Posted by Mark Horrocks on

A Visit to School of Hard Knocks

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I love watching sports women.

Unlike their male counterparts, it’s not all about physique and rippling muscles. They possess something extra - call it grace or empathy. There’s a joyousness that lightens their performance.

Don't get me wrong, the steely will to win is there, just as much as in their male counterparts.

The focus, the endurance, the risk-taking, the bravery. Think of gymnasts vaulting and spinning through the air. Think of the pain and weariness etched into the faces of endurance runners, the terrifying speed of cyclists descending mountain passes at 65 mph.

Victoria Pendelton

Can you imagine balancing on 1,100lbs of thoroughbred racehorse careering in a pack at speeds up to 40 mph. Yes, I especially admire female jockeys and if I were to ask them: “ if you could go back in time to just one particular moment in your life, when would that be?” What extraordinary stories they could tell. But first let us imagine them as youngsters, all at the same school together.

Playing in the playground, the bell sounds for assembly. The boys push and shove to the front. The headteacher’s eyes, surveying the pupils, fall on a dishevelled Michelle Payne who has just arrived late.

“Payne,” he admonishes, “you’re late and your uniform is a mess.”  “Sir, it’s just ‘cause my dad has a hard time looking after us 10 kids since my mum died”.

Teacher nods and proceeds with the roll call.

“Rachael Blackmore?” “Present sir,” comes the reply and so on through the class.

First lesson of the day is History and the teacher begins by asking each of the girls what they would like to be when they grow up. At the back of the class, Michelle's friend warned her, “Don't say you want to be a Jockey.” 

“Whyever not,”  she replied.

“ I was reading about an English jockey called Jimmy Lindley,” whispered her friend. “When his teacher asked the class what they wanted to do when they started work, Jimmy put his hand up and said: “A jockey, sir.” 

Willie Wilson the head said: ”No you're not!” Jimmy replied: “ I am, sir!”

For speaking back, Jimmy got 6 strokes on his bottom!”

Despite this tale Michelle's reply to her teacher's question was: “When I grow up I shall be a famous jockey and win the Melbourne Cup.”


Michelle Payne by Chris Phutully

Similar replies came from the other girls and the lesson moved on to the history of women's rights. 

The teacher produced a picture of Emily Davison. “This English lady,”  she informed her pupils, “campaigned for women's rights and particularly for the right to vote in public elections in the early 20th century. Tragically she was killed while staging a protest at the Epsom Derby in 1913. She walked out onto the track and was hit by King George the fifth’s horse,  Anmer.

As the girls digested this sombre event the lesson ended. 

After break they all filed back for a lesson on poetry. 

“Today,” announced their teacher, “we will be studying a poem by Rudyard Kipling, If.”

“If what, miss?” pipes up Julie Krone. Teacher allows herself a smile.


“If is a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which epitomises the qualities that most athletes and sports men and women, are familiar with:

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / and treat those two imposters just the same”

“These lines are written on the walls of two prestigious tennis venues: the players entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club and the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York.

“If you wish to make a success of your lives,”  the teacher concluded, “ you would do well to remember them.”

And so in due course, the girls all left to embark on their chosen careers and to discover just how hard is the path of a female jockey in a man’s world.

Most sports women will only compete against their own sex, but horse riding is one of the few physical sports where women compete against men on equal terms. For, while more than half of the people entering racing schools are women, only 14% of women in Britain are female, says Women in Racing chair, Tallulah Lewis.

In 2018 they got 8.2% of the rides but only 1% at the top Group or Grade One level, so the interest is there but something is stopping them reaching the top.

The female jockey needs to prove herself even better than the men, just to get rides, trainers don’t use girls and it is never going to change.”

It is a fact that a jockey is more at risk of injury riding the less able horses. So it is all the more remarkable when female jockeys manage to rise above this glass ceiling.

The trainer Ted Walsh, father of champion jumps jockeys, Ruby and Katie, throws some light on how women achieve this, when he spoke bluntly about the differences: “Women are stronger than men mentally. Men arse lick a bit and women don’t. The real strong women say “Eff off.”

Observing the careers of the pupils of our fictional School of Hard Knocks, I’m in awe of how they cope with the dangers they face on a daily basis and sometimes the awful injuries they sustain.

Hollie Doyle

Was unseated in a race at Haydock and suffered facial injuries including the loss of several teeth. She returned to race riding after 10 days.

Julie Krone

In the 2003 season, she fractured two bones in her lower back and spent the next four months recovering.

Just after her Breeders Cup win, she broke several ribs and suffered severe muscle tears in a fall at Hollywood Park race track.

Krone was named by USA Today as one of the 10 toughest athletes and was honoured with the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Hayley Turner 

Was badly injured in an accident putting a horse through starting stalls

Michelle Payne

In 2004 Payne fell heavily in a race at Sandown racecourse in Melbourne, fracturing her skull and bruising her brain.

In 2016 Payne suffered severe abdominal injuries in a race fall at Mildura. She underwent urgent surgery for a torn pancreas, with surgeons saving the organ, otherwise she would have become a diabetic. She returned to racing in September 2016.

Bryony Frost

Broke her collarbone in a fall just four days after making history at the Cheltenham Festival after being unseated at Newton Abbot.

It was reported that the Grade 1 winning rider had just been badly bruised after the saddle slipped on Billy My Boy. However, in fact had suffered more serious internal injuries after a horse behind had stood on her abdomen, fracturing her clavicle.

Katie Walsh

Katie Walsh was trampled on by a horse in the final race at Aintree

Rachael Blackmore

One of the photographic team sent to interview her, enquired about injuries, which she shrugs off nonchalantly, mentioning “just a broken nose, collarbone, wrist - not much.”

Years after they left their fictional School of Hard Knocks, let us imagine the head teacher invites them back for a reunion and I am invited to record the event. 

After a pleasant meal the girls are all sitting around chatting and exchanging stories and I am able to pose the question  “ if you can go back in time to just one particular moment in your life, when would that be?”

Hollie Doyle: “I have enjoyed some great moments winning big races around the world at tracks in Dubai and Hong Kong for example, but winning the Qipco British Champions Long Distance Cup  at Ascot aboard Trueshan was very special.

Julie Krone:  “My racing career has been hugely rewarding and successful, despite its ups and downs but I am especially proud to have been honoured by the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award by the Women's Sports Foundation.

Hayley Turner : “Being something of a pioneer for female jockeys in the UK for example was quite daunting at times, for example when I became the first female jockey to ride 100 winners in a calendar year in Britain and later several Group 1 races.  But I was especially proud to be awarded the Order Of The British Empire (OBE) in 2016 for services to horse racing.”

Michelle Payne: “I remember telling my friends at school that I was planning to become a jockey and win the Melbourne Cup. I can’t begin to tell you what it felt like to actually achieve that ambition in 2015.”

Bryony Frost: The Cheltenham Festival has always been a favourite venue for me, especially working for trainer Paul Nicholls. I remember the thrill of winning the Foxhunter Chase there in 2017 aboard the lovely Pacha Du Polder. The same horse that Vicky Pendelton rode when she accepted the challenge of riding at Cheltenham after just one year training as a jumps jockey. 

Becoming the first female jockey to win the King George VI at Kempton in 2021, aboard my favourite horse Frodon, was also a very special experience.”

Rachael Blackmore: “I’ve been blessed in my riding career so far and I can’t thank my brilliant Irish trainer Henry De Bromhead ; for the confidence he has placed in me and all the fantastic rides. But the high spot has got to be my win in the 2021 Grand National with Minella Times - another first for us female jockeys.”

And after hearing these stories, what a fantastic way to end this school reunion and to appreciate the remarkable dedication and fortitude these female athletes share, albeit aware of the many challenges they still face in a man’s world.

Article by Chris Wigg of

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