I believe, and have done for many years, that the best marketing flat racing could achieve is if a female jockey either become champion jockey or won a classic. Not that it will happen in my lifetime, though in Josephine Gordon that aspiration may become a reality if she continues to improve and trainers and owners get behind her. Or indeed Hollie Doyle, who is also making a name for herself. In being associated with a major stable, the pressure is on for Josephine Gordon to succeed, especially with all the praise she is acquiring from the journalists at the Racing Post. Gaye Kelleway went as far as to say she thought Gordon could become champion jockey in France if she relocated to take advantage of the 4Ib allowance female jockeys can soon claim over there.
For many years, of course, Hayley Turner ploughed a lone furrow yet even when she won Group 1's and a top race in the U.S. the great and the good of the sport never truly gave her the support that her ability and popularity deserved. I always thought luck never played fair with her.
The French, it seems, have recognised the benefit of promoting female jockeys and the 4Ib riding allowance is evidence that they believe the mademoiselles are not getting a fair crack of the whip. Richard Hughes, amongst others, has suggested female jockeys forget about the affront, the lack of respect for their strength in the saddle, and if something similar were to happen this side of the Channel to take the 4Ib with both hands and use it to their advantage. I would imagine Pat Cosgrave, who I believe is to have first choice of Hugo Palmer's horses this season, will not get a look in this summer when Palmer has runners in France, not with Josephine Gordon able to take 4Ib off the backs of his runners. In fact I would imagine she'll not be spending many Sundays in this country from April onwards.
The French have their hearts in the right place but the strategy is flawed. It is not sympathy females require but opportunity on a daily basis. To encourage trainers and owners to use professional female riders to a greater extent than at present the way forward is to have a programme of races restricted to professional female riders over varying distances throughout the season. The cream will rise to the top once they are riding regularly, especially when getting on horses with chances to feature at the photo-finish end of a race.
There should also be a signature race for female riders, with a hefty prize fund, perhaps at Royal Ascot or Goodwood, with the top females from around the world invited to ride. This would be an opportunity to attract a cosmetics company or High Street fashion store as a sponsor.
It is plain wrong when people who should know better claim there is no sexism in racing. Look how long it took for the Jockey Club to allow women to hold trainers' licences. Or how recently it was that females were allowed jockeys licences. To attract a broader following, the flat especially must appeal to all sectors of society. It does already of course, with everyone from the likes of me to the aristocracy able to stand shoulder to shoulder and discuss as equals the form of this year's Cheltenham contenders or last year's two-year-olds. In an unequal world horses make equals of all men, of all women. But female jockeys are not the equal to their male counterparts and a Josie Gordon or Hollie Doyle competing on equal terms at Royal Ascot or Epsom would put racing in a spotlight it has missed for all these years - the female magazines, the female oriented world. This sport of ours is thought by the unknowing public as being either dodgy or without care for the horse and a male domain, no doubt engendered by every trashy racing thriller novel ever written.
Jump racing doesn't really need the same initiative as the girls have made greater inroads within the sport and it is only a matter of time before Carberry, Walsh, Blackmore, Alexander, Kelly or one of the Andrews girls wins one of the big races. In fact the name of any of those girls on a horse does not distract from its chances in the eyes of punters. The year Neptune Collonge won the Grand National Katie Walsh rode the favourite and gave it a blindingly good ride.
Let us hope that in ten or fifteen years this subject matter is on its way to becoming as redundant as the days when races were run in heats and the sight of a feminine ankle was looked on as something shocking.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.