Women's campaign reaches Lil landmark; THE DERBY: A woman will ride for the first time in next Saturday's premier Classic, but the 2,000 Guineas winner misses out

Greg Wood explains why a no-hoper will help Alex Greaves to make Epsom history
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The Independent Online
When Portugese Lil gallops to post before the Derby at Epsom a week today, she will be the hot favourite - to finish last. Her qualifications to contest the greatest Classic of all begin and end with the fact that she is three years old. And yet, when the history books are updated after the 217th Derby, Portugese Lil will merit at least a centimetre or so in the footnotes for becoming the first horse in the history of the race to be ridden by a woman.

For some, the presence of Alex Greaves in the stalls will mark an important step forward for women jockeys. Almost a quarter of a century after the Jockey Club first granted licences to female riders, one of their number has finally broken into the British season's most prestigious event.

More thoughtful observers, however, will wonder why it has taken so long, and why Greaves is forced to make her historic debut aboard such a laughable no-hoper.

That it is Greaves who is breaking new ground is no surprise. She is one of only two women currently making any serious attempt at a professional riding career - Emma O'Gorman is the other - and was the first ever to ride out her apprentice's allowance (partner 95 winners).

Greaves can also boast the most significant Flat victory by a woman in Britain, on Amenable in the Lincoln Handicap in 1991.

Both Greaves and O'Gorman, however, must still rely on their kin for almost all their rides. Greaves is married to David Nicholls, Portugese Lil's trainer, while Emma O'Gorman is the daughter of another trainer, Bill. Among both owners and trainers, a deep conviction remains that female jockeys are not and never will be a match for their male counterparts. As a result, the ambitions of many would-be women riders are frustrated before their careers can begin.

Even Greaves herself has few illusions about the largely symbolic nature of next week's ride. "It won't make any difference, though obviously it's great to have a ride in the race," she says. "I was brought up in racing and I've known the score for a long time. If you come in thinking that you're going to make a big difference you're going to be greatly disillusioned.

"But we've only been riding here for less than 30 years. In Scandinavia and America they've been doing it much longer, and every year things are getting better. It's just going to take a very long time."

America offers the most famous example that, given the chance, women riders can compete on an equal footing with the men. Only last week, Julie Krone added another Grade One race to her long list of big-race successes, while British punters may remember Krone's astonishing visit to an evening meeting at Redcar a few seasons ago, when she rode a four-timer against some very startled male opponents.

The complaint which is levelled most frequently against women jockeys is that they lack strength in a finish. Strength, though, is little more than a euphemism for how hard and frequently a rider can hit their mount in the closing stages, and thus an attribute which becomes less important with each new strengthening of the whip rules.

"The way the rules are changing at the moment is all in our favour," Greaves says, "and the strength argument that was used by a lot of them has gone straight out of the window. It's a help too that the Jockey Club has a younger generation coming in with new ideas."

Yet it may be two generations or more before changing attitudes to the role of women percolate through from the wider population into racing's insular little world. Derek Thompson, one of Channel 4's racing presenters, recently introduced a 26-year-old equine artist to his viewers as a "girl", which does not augur well for Thompson's inevitable pre-race interview with Greaves.

This is the sort of mentality which, 20 years ago, objected to the idea of policewomen and female firefighters. For all the talk of strength and physical stress, successful race-riding has much more to do with a mental aptitude for judging pace and then producing a mount at the right moment, which even the most ardent chauvinist cannot claim as a male preserve.

To develop these skills, however, a young rider requires constant practice, and while the belief persists that a woman jockey will never make it to the top, female apprentices will never enjoy equal opportunities. Sooner or later, most aspiring riders admit defeat, effectively ensuring that those who come after them will also be frustrated.

Against this background, Greaves's appearance at Epsom next week is, at best, a minor cause for celebration, and certainly not a major breakthrough. When Portugese Lil eventually passes the post, many dozens of lengths adrift of the winner, the real struggle to win a fair deal for women jockeys will continue in yards throughout Britain, a world away from the glamour and the television cameras.

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