Racing: Woman's place is now in the home straight thanks to suffragette's legacy

RACING Florence Nagle's crusade for sexual equality on and off the track is still making progress 33 years on
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The Independent Online
FOR THE second successive Saturday, women trainers saddled the winners of the day's two biggest horse races. This weekend it was Venetia Williams and Henrietta Knight, the week before it was Williams and Sue Smith who snaffled the major prizes on a day when Mary Reveley sent out her 1,000th winner. Such success invites little comment these days; after all, women trainers have won races as diverse as the Grand National and French Derby, with many a canny handicap success in between.

However, the extraordinary fact is that just 33 years ago there were no women trainers. Back in 1966, when Jenny Pitman was a harassed housewife raising two sons, women were not permitted to hold licences to train racehorses.

It is taken for granted now that some of the best known names in racing are women. They filled three of the top 10 places in last season's National Hunt trainers' championship and, despite the retirement of Pitman, the most high profile of them, Reveley and Knight, who were both among the winners again at Aintree yesterday, and Williams are more than accomplished standard bearers. The number of women trainers continues to grow - 64 hold licences in this final jumps season of the century - and so does the size of the stables over which they preside, with Reveley having charge of around 140 inmates.

Progress is not so rosy on the Flat, not due to a lack of talent but because the barriers surrounding racing's equivalent of the big-business boardroom are that much harder to scale; the expensive bluebloods that pass through the sales rings are nearly always earmarked for just a few favoured stables.

There have still been notable big-race wins for personalities as different as the aristocrat Lady Herries and the arch-enemy of the bookmakers, Lynda Ramsden. The success of Criquette Head, who has won the French championship and plundered the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket three times, proves that women can make the grade on the Flat given the right support - in her case with patronage from the Maktoum family of Dubai.

Progress is more encouraging elsewhere in racing. Gone are the days when the female presence in the winning enclosure would typically consist of two mini-skirted girls wearing sponsors' sashes, trying desperately to hold a smile while being lashed by wind and rain.

Although we may be another millennium away from a woman riding a Derby winner, a woman (Sue Ellen) is now running the Derby. There are female racecourse photographers, betting-shop managers, even racecourse stewards. It is positively fashionable to employ women in racing these days; every racing service has a female pundit. No longer do male TV commentators make jokes about "fillies" - they may be hit over the head with a copy of the Racing Post by Clare or Lesley.

Back in the dark days of the mid-Sixties, though, the ancien regime at the Jockey Club would have spluttered into their double brandies at the thought of gels with names such as Henrietta, Venetia and Mary at the top of the training tree. The battle to allow women to train went all the way to the Court of Appeal and was won by a very unlikely suffragette, a blue-blooded elderly lady named Florence Nagle.

Born the daughter of Sir George Watson in 1894, Florence Nagle's background, like that of so many racing people, was steeped in horses. Married at 22 to an Irishman who liked a bet, the pair had horses in training by 1920. Unfortunately James Nagle was rather too fond of a flutter and Florence was forced to give up racing temporarily. But, in 1934, widowed and the beneficiary of a tidy sum from her father, she returned to her first love and started to train horses herself, but with her head lad officially holding the licence. Under that arrangement she bred and trained numerous winners, many of them descended from her shrewd purchase of the 1930 Oaks winner, Rose Of England.

Mrs Nagle was not alone in having to operate under the name of a male employee in order to earn a living: Norah Wilmot, whose owners included the Queen, is fondly remembered as one of the grand old ladies of racing. She numbered the Goodwood and Doncaster Cups among her "unofficial" trophies, and became the first woman to train a winner legitimately the day after she was granted a licence, when her filly, Pat, won at Brighton in August 1966.

Auriole Sinclair was another highly respectable lady forced into clandestine dealings to pursue her career before Mrs Nagle's breakthrough. Her Sussex stable sent out the winner of the Wokingham Handicap of 1958 and the Rosebery Stakes in 1963. She recalled that Mrs Nagle had no problems gaining recognition among professionals within the sport and had loyal owners; it was the authorities who saw training racehorses as an unsuitable job for a woman. In particular, a senior member of the Tattersalls family had exhorted Mrs Nagle to "get back to her knitting".

Whether Mrs Nagle would have had time for knitting is open to question. By the time she had defeated the racing establishment in 1966 (after a 20-year fight), she was in her seventies, though still running a full- time training establishment with a sideline of breeding Irish wolfhounds. A formidable lady fond of the address "my dear man", she laughed when recollecting in the early 1970s one reason given for withholding licences from women.

"Mrs [Louie] Dingwall, Miss Wilmot and I were the ones pushing hardest against the ban. Yet a steward told me they couldn't risk our falling into the hands of bad men. We were all over 70 at the time."

The "bad men", from Mrs Nagle's point of view, were more likely to be those making the rules of racing, in particular the grand sounding Viscount Allendale and Sir Randle Guy Fielden of the Jockey Club. She saw them off, much to the surprise of her counsel, with Lord Denning's judgement at the Court of Appeal: "If she is to carry on her trade without stooping to subterfuge then she has to have a licence." At the time, Mrs Nagle greeted her triumph with a very modern view: "I am a feminist and believe that things should be decided on ability and not sex."

The decision was a landmark for women in racing. At last there was the chance of recognition for people who had always been heavily involved and influential behind the scenes.

Once women were legally permitted to train, the obvious progression was for female jockeys to compete under the rules of racing. Female emancipation did not exactly burst out of the starting stalls, however, it was a further six years before the Jockey Club introduced a series of races (12 in the first season) for lady amateur jockeys. And their arrival on the scene was not greeted with gravitas. Patronised by headlines such as "Watch out Lester, the girls are coming!" they were referred to as "jockettes". Amateurs could not be paid for their services in cash, but the most successful women assembled a fine collection of headscarves and tokens of thanks from grateful race sponsors. The pinnacle of their achievement was the chance to win a garish diamond horse's head brooch on King George Day at Ascot.

However, it was a start, and the novelty value of women riders pushed up attendances and attracted great interest. The light-hearted reception given to the women contrasted with their steely professionalism, as a few dedicated souls travelled the country in search of rides on tracks with stone age facilities.

The Lady Jockeys' Association was formed in 1972 to press for reform, and in 1974 women were permitted to race against men in some amateur events. In 1975 women were allowed to ride as professionals on the Flat (jump racing was still considered "too dangerous") and, for the first time, girls could apply for apprentice licences in the same way as stable lads. In 1976 the Jockey Club was dragged into the 20th Century with the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act. Women were free to ride over jumps.

The first fully-fledged professional female jockey was the trainer's daughter Linda Goodwill, whose skills had enabled her to strike up a partnership with the usually unresponsive Pee Mai, on whom she won five races. There was great optimism that women were on their way to winning Derbys, and it seemed as if marrying a trainer or buying your own horse were no longer the only ways to make progress in the saddle. However, Goodwill's career, like so many others, foundered when she was not offered enough rides.

Still, the milestones were gradually passed. Charlotte Brew became the first woman to ride in the Grand National in 1977 and five years later Geraldine Rees flogged an exhausted Cheers over the line to become the first woman to complete the race.

Many hurdles have been negotiated since, and Alex Greaves has prompted a flurry of debate about the worth of women jockeys with every one of her "firsts" (winning the Lincoln, winning a Group race, riding in the Derby). Progress for female jockeys continues to be slow, but this is perhaps not surprising when women are faced with a real and fair debate about whether they can ride a finish as well as a physically stronger man.

Perhaps the final word on women's progress should go to Florence Nagle, who was asked by a journalist more than 20 years ago if she thought women could ever match men on the racecourse. "My dear man, it used to be said women couldn't stand up to three-day-eventing. Now they're beating the men regularly - and the same will happen in racing. Give them time."