A couple of scientific studies on horse racing were recently highlighted in the media. Both were met by skeptics with a response of: “You needed a scientific study to tell us that?”
The first, from the British Horseracing Authority’s Diversity in Racing Steering Group and the University of Liverpool, proclaimed that female jockeys are just as good as their male counterparts when given the opportunity.
The second study, from Dr. Heather Knych at the University of California-Davis, concluded the anti-bleeding medication furosemide is more effective when given four hours before performance than 24 hours before.
The BHA report, titled “Are Girls Any Good?” and written by Vanessa Cashmore, analyzed the number of licensed female jockeys in the United Kingdom, the number and quality of their mounts, and their success ratio. While the full study has yet to be published, Cashmore concludes, based on the data, “Female performance was seen to be equivalent to that of male jockeys. These results indicate the possibility of gender discrimination, either conscious or unconscious, or at the very least an inherent hiring bias towards selecting male riders.”
The “possibility” of gender bias? I think it’s more than a possibility.
The study found that 11.3 per cent of professional jockey licenses in the UK were held by females, yet only 5.2 per cent of available rides went to those women. Clearly, in the UK, as in many North American jurisdictions, female riders are not getting the opportunities, both in the quantity and quality of mounts.
That’s not right. Riding horses is not comparable to sports like baseball, tennis or golf where size and strength matter. Bill Shoemaker, the greatest jockey in my lifetime, stood 4 feet 11 inches and weighed 98 pounds. He didn’t win 8,833 races with brute strength. He had an innate sense for what a horse could do, a mind like a chess master and hands like a surgeon that horses responded to.
Some circuits are better than others at giving women an opportunity. Woodbine has seen two outstanding female riders – Emma-Jayne Wilson and Chantal Sutherland – consistently in the top 10. Rosie Napravnik, now retired, proved to be a winner at the highest level wherever she competed, as did Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone before her retirement.
But no female jockey in North America has cracked the top 25 in annual earnings since Napravnik’s final year in the saddle in 2014, when she ranked seventh with $13.5 million and rode Untapable to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
While British officials are studying gender disparity, their counterpart racing authority, France Galop, decided to do something about it. Last year, France Galop said female jockeys would receive a 2kg weight allowance (not in listed or group stakes), a move that many criticized – including women riders, some of whom called it “offensive” and “patronizing.”
France Galop wanted female jockeys to get more opportunities, and the weight allowance did just that. According to the Racing Post, for the first nine months of the program, women had twice the number of mounts in France and their number of winners increased by 165 per cent over a similar period. It was so successful an adjustment was made, with the allowance dropping to 1.5kg in 2018.
Is it time for racing in North America to adopt a similar affirmative action program, giving female riders more opportunity to prove they are equal?
The furosemide study will be used by the drug’s proponents as a wet blanket on the movement to rid the sport of raceday medication – though even its author had some caveats when she presented at the American Association of Equine Practitioners in December.
In brief, a sample group of 15 horses was given furosemide either four or 24 hours before a simulated race and then scoped and graded for exercise induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH) afterwards. Two weeks later, the process was repeated. Knych found that 93 per cent of the horses received a Grade 0 (no blood on endoscopic exam) when given furosemide four hours prior but only 60 per cent were Grade 0 at 24 hours out.
Why would anyone expect a different outcome?
One question the study doesn’t address: Why does North American racing permit race-day furosemide when the rest of the world does not?