When Michelle Payne let fly about inequalities in the treatment of women in racing after a great Melbourne Cup win, she was quite right! And yet there is no way an argument can be made against the fact that more women in all sides of the racing industry has been a great plus for the sport.

So why was the comment necessary? And what needs to change?

To look at the matter clearly, let’s go back 20 years or so. Women jockeys and trainers were an oddity back then. There weren’t many female stablehands either. Even 10 years ago, there were very few female jockeys, and female trainers operating on metropolitan tracks were pretty much limited to the likes of Gai Waterhouse, Helen Page, Gillian Heinrich, Sheila Laxon and a very few others. Even today, it’s fair to say that metropolitan-based training is nearly an all-male domain. It’s also fair to say that very few female jockeys get the opportunities that can lead to them establishing themselves in the top rank of acknowledged riders.

If you look at just where women are making a real mark in racing, it’s mostly on the provincial and country tracks and training centres.

Why haven’t women been more easily accepted into the sport? What is it that keeps racing a difficult sphere for women to really penetrate?

Let’s start with the trainers. Training is a hard gig, even for the very best. The fact that training partnerships are now springing up all over the country is simply an acknowledgement that training one-out is a time-consuming, physically demanding and mentally exhausting occupation. That’s not to say that women can’t cope with the demands, but as long as women tend to take the lead in child-raising and all the domestic issues surrounding a family, then it simply makes a training career that much more difficult. Put bluntly, unless success comes quickly, funding a reasonably sized training operation in a major city, and ensuring that the staff is available to make it all work is often a bridge too far. So, training in the provincial and country centres, with a smaller operation, is a more practical and manageable option. A similar argument applies to males as well, of course, but mostly the men don’t have quite the added family responsibilities. It’s difficult to see the situation changing unless stay-at-home dads become the norm, or unless there is a very solid financial base to work from.

The situation for women jockeys is a bit more complex. Over the years, there has been some real rubbish spoken about women jockeys. Things like they aren’t strong enough, can’t be as vigorous as the men, lack “ticker” in the tight spots. There are several things to remember here. Nobody who takes up riding thoroughbreds in races can ever be accused of lacking “ticker” – be they male or female! Also, the changes in racing rules, the new whip rules are an example, and the changing styles of riding have meant that the gap in physicality, if it ever existed, is narrowing. Those who question a woman’s physical capacity as a jockey seem to forget that many of our male apprentices are not as strong as some of the senior women – just watch Linda Meech, Tegan Harrison or Kathy O’Hara in a tight finish and then convince me that a 4 kg male claimer would necessarily be a better option!

Physicality is not the key issue. Horsemanship and intelligence, balance, strategic race sense and the ability to have horses run for them is what separates top jockeys from average jockeys, male or female.

Where women do often have an advantage is simply in the category of weight versus experience. It’s easy to see how trainers will choose to use a competent senior woman jockey on a horse carrying, say, 53 kg over a less experienced male who can’t claim a full allowance because his weight won’t allow it, for example. So, why do so comparatively few women make it into the city riding ranks?

The obvious issue is that when the biological clock starts ticking, continuing a career in the saddle becomes a real problem. An extended break from riding to have children makes it difficult to re-start a career. Another issue is that an experienced female apprentice who claims 1.5 kg, for example, can get good rides, but lose that claim and she is competing with the lightweight senior males and the male apprentices who have enough years under the belt to be competitive in town, and can still claim. That’s when many of the girls drop out.

Was Michelle Payne right or wrong? Maybe she was, but racing is a fickle game for both sexes. There’s many a male jockey who has lost a ride to another jockey for no apparent reason, just as there are many male jockeys who simply don’t have the skill levels of many of the women. Maybe the answer is to recognise that, in a tough sport, where the money talks, success breeds success and sex doesn’t necessarily have to be the determinant of whether opportunity knocks or not.

The bottom line is that women in racing can be just as successful as many men – it’s just that women often see that the things they have to give up or postpone to make it in a tough business may be a price too high to pay.