?  

The objective of introducing an evidence-based allowance is to level the playing field between the sexes across the whole population of jockeys. This will better allow female jockeys to reach their full potential based purely on their merits.  

Whether that means riding 10 winners a year or 100 a year, levelling the playing field will allow a true meritocracy to sort out who is and isn’t good enough to make it. The longer-term goal of an allowance is that increased rides, success, progression and recognition for more female riders will lead to them getting more regular opportunities at the highest level of the sport in Group and Listed races in which no rider allowances are permitted to be claimed.  

Finally, it has been pointed out by numerous people during the last week that it seems to be mostly men that are driving and having the debate about female jockeys. It is a fair point, but having spoken to a wide range of female racing professionals including jockeys, administrators and others in the last week, it has become clearer to me why this is the case.  

In the wider societal context of the push for gender equality, a proposal such as this which seems on its surface to be in contrast with that is seen as dangerous ground by many women. Many of those that I spoke to had strong opinions on the subject, but were unwilling to go on the record for fear of backlash in response to their views.  

One would naturally hope that those fears are unfounded, but nonetheless they clearly exist and may have somewhat stifled the open and frank discussion of this subject from a female perspective.  

With that in mind and with a view to the next step for this debate, the hope is that the influential Women In Racing and/or the Diversity In Racing Steering Group see this proposal for what it is, a bid to right a historical wrong to help female jockeys of all abilities reach their true potential on a newly-levelled playing field.  

If they can look beyond the understandable initial reservations that many have about such a proposal and declare their support of it, which would help stimulate positive change much more effectively than any number of journalists putting the case forward.  

It would be fascinating to hear what their position on the issue is in light of the compelling evidence of the positive impact of the female jockey weight allowance in France and the subsequent debate.  

At the end of the day, even for those that have reservations about or objections to the proposal, one has to ask themselves what is the downside of trialling a weight allowance for female jockeys?  

If it works as well as it has in such a short space of time in France, that can surely only be considered a great thing for female jockeys and our sport as a whole? More opportunities for young female riders in the early stages of their careers, more winners and higher-quality opportunities for those that rise up the ladder and, who knows, maybe a previously unthinkable bid for Champion Jockey honours for the best of the best female jockeys.  

Imagine what that would do for the sport of horse racing in terms of the biggest picture? It would be incredible.  

On the other hand, if an allowance works even better than it has in France and female jockeys enjoy success that is well beyond the average, we will have learned a powerful lesson that female jockeys don’t need an allowance and can revert back to the status quo with the allowance debate confined to history. What do we have to lose?  

The current system of men riding on level terms with women has been in place in Britain since the days of Meriel Tufnell almost 50 years ago. In all the time that has passed and all the inspiring female jockeys that have broken down barriers since then, the system still continues to hold back female jockeys from reaching their full potential and competing at the highest levels of the sport with regularity.  

It is surely time to make a change.

Kevin Blake
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