We are now well-used to seeing lady jockeys on the racecourse. Most of us even accept them as being just another jockey. A lesser number even view them, because of their weight advantage and because as a species males are becoming urbanised and flabby, as the future of the profession. Yet in the grand history of the sport the lady jockey is a relatively recent phenomena.
But who was the first lady flat jockey? Who came before Alex Greaves, Lorna Vincent or Meriel Tufnel?
Her name is Alicia Thornton. She may or may not be a distant relative of Andrew or Robert ‘Choc’, though if she is they may want to disassociate themselves from her.
Depending on which report you read she was either married to Colonel Thornton or was his mistress and Captain Flint, the other protagonist in her story, was perhaps her brother-in-law. She rose to notoriety in the early 1800’s when she married Colonel Thornton, of Thornville Royal in Yorkshire, not far from the present York racecourse.
The marriage was a union of convenience, it is considered. In John Steven’s book on the history of York racecourse she is described at the time as ‘somewhat lacking in pretty virginities’, with a personality that left hysterical excitement and near-catastrophe in her wake.
She rode, as a woman of virtue and breeding would do, side-saddle, and thought highly of her attributes as a horsewoman. It is said while riding in the countryside that for fun Alicia and Captain Flint raced their respective horses, with Alicia coming out the winner. Whether it was because of this loss of face that determined Flint to challenge Alicia to a proper race on a proper racecourse or whether Alicia in order to keep his desire of her at arm’s length she challenged him to the 4-mile match race on the Knavesmire is an issue for debate. The prize, though, 500 guineas, would not be insignificant today, in the early 1800’s it must have seemed preposterous for Colonel Thornton to bet on a woman, albeit his pretty wife, to win a race against a man. It is said the match was the talk of the town, if not the country, with more people making their way to York to watch the spectacle than on the day Eclipse raced over the course.
At the time horse racing was not the only draw at Knavesmire which was famous, perhaps that should be infamous, for the gallows above the racecourse and hangings, with drawing and quartering thrown in for extra entertainment, as much part of the racing experience as cock-fights and general scandalous behaviour. York then was the absolute opposite to the York of today.
Alicia rode in a dress that was considered by the fashionistas of the period as tasteful yet practical, with a silk blouse and jockey cap. And she led the race for three miles until her horse broke down and she had to pull up, leaving Captain Flint to reap, or so he expected, the prize money.
Alicia was not a woman for taking unlucky defeat gracefully. She reacted angrily to a report of the race in a local paper that suggested Captain Flint had ‘paid every attention to her’, calling her the ‘beautiful heroine’. In her letter of reply she told the editor in clear terms that she had not allowed Flint any consideration and that he was nothing but rude to her. She even described Flint as unsporting as he continued to ride furiously even though her horse was obviously lame.
It is said that before Alicia came on to the scene Colonel Thornton and Captain Flint were firm friends and that in choosing the greater wealth of the Colonel over his ‘great love’ Alicia had caused him heartache and loss of face. This would suggest Alicia and Flint were not in-laws, though having watched Poldark and Austen on the television and with love and desire not restricted by social barriers this in not necessarily so.
Her pride dented Alicia demanded a re-match but her husband wouldn’t settle his account over the first match and Flint declined the invitation and as time went on and the money remained unforthcoming he laid into Thornton with a horse-whip and as a result ended up in jail, lessening even further his hope of receiving the 1,000 guineas he was owed.
Alicia’s adventures on the turf did not end with Flint, however and after lowering the colours of a Mr.Bronfield she challenged professional jockey Frank Buckle to a match across the Knavesmire and again many thousands of people made their way to view first-hand the audacious derring-do of the lady jockey. So intriguing was Alicia’s daring challenge that people slept in hedgerows and woods to get a front-row seat.
Alicia’s horse carried 9st 6lbs, whereas Buckle’s was burdened with 4-stone more. She won by a neck. Rightly claimed a heroine and with her reputation as a horsewoman of distinction enhanced she departed the turf forever, no doubt escorted by someone other than her husband or Captain Flint. Their argument went to the stewards of the Jockey Club and then to the High Court without any resolution to their dispute and both died in poorer states of health and wealth than before they met, and perhaps fell in love with, Alicia Thornton, the last female jockey on the turf until the sanctioning of what was considered to be novelty races confined to women in 1972.
Perhaps to commemorate the achievement of Alicia Thornton in beating a leading professional Hayley Turner, riding side-saddle and in a flowing silk dress, might challenge Luke Harvey, giving her 4-stone, to a race across today’s Knavesmire?
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.