Women set to make splash at Dubai bash
US glamour jockey and British counterpart gatecrash a male bastion
Nobody is going to mistake Chantal Sutherland for Emily Davison. The first woman to contest the world's richest horserace became acquainted with the track here yesterday wearing a hot pink body-protector and scarcely less make-up than she must use for the photo-shoots and television appearances that qualify her, not only as a jockey, but as a model and actress.
The Canadian is scrupulously abjuring any political significance to her role in the Dubai World Cup, claiming no greater hope than her cut of $10m through Game On Dude. And much the same holds true of Hayley Turner, who will precede Sutherland by a couple of hours on Saturday as the first female to ride at this meeting, when she partners Margot Did in the Al Quoz Sprint. Yet the pair of them, by deeds if not words, can hardly fail to make a statement of some kind to more conservative cultures in the Middle East.
In a strange, monochrome morning in the desert – a thick, sunless sky merging with the sand and scrub – Sutherland's vivid streak of colour peeled an aperture on to some hidden spectrum. In the same way, the very involvement of Turner and Sutherland is a window on to the wider world.
Liberal and reactionary alike can find discomfort in the incongruities of Dubai. Both sides, certainly, would offer different perspectives on Salima Al Taleii, who in 2006 became the first Arabic woman to be granted a professional licence by the Emirates Racing Authority, and has since ridden a handful of winners – one from 39 rides this season. But you suspect that Sheikh Mohammed would himself be gratified by success for Sutherland or Turner. After all, he could remind the British that it was only last summer, 98 years after Davison threw herself before the King's colt at Epsom, that Turner became the first female to win one of their elite prizes outright.
That was on Dream Ahead, at Newmarket; barely a month later, Turner had added another Group One on Margot Did at York. Whereas Sutherland is stricken by polite anxiety about "ruffling feathers", Turner crosses this latest frontier with her usual aversion to melodrama. Her tone is breezy, amused, matter-of-fact. "People are going to make a big deal of it," she shrugs. "But there has to be a first time for everything and next year, if there are more girls, it won't be such a big thing. I suppose it's been part of my career, making these breakthroughs. It's been nice to go and do it – but it's nice now, as well, that it's normal."
During her rise through the ranks, in 2008 becoming the first British woman to ride 100 winners in a year, Turner always resisted the denomination of female jockey. She wanted to be adjudged a jockey, full stop. At 29, and distinguished by her CV rather than her gender, she will cheerfully play up to stereotype. "I have to be quite talented at packing," she complains. "I need to fit in riding gear, racing gear, gym gear – and then lots and lots of shoes."
In more earnest, she now sees no harm in wearing the glass slipper so long as she goes to the ball as an equal partner. "Before last year, I always tried to tone down the whole girl thing," she says. "I think I was trying to blend in with the lads, get people to accept me for a good jockey. Whereas now I can be that jockey and, as a female, turn it to my advantage and promote my brand a bit more."
In which respect, she will do well to match Sutherland. Even when Game On Dude finished second in the Breeders' Cup Classic, the race exalted her profile – collared late, as she was, by her ex-fiance in Mike Smith. Seven years older than Turner, and now closing on 1,000 winners, Sutherland had been able to follow one of the great achievers of the American Turf in Julie Krone. Dirt racing, being chiefly about rhythm, is arguably more congenial to riders who might not trade on sheer physique. But while Turner has long had to punch her weight on turf, she could never be picked out in a finish for a feminine style. "I do have role models," she says. "They're just not female."
Unfortunately, her most recent breakthrough centred on a bone in her ankle, in a fall at Bath in August. The timing was exasperating, so soon after the Nunthorpe, but hindsight discloses a silver lining. "Do you know, I think breaking my ankle was a good thing," Turner says. "Mentally, it has been a real help just to get out of the race bubble – to be able to go out with my sisters, put dates in my diary. You can't do that normally. But the time away has done me a lot of good. I feel really fresh now."
Michael Bell, her long-standing patron and trainer of Margot Did, believes she must now consolidate her gains. "I don't say she should shoot for the stars, but nor should she put a limit on where she can go," he said. "She's been riding with plenty of dash and confidence, since coming back, and she'll have more chances this season because of what she did last year. She should be looking to compete in Group Ones, and be disappointed if she's not riding at the big meetings."
A piece of the action on Saturday would give impetus not just to Turner, with a new domestic campaign starting the same afternoon, but to others in the sport – and beyond. For now, at least she no longer feels as though she is riding contra mundum. "It'll be nice to have someone to share the weighing room with," she says. "When I was here a couple of weeks ago I was bowled over – there was this amazing sauna, massive showers, a plasma telly. And me. Chantal's great fun, and she's very good at her job. She's going to perform, no question. It is just a case of whether her horse performs. It's the same for any jockey. At the end of the day, it's about the horse. The most difficult task, for us, is to get on the horses with ability. From there, it all gets easier."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Escape To Glory (3.35 Wolverhampton) Hinted at better than this grade during his first season. Looks purposeful for return.
Decoy (4.30 Ffos Las) Didn't seem to get home over longer trip last time but way he travelled suggested he is ready to resume the progress he was making in the autumn.
One to watch
Darceys Dancer (Evan Williams) had an unproductive first season in Britain but kept on from off the pace at Newbury on Saturday. Might soon take advantage of a slipping mark.
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