KEVIN BLAKE'S BLOG
Following jockey Michelle Payne's shock success in the Melbourne Cup, Kevin examines her comments that racing is 'chauvinistic' and argues that her outburst is likely to do more harm than good to the reputation of the sport.
Michelle Payne’s “chauvinist” comments leave a sour taste
The Melbourne Cup has long been known as the “Race That Stops A Nation”, but there is no doubt that it has truly become a sporting spectacle that resonates around the world. The sense of occasion and excitement is palpable through a television screen at the other side of the world and this year’s renewal produced a result that was a headline writer’s dream.
The contest was won by the unconsidered 100/1 shot PRINCE OF PENZANCE for Australian trainer Darren Weir, with jockey MICHELLE PAYNE becoming the first female to ride the winner of the race and the horse being led up by Payne’s brother Stevie, who has Down’s Syndrome.
It was a feel-good against-the-odds story that quickly spread around the world. Positive mainstream stories are hard to come by for a minority and often polarising sport such as horse racing. With one of horse racing’s most valuable unique selling points being that it is one of the very few sports in the world in which women compete directly against men, the positive attention generated by victories for female jockeys at the highest level is like gold dust for the game.
Thus, it was understandable that Michelle Payne was the focus of attention after the Melbourne Cup. It was a crowning moment for both her as a trail-blazing female jockey and for her racing family. However, when a microphone hooked up to the world was put in front of her, she chose to use that platform to label the sport that has given her a living as “chauvinistic” as well as having a pop at the horse’s owners with one named exception for considering a jockey other than her.
Unsurprisingly, her eyebrow-raising comments generated plenty of “right on, sister” positive reaction from the mainstream media, but while it gives me no pleasure to pour cold water onto what otherwise was a wonderfully memorable result for the sport, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t express my opinion that her comments were ill-judged, poorly timed and likely to do much more damage than good to both the reputation of the horse racing industry and to her colleagues in the female jockey ranks.
This isn’t a throwaway comment from a frustrated young female apprentice rider, this is Michelle Payne. She hails from a family steeped in racing and has had a long and successful career as a jockey, riding her first Group 1 winner back in 2009 and riding in the Caulfield Cup and Melbourne Cup in the same year. For her to tar the entire horse racing industry that has been so good to her as chauvinistic on the most high-profile of stages was truly puzzling to witness. Such a high-profile victory for a female jockey had the potential to inspire young female riders all around the world, but her post-race comments may well have the opposite effect.
Payne may have been unhappy that Prince Of Penzance’s owners considered another jockey for him, but when one looks at the facts, the likelihood of that being due to Payne being female are remote. There were just 16 Australian-based riders with mounts in this year’s Melbourne Cup. It is the biggest race in the country and competition for rides is always fierce, with many of the top jockeys in the world as well as domestic riders seeking out a mount in the race.
Michelle Payne is not in the top 16 jockeys in Australia. In fact, there were 132 riders that rode more winners than Payne in Australia last season and 66 that earned more prize money than her. Not to mention the multitudes of high-profile international riders that would have loved to ride in the race. That the owners of Prince Of Penzance stuck with Payne is a testament to their loyalty to her and they didn’t deserve to get accused of being chauvinists with one named exception in front of the world after the race. Be they male or female, jockeys lose rides on horses in preference for other jockeys that are considered better all the time. That is the nature of the sport. It isn’t chauvinism, it is meritocracy at work.
A consequence of Payne’s comments will be that rather than discussing her wonderful achievement and the incredible story surrounding it, the question on many people’s lips will be “is racing really a chauvinist sport?”
Given that chauvinism is essentially a mind-set that is next to impossible to reliably quantify, it is worth pointing out some relevant facts. Australia may often be stereotyped as a macho nation, but it is the leader amongst all major racing nations when it comes to giving opportunities to female riders. Over 50% of apprentice riders in Australia are female and five individual female jockeys have ridden Group 1 winners in the last decade. Indeed, 25% of all trainers in Australia are female, including the world-renowned Gai Waterhouse.
Given that Waterhouse presumably has no anti-female leanings, why have next to none of her big-race winners over the decades been ridden by women? Her answer to that question is almost certainly the same as it is for every other top trainer in the major racing nations, that they judge jockeys and give opportunities to them based solely on their merits, not their gender, background, nationality, or anything else.
I laid out my opinions on why more female riders do not succeed at the highest level in horse racing in this piece earlier this year. For me, accusations of widespread chauvinism carried weight 40 years ago, but nowadays it is no more than an easy excuse and a cop out to justify the lack of success of female jockeys at the highest level on level terms against men. The real truth of the matter is staring us as an industry directly in the face in the form of long-term statistics from around the world and evidence from other sports as outlined in the above article, yet the fear of being politically incorrect and accused of sexism is preventing many from engaging in this important discussion.
There would be nothing better for horse racing as a sport than for more female jockeys to succeed at the highest level, but as long as the sport continues to keep its head in the sand, such successes are likely to remain regretfully rare.