By Jenny Bridle
(Courtesy of http://www.fasttrack.hk)
On November 3rd Michelle Payne became the first woman to ride the winner of the “Race that Stops a Nation,” the Melbourne Cup. She did this on Prince of Penzance, a 100-1 longshot.
In the afterglow, those of us who don’t know Michelle learned a lot about this young jockey who rides for largely unsung Australian trainer, Darren Weir: her mother died when she was young and her father was left alone to care for their 10 children. Michelle was only 6 months old when her mother died but the family pulled together and are very close. The Paynes are a well-known horse racing family with father Paddy Payne Sr a long time horseman, and most of the children having trained as professional jockeys.
One of the best – and swiftest – reactions to Payne’s win came from Ascot Racecourse, which invited her to participate in next summer’s Shergar Cup as a member of The Girls Team, joining 2014 team Captain, Canada’s Emma-Jayne Wilson and others.
After the race was over, Michelle made more headlines when she said that anyone who doesn’t think women can do what men can do, should “get stuffed.” More, she went on to say, “It’s such a chauvinistic sport, a lot of the owners wanted to kick me off.”
Her comments earned her a request to meet with Racing Victoria CEO Bernard Saundry who wanted to discuss sexism in the sport. From afar, some 2 weeks later, what’s happening with the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup in its 155 year history?
There are no global magazine covers, very little news coverage beyond Australia, and the excitement has died down completely and this despite the fact that her win shows Payne is clearly an amazing young woman.
Why is this?
Many pundits have ventured into versions of this question and come away with an answer that’s similar to Michelle’s: it’s due to chauvinists within the sport. Is that all it is? Maybe we should be asking, isn’t that enough?
Here, in Canada, the day after the Melbourne Cup was a momentous one as we elected our 23rd Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. In the days following his election, Trudeau announced that he would create a cabinet that had an equal number of male and female MPs. Asked why he had committed to do this, the 43rd year old simply said, “Because it’s 2015.”
This week, the Head of Apple Music, Jimmy Iovine, famed music producer, announced that “women find it very difficult at times” to “find music.”
Earlier this year, American presidential hopeful, Donald Trump made headlines after a candidate’s debate where he was put on the spot by Megyn Kelly. He subsequently told CNN, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her — wherever.”
Here we are in the 21st Century and there are still people suggesting that smart women who ask tough questions must necessarily be at the mercy of their biology and that women are not good enough to win an iconic horse race, help run a G20 country or determine their own music playlists. Surely, we’re further along the road of enlightenment, aren’t we? Sadly, the reaction to Michelle Payne’s win suggests that we are not very far down that road:
How discouraging that — not only has horse racing failed to embrace her en masse and demonstrate that they see Michelle Payne as the gift she is to a sport that is clearly challenged on several critical fronts — many are bystanders to her commentary, not chiming in to say what she said isn’t true and/or prove her wrong.
More discouraging still is learning that there are racing “executives” who believe that inviting a winning female jockey to a signature racing event would be a gimmick. Can there be anything more demeaning to women than the idea that we are a specialty item of little importance, a sort of throwaway promo that no one really cares about?
What a surprise the sport has difficulty attracting and retaining female fans. If we’re not into hats and heels and fancy frocks, there’s seems to be no — or only a grudging — place for us. And, if we are into hats and heels because we are women, why is it so hard to believe and accept we are also smart and capable and just as talented as men?
And, what about other men? We should not lose sight of the many men who support women like Michelle. Too bad more of them are not in positions of power in racing, running the sport, and being an inspiration to everyone.
More than run-of-the-mill chauvinism, there’s something else about Michelle’s victory that seems to bother people – it was unexpected. A horse running at 100-1 is not expected to win by any measure. Yet, it does happen. There are lots of examples in racing where a horse and jockey with long odds triumph in spite of what others have decided are their sub-par talents. Myself, after watching the Melbourne Cup, I was waiting for someone to jump up and say, “That’s racing!” like they do every time the unexpected happens: the “sure thing” that finishes last, or the not-so-well-bred that wins against real blue bloods. But that never happened. Instead, there seemed to be some resentment of Michelle’s win, which was only compounded by the fact that Michelle is a woman.
Everyone in racing should ask, “Why is this?” and, when the answer comes back as “because she’s a woman,” we should do all we can to change that. There’s no excuse for chauvinism in our sport.
Because it’s 2015.