New documentary highlights women who have made their name in the often cut-throat, brutal and downright dangerous sport of horse racing
As Rachael Blackmore was led back to the Cheltenham Festivalwinner’s enclosure on board A Plus Tard after the pair bolted home in Tuesday’s penultimate race, one of Racing TV’s commentary team noted how refreshing it was to see that a woman booting home the winner of a major horse race is no longer considered a particularly big deal. The sight of Blackmore taking the plaudits of racegoers has been a regular one in Ireland this season – the 29-year-old has ridden an astonishing 84 winners on the domestic front and currently sits a close second behind Paul Townend in the race to be crowned champion jockey. Were she to finish ahead of him, it would be an exceptionally big and unprecedented deal indeed.
Following a road first travelled by her compatriots, the now retired amateur jockeys Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh, Blackmore is that exceptionally rare breed: a female professional jockey who has earned the complete trust of several high-profile trainers and owners, not to mention the often difficult-to-please punters who back their horses. A woman challenging successfully in one of the very few sports in which both genders are allowed to compete on the biggest stage on equal terms but rarely do, Blackmore’s achievements will not stop being extraordinary until people no longer feel compelled to highlight them in a way they wouldn’t if she was a man. In the meantime, long may this reluctant heroine remain inspirational box office gold.
Two years ago, a report into gender diversity in racing found that women were under-represented in the most prominent areas of the sport in Britain. Those with aspirations to break the glass ceiling were not being taken seriously and found they were repeatedly denied opportunities to advance. Some participants reported being subjected to inappropriate behaviour and bullying, while others were made to feel unwelcome when considering applying for senior roles. In light of such unsurprising findings, it seems only right and proper that the success of jockeys such as Blackmore, Bryony Frostand Lizzie Kelly, who generally attract considerably more media attention than the vast majority of their male colleagues, continues to be highlighted.
Alongside Carberry, Walsh and the Irish trainer Jessica Harrington, among other women who have made or are making their name in this often cut-throat, brutal and downright dangerous sport, all three riders feature in Jump Girls, a documentary directed by the Irish film-maker Luke McManuswhich will be aired by ITV on Saturday. “You start off making this thing about women in racing but because they don’t really want to dwell on the fact they’re women, you realise after a while you’re actually making a thing about families,” says McManus.
“Fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters, sisters. It becomes about the cross-generational love of the sport, about family relationships and the love all these people have for each other and the potentially life-threatening danger these women put themselves in every time they climb on a racehorse. Some of the strongest sequences for me are Lisa O’Neill’s parents watching her fall at Cheltenham and the worry they go through, or Katie Walsh seeing the screens go up around her brother Ruby after he falls and breaks his leg at Cheltenham not long before she goes out and rides a winner.”
Asked for the secret of the success of these women working in an ostensibly male environment, the trainer and pundit Ted Walsh, father of jockeys Katie and Ruby, and a man who has never knowingly seen a bush he considered beating around, is succinct. “Women are stronger people than men mentally,” he says at the beginning of the film. “Men arse-lick a bit and women don’t. The real strong women say: ‘Go fuck yourself.’” One of Ireland’s most successful trainers, Harrington bellows with laughter upon hearing Walsh’s assessment but does not demur.
While the media, with the Guardian being no exception, continues to draw attention to the success of these young women working in an ostensibly male environment each time a major meeting comes around, the reluctance of most of those featured in Jump Girls to blow their own trumpets is a major take-out from the film and proves an occasional source of frustration.
“There’s a culture, particularly in Ireland, of ‘Don’t be drawing too much attention to yourself, swaggering around the place thinking you’re great,’” says McManus. “Luckily, in England people seem to be perfectly happy to swagger around thinking they’re great. You get a slightly different culture with the likes of Lizzie, where she very unapologetically exults in her success. That, to me, was a great difference in personal style and made for a nice texture in the film.”
Unsuccessful in her attempt to repeat last year’s success in Cheltenham’s Ultima Handicap Chase this week, Kelly became the first woman in history to ride a Grade One winner over jumps on Boxing Day in 2015. “I’m perfectly happy to be open to the media and always have been,” she tells the Guardian.
“Rachael Blackmore, for example, cannot take a compliment for love nor money. You could tell her that she’s the best thing since sliced bread until you’re blue in the face and she still wouldn’t believe you. I think telling your story is very important and I would like to think people saw that as a good thing for the sport as well.” Jump Girls, blazing an often perilous trail by negotiating every obstacle – literal and metaphorical – placed in their way.
• Jump Girls is on ITV4 at 10.30am on Saturday 16 March and will subsequently be available on the ITV Hub.