Ladies, Start Your Horses

If you can set aside for just moment the fact that two horses died during this weekend's Grand National hunt horse race in Liverpool, England, you might be able to appreciate Katie Walsh's history-making third-place finish, the highest placement ever for a female jockey.

According to the Guardian, Walsh, riding a horse named Seabass (who I'm sure adores sugarcubes), had been a joint 8-1 favorite to win the race. Since the first woman competed in the Grand National in 1977, 18 others have followed suit, with only 7 actually completing the arduous course. Fans of UK racing hope that Walsh's stellar performance could create more opportunities for female jockeys in what is still a sport dominated heavily by narrow-shouldered men who speak in jarring falsettos. The British Horse Racing Authority reports that, of the 435 UK jockeys, only 46 are women, despite the fact that many believe women, with their naturally smaller frames, have a distinct advantage over men in a sport that prizes lightness in its human hangers-on.

Walsh, however, is quick to point out that her chromosome configuration is, if anything, a distinct disadvantage in a hunt race, which, unlike a regular track race, requires a great deal of physical strength. Jockeys are typically heavier in hunt races, and because of this, says Walsh, she's "just not as strong as lads, that's the way it is." Still, equestrian sports are one of the few arenas were men and women can compete against each other professionally, and there are indications that women may be getting more opportunities to compete (see last year's Kentucky Derby history-making hopeful Rosie Napravnik).

Alison Liddle of Women in Racing explains that advances in fitness (and social attitudes) have encouraged more trainers consider female jockeys. "We're much more up for putting girls up there now," said Liddle. "In recent years the fitness regimes and accountability has made it more accessible." Richard Perham, a former jockey turned coach, is even more optimistic:

While there is no doubt that ladies struggle with fitness and strength compared to the lads in the early stages, [they] find it easier to keep their weight down. They also have greater ability to apply themselves and take on information. And the field is levelling. Jockeyship is becoming more professional and standards are being raised.

Though the 27-year-old Walsh attributes at least some of her success to her family's horse racing legacy, — her father Ted Walsh gave her riding lessons early and often — her third-place finish nevertheless paves the way for more women to compete in the only Olympic sport that doesn't separate the sexes. It's just a shame that so many horses have to die for women to gain equal-footing with men in a competitive sports arena.

Will Katie Walsh's success encourage more female jockeys? [The Guardian]