Author: John Berry
It is hard to believe that within living memory supposedly intelligent people believed that women would be physically incapable of riding in jumps races. It was hard enough for female riders to become accepted as jockeys on the Flat; even harder for them to become part of the furniture over jumps. However, that has finally happened, and this year’s big jumps festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree have made it very clear. Lorna Vincent, a conditional jockey working for Somerset trainer Les Kennard, enjoyed notable success riding over jumps for a handful of seasons in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Gee Armytage, daughter of East Ilsley trainer Roddy Armytage, was successful firstly as an amateur and then as a professional in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, notably riding plenty of winners (including at the Cheltenham Festival) for Suffolk-based permit holder Geoff Hubbard.
Those two, however, proved to be exceptions to the rule rather than the triggers to increased female riding success. It took a further couple of decades before their groundwork could be built upon, notwithstanding that several female riders were doing very well as amateurs all the while. More recently, Lucy Alexander, daughter of Fife-based National Hunt trainer Nick Alexander, was arguably the first to take up the baton formerly carried by Lorna Vincent and Gee Armytage. Lorna Vincent’s best seasonal tally was 22 winners, set in the 1979/’80 campaign. In retrospect it is very hard to believe that total stood as the record for winners ridden in a National Hunt season for 32 years, until Lucy Alexander smashed it by riding 38 winners in the 2011/’12 campaign.
It would have been hard enough to believe that Lorna Vincent’s record would have stood for 32 years even if the racing landscape had stayed the same: as it was, the goalposts were moved to produce a situation whereby jockeys in general rode a lot more winners than previously, simply because summer jumping was introduced in the early ‘90s, meaning that the season now lasted 12 months rather than nine as previously. There is no better way of illustrating this than reflecting on the totals posted by the Champion Jockey in each of the two seasons. In 1979/’80, the Champion Jockey (Jonjo O’Neill) rode 115 winners; in 2011/’12, the Champion Jockey (AP McCoy) rode 199 winners, an increase of 73%. Having broken a record in 2011/’12, Lucy Alexander did even better the following term, becoming the first (and, to date, only) female rider to be Champion Conditional (National Hunt apprentice jockey) with, again, 38 winners.
She remains a top class jockey, but the fact that she is based in Scotland limits her success because there is so little National Hunt racing in the north nowadays, meaning that jump jockeys who ride in the north have minimal chance of posting sizeable totals of winners. The days of northern-based Champion Jockeys such as Ron Barry, Tommy Stack and Jonjo O’Neill are long gone, and seemingly gone forever. With (Gee Armytage aside) minimal progress having been made by female jump jockeys over the 30 year period after Lorna Vincent was making headlines, once Lucy Alexander had the ball rolling the momentum has been building season by season. This campaign has been the most notable yet. Last month, three female professional jockeys rode winners at the Cheltenham Festival.
Rachel Blackmore (who is currently lying second in the Irish jockeys’ table) rode two, while Bryony Frost and Lizzie Kelly rode one each. Bryony Frost’s victory came in a Grade One race, as did one of Rachel Blackmore’s two successes. Last week we moved on to Aintree, where the first of the meeting’s three days saw two winners ridden by women. One of these two winners (Top Wood, successful in the Randox Health Foxhunters’ Steeplchase over one circuit of the Grand National course) was ridden by an amateur (Tabitha Worsley, who gave her mount a ride of which any professional would have been proud) while the other (Moon Over Germany, successful in the Grade 3 Close Brothers Red Rum Handicap Steeplechase) was ridden by Rachel Blackmore.
Earlier in the afternoon, she had ridden the outsider Balko Des Flos into third place in the day’s feature steeplechase, the Betway Bowl. A year ago AP McCoy gave the opinion that, while it remains hard for female riders to break through to the top level on the Flat, it is becoming feasible to envisage a female Champion Jockey over jumps. This spring has been making that prediction look very valid. The days when one heard that ‘they’re not strong (or tough) enough to ride over jumps’ seem like a lifetime ago. Female jockeys are no longer female jockeys: they’re jockeys, just jockeys.