We’ve come a long way, baby. While horse racing has historically been dominated by men, women thankfully have a tendency to defy the odds and buck the norms. As a result, we have a long, illustrious history of Australian women in horse racing that we can (and should!) be proud of. Here are a few that you should know.
In the mid-1900’s, when professional horse racing was exclusively the domain of men, Bill Smith started to make a name for himself at the north Queensland racecourses. Bill was small of stature, quiet, and mostly kept to himself. He had a peculiar habit of wearing his riding gear under his clothes and seemed particularly shy about undressing in front of the other jockeys, which earned him the nickname “Girlie.”
In 1975, Bill “Girlie” Smith passed away, and it was then revealed that “he” was actually a she. Wilhelmina Smith, it turns out, was so passionate about riding horses that she didn’t let such a small thing as gender stop her from competing.
Smith is now known as Australia’s first female jockey. In 2005, a tombstone was erected to commemorate her courage and heroism.
It’s important to note, however, that Smith was never about the recognition, and never sought to be a hero. In fact, she conducted her affairs in seclusion her whole life. Girl just wanted to ride.
Linda Jones, on the other hand, was an inspiration to female jockeys throughout her career. Jones hails from New Zealand, and in 1976 became the first female to apply for an apprentice jockey’s licence. She was promptly refused.
Jones, of course, did not back down, and went on to win against male jockeys in 1979. She was the first woman to do so.
Her career, unsurprisingly, is a series of firsts. Jones was the first woman in Australasia, Europe, or North America to ride a Derby winner. She was also first woman to compete in the Sydney, Wellington, or Auckland Cups, and the first to ride a winner at Ellerslie and Trentham.
Watching Jones by the sidelines was her friend, fellow jockey, and activist Pam O’Neill. Growing up in Brisbane, O’Neill was heavily involved in her father’s horse-training business. Regulations forced her to stay outside the racecourse, where she wasn’t allowed to set foot even as a stable hand.
O’Neill spent 15 years appealing to the Australian Racing Board to allow women to ride horses professionally. In 1979, she was finally granted a license, paving the way for widespread acceptance of Australian women in horse racing.
Thing is, O’Neill wasn’t just vocal – she was actually good as a jockey. On her first race on the 19th of May 1979, she rode three winners, and did it again the following Saturday. In the first unisex race in Melbourne, she won and beat the great Roy Higgins. O’Neill rode until the age of 52, with more than 400 wins.
If you were a female jockey and there was one race you needed to win to cement your place in the annals of history, it was the Melbourne Cup. Dubbed Australia’s most famous Tuesday, the race has no less than a century and a half of history and pomp. There had only ever been four women to compete, and now, at age 30, Michelle Payne has the distinction of being the first woman to ever win. It was a good day for all Australian women in horse racing, and especially the female jockeys.
Payne had grown up steeped in horse racing – her father is a trainer and eight of her nine siblings are also in racing. She was only seven years old when she told her friends that she would one day win the Melbourne Cup.
A bad fall in 2004 threatened to end her career. Payne’s skull was fractured and her brain was left bleeding, but she walked away more determined than ever to continue with her career. In 2012, she had two more falls where she fractured a total of nine vertebrae. This time, she seriously considered retiring – we’re lucky she didn’t.
Gai Waterhouse is no stranger to winning at Melbourne Cup, either. On the 5th of November 2014, Waterhouse was the first Australian female trainer to win the race, and only the second female to ever do so. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Waterhouse is the daughter of the legendary Tommy J. Smith, one of the leading trainers of thoroughbred horses in Australia. She served as his apprentice for 15 years. It naturally followed that Waterhouse would want to be a trainer in her own right. She set about pursuing her trainer’s licence, which she had to fight for owing to her husband being banned.
Just two months after getting her licence in 1992, Waterhouse won with Gifted Poet. Just a few months after that, she won her first Group One with Te Akau Nick. Waterhouse’s reputation as a trainer was sealed in 1995 after her three-year-old colt came second at the Melbourne Cup.
Waterhouse continues to be an inspiration for Australian women in horse racing, having been also nominated as an Australian Living Treasure by the National Trust of Australia.
You may also want to read about what it takes to win at horse racing.