Women in horseracing: More hurdles to jump!

By Laura Donnellan, School of Law, University of Limerick, Ireland

Katie Walsh announced her retirement from racing, on 27 April 2018, following a win at Punchestown. She had made the decision to retire a few weeks previously, with her decision depending on whenever she rode her next winner.

Walsh is the highest-placed female jockey in the history of the Grand National, with a third place finish on her mount Seabass in 2012 (Tony O’Hehir, ‘Walsh pays tribute to ‘horse of a lifetime’ after Seabass death’, Racing Post, 14 Apr. 2017, https://www.racingpost.com/news/walsh-pays-tribute-after-death-of-national-third-seabass/282059).

Her illustrious racing career includes winning at the Cheltenham Festival on three occasions and becoming the third woman to win the Irish Grand National (Horse Racing Ireland, ‘Katie Walsh’ http://www.goracing.ie/racing-statistics/jockeys/data/?jid=721).

As she returned to the weigh in room following her win at Punchestown, her fellow riders formed a guard of honour (‘Katie Walsh: Jockey announces retirement after Punchestown win’, BBC, 27 Apr. 2018, https://www.bbc.com/sport/horse-racing/43927282).

In response to the news of her retirement, BBC horseracing correspondent, Cornelius Lysaght, spoke of her contribution to the sport. He stated: ‘As long-held prejudices recede ever more rapidly, the profile of female jockeys is growing all the time and history will judge that Katie Walsh played a prominent part in what her sex has achieved’ (‘Katie Walsh: Jockey announces retirement after Punchestown win’, BBC, 27 Apr. 2018, https://www.bbc.com/sport/horse-racing/43927282) .

First and foremost, Walsh viewed herself as a jocke; her gender being irrelevant. She grew up in a family of jockeys. Her father, Ted Walsh, was an amateur champion jockey and her brother, Ruby Walsh, is a world-renowned jockey, who won the Grand National at age 20 in 2000 on a horse trained by his father (Grand National Guide, http://www.grand-national.me.uk/1709/rubywalsh/).  Her sister-in-law, the jockey Nina Carberry, is married to Ted Walsh Jr. Carberry announced her retirement a day after Walsh (‘Nina Carberry follows Katie Walsh into retirement after win’, Irish Times, 28 Apr. 2018, https://www.irishtimes.com/sport/racing/nina-carberry-follows-katie-walsh-into-retirement-after-win-1.3477933).

The role and contribution of women in racing has become increasingly publicised. The amount of news coverage that Walsh’s retirement has generated is testament to this.

The origins of women in horseracing can be traced back to the latter part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century. At this time, women were involved in the breeding of horses, albeit those from the aristocratic ranks (Joyce Kay, Wray Vamplew (eds) Encyclopedia of British Horseracing (Routledge 2005), at p.342). It would seem that women did not race horses before 1900 (ibid). While there were female owners and breeders, the Jockey Club banned female jockeys until 1972 (ibid). Prior to that, the only race open to female jockeys was the Newmarket Town Plate, a race dating back to 1666, wherein Betty Tanner, through ‘a historical anomaly’, competed in 1923 (Martin Polley, Moving the Goalposts: A History of Sport and Society in Britain Since 1945 (Routledge 2002), at p.96). The Plate was open to all townspeople and thus women competed under this loophole (ibid). More local stable-women began to take part with fewer men entering the Plate (ibid). In 1936, just one man entered the race against six female competitors (ibid). The rules of National Hunt racing did not permit women to compete until 1976.

It was not until the seminal case of Nagle v Feilden and Others ([1966] 2 Q.B. 633; [1966] 2 W.L.R. 1027) that a female trainer was permitted to obtain a trainer’s licence in her own name and not under the name of the ‘head lad’. Nagle challenged the Jockey Club’s refusal to grant her a licence, based on her sex under section 1 of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 [9 & 10 Geo. V, c.71]. Section 1 provided that:

“A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society (whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise), and a person shall not be exempted by sex or marriage from the liability to serve as a juror…”.

The 1919 Act was repealed by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (c. 65), which, in turn, was repealed by the Equality Act 2010 (c. 15).

In Nagle v Feilden, the Court of the Appeal allowed the appeal on the grounds that the Jockey Club’s practice of not granting trainers’ licences to women was against public policy and an unreasonable restraint of trade. While there was nothing within the Rules of Racing that prohibited women from obtaining licences, the practice of the stewards was to refuse trainers’ licences to women solely based on their gender. Nagle required a licence in order for her horses to compete in races organised by the Jockey Club. The Jockey Club had no issue with her experience or character, thus the Court of Appeal held the refusal to be capricious. In addition, the subterfuge involving the ‘head lad’ obtaining the licence served to undermine the practice of the stewards even further. With all three Court of Appeal judges concurring, the plaintiff had a prima facie case and the appeal was thus allowed.

In the United States, the first woman granted a jockey’s licence was Kathy (Kathryn Kusner). The Maryland Racing Commission refused Kusner a licence on the grounds of her gender. Kusner challenged this and the court ordered the Racing Commission to grant her a licence. The stewards rejected her application twice and the reasons given for the second rejection was that Kusner lacked sufficient control of the horse and thus posed a danger to other jockeys. (For more details see: ‘Kathy Kusner, the Olympic equestrienne, was granted a jockey’s license today by the Maryland Racing Commission, in compliance with a court order’. New York Times, 30 Oct. 1968, https://search.proquest.com/docview/118365642/fulltextPDF/8CEC034169E412FPQ/1?accountid=14564).

In England, the Grand National dates back to 1839. Given that the National Hunt rules precluded women from competing until 1976, the achievements of Walsh are all the more impressive. Male jockeys had a head start of 137 years.

Whilst the retirement of Walsh heralded the end of a successful career, it has also highlighted the contribution that she has made in her fifteen years competing at a high level. At the Grand National last month, Walsh and two other female jockeys, Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore, became the second female trio to compete in the same Grand National (Chris Cook, ‘Grand National’s trio of female jockeys focus on victory, not history’, The Guardian, 13 Apr. 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/apr/13/grand-national-bryony-frost-katie-walsh-rachel-blackmore-horse-racing-women-jockeys). Venetia Williams, one of the jockeys from the first female trio from 30 years ago, praised the resilience of the three jockeys. She stated: ‘These girls are a hell of a lot better than we were in my day. They’re streets better’ (ibid).

Perhaps, in the next thirty years, three or more female jockeys racing at the Grand National will not be viewed as a novelty, but rather as a typical occurrence.

Laura Donnellan may be contacted by e-mail at ‘Laura.Donnellan@ul.ie’