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Sport on Saturdays: This is what it's like to be a female jockey right now.

Clare on a horse named El Maze – photo by Lyndell Connor

In the last two weeks, we’ve seen three separate tragedies at our Australian racecourses. And all three have involved female jockeys.

The first was Carly-Mae Pye, a 26-year-old jockey who died during a training race at Callaghan Park in Rockhampton, Queensland. The horse Pye was riding broke both his front legs, throwing Pye headfirst into the track.

The second was Caitlin Forrest, a 19-year-old apprentice jockey who died when her horse fell on a track at Murray Bridge race course, close to Adelaide. Forrest was air-lifted to hospital but later died from serious head injuries.

The third was Desiree Tagg, a 25-year-old who fell off a horse at Wyong Race Club. According to the Daily Telegraph, she was taken to hospital with suspected spinal and chest injuries.

The string of deaths and injuries have seen a lot of talk about horse racing over the last few weeks. About how dangerous it is. About whether or not the risks are worth it. And in particular, there’s been a lot of talk around female jockeys.

Why do they do the sport if there are so many risks involved? Is it worth it? And what happens if something goes wrong?

I wanted to talk to someone who knows all the ins and outs of the racing world. So I had a chat to Clare Lindop, a 35-year-old professional jockey who is based in Adelaide.

Clare has managed some remarkable achievements – she’s ridden some big-name horses in some big races, including the Melbourne Cup, which she first raced in 2003. She’s been trained by some big people in the industry, including Leon Macdonald, Byron Cozamanis and the late Jack Barling.

But it hasn’t all been a smooth ride. Clare has had plenty of falls along the way, and has suffered from a broken collar bone, wrist, ankle, leg, dislocated shoulder as well as several concussions. Earlier this year, she broke 15 ribs after a big fall at the Adelaide cup, and had to take 12 weeks off.

I had a chat to her about everything – the horse racing world, the recent spate of injuries, and all the debate around just how morally sound the race industry is…

Nat: How did you get into horse racing?

Claire: I used to live in a property in the country and just got into riding ponies at the local pony farm where they do trail rides. I got my own pony when I was about twelve, a beautiful grey pony named Annie. I joined a pony club and started competing in shows. From there, I started working in a racing stable and then at about 15 I left school to do an apprenticeship with a trainer, Frank Byrne. I had a successful apprenticeship with lots of rides and it took 6 months to ride my first winner. His name was Opinions Differ.

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From there, I continued with apprenticeships and then moved Adelaide and have lived here ever since. At 21 years old I started riding for Leon MacDonald which is when I started riding in the Melbourne Cup. All of a sudden I started getting more opportunities and my career went from there.

N: What’s it like being a female jockey in the racing world? 

Clare on a horse El Maze – photo by Lyndell Connor

C: Equestrian sport is the only sport where male and female horse riders compete on the same level. If you enter a show, it’s your horse entering into that horse class – whether you’re a male or female rider doesn’t enter the question. It’s the same with being a jockey, men and women compete in the same arena for the same prize money. In the job, you’re paid the same.

It’s interesting because females have been licenced to race against men in this country since 1979. It’s only been 30 odd years that we’ve been allowed to compete against them. For a long time, girls had a really tough time trying to get a start in racing. I started in 95 and it was still quite male-dominated.

Even now, the top level is still very hard to break into, there’s a glass ceiling. To be able to compete in the big races you have to have some kind of lucky break. Unfortunately you’re competing against everyone with a resume – when you’re competing against someone that’s had 10 wins in the Melbourne Cup it can be very tough to get on a horse.

I’ve been fortunate to get on some big name horses and compete in big name races, but even now there’s not always an opportunity that someone who’s got my record should have, because I’m a female rider.

That said, I’ve always worked hard and had trainers that have been 100% confident in my ability and backed me. So I’ve never felt hard done by in any way, shape or form.

N: What’s your training schedule like?

C: I ride the race horses in track work six days per week. That’s normally a 5am start and finishes about 8am. To ride one horse takes about 15 minutes and I ride anywhere between 5 and 10 horses per morning. Four times a week, I compete. In between, I have a personal trainer who I do two sessions a week with. I also do hot yoga and I enjoy swimming. I don’t really have a complete day off.

It’s a sport that requires a different kind of fitness. You can be really fit in the gym and then you get on a race horse and your legs are like jelly. I can ride ten horses in a row and not have any side-effects fitness wise, but if I went for a jog around the block I probably wouldn’t make it.

N: Around this time of year, there’s a lot of talk around the treatment of race horses and the cruelty of the racing industry – what’s your opinion on all of that?

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C: Unfortunately a lot of people don’t understand all the work that goes on behind the scenes. The horses are cared for, they’re owned by people who love racing but horse welfare is at the top of their list. Everyone’s very proud of their animals and want them treated very well. In the stables, there’s nothing that we don’t do for them. They’re fed three times a day, they’re exercised twice per day, they’re groomed.

Clare racing – photo by Atkins Photography

Unfortunately accidents happen. Animals have accidents anywhere, whether it’s on a race track or not. It’s the nature of performing at the top level where animals will have an injury, and no one likes to see that but it’s part of competing at that level. You see it with human athletes – they’re competing at their best but they’re putting a strain on their body. It’s the same with horses.

Horses are herd animals, their natural thing they want to do is run in a pack and get to the front of the pack. It’s instinct. They love to run and get to the front. They instinctively know what to do.

We can’t do any more to protect them than what we already do and the care after racing – there’s certainly more there than what people understand in terms of rehabilitation. Lots of race horses go on to be pets for people. There is a small percentage who may lose their life and have to be put down because of the nature of the injury, but we always keep the horse’s best interest at heart. So I can’t see any problem with the way we respect our animals.

 N: And were you shaken up by all the incidents that have happened over the last few weeks?

C: Of course. I’m actually very involved with the National Jockey Association and we started a trust which helps seriously injured riders and the families of those jockeys who may have lost their lives in racing incidents. Professionally, that’s something that I’m proud of.

There’s 860 riders in Australia and the percentage of accidents we have is actually quite low when you consider the risks of what we do. It can be a very dangerous job and we are very aware of those risks.

Safety measures increase all the time and there are often reviews done by the racing board. We all wear safety vests and helmets. I had a fall back in March where I broke 15 ribs. No internal injuries whatsoever though, so I was quite lucky. If it wasn’t for the safety vest then you do wonder what the result may have been.

Unfortunately the way Caitlin fell, she had a serious head injury. And we do wear helmets and they’re the best helmets on the market at the moment and we welcome any further improvements, but it’s the nature of the industry. We’re going at 70 km/h on a 500kg animal and we’re only 2m off the ground, there’s not a lot of fall time. It’s just the way you fall sometimes.

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The fact that the last few deaths have been females is purely coincidence. If you look at the last few falls before that… well, I don’t remember the last female fall so it would have been a lot of men in a row. And then would you say that men are more susceptible to falls? It’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction.

I haven’t got the figures in front of me but I would say that about 25% of riders in Australia are female. Going back even 10 years ago, it probably would have been about 10%. So the increased female population of riders is an issue too, you’re more likely to have injuries now than what we’ve had in the past.

Clare addressing a fundraising luncheon to raise funds for the National Jockeys Trust – photo by Terry Hahnn

N: You’ve had quite a few injuries – have they ever made you rethink being in the racing industry? 

C: When I was out with an injury for three months with broken bones, it just rekindled my passion. You realise that this profession is your life, racing is your passion, and I missed it so much. I missed being part of a team where you get a young horse into the stables and you spend a lot of time with that horse and then they win, and they’ve been in the stables for 10 years and going for their 100th race start, you become very proud of them.

N: What do you ultimately love most about being a jockey?

Having a horse and being part of their education and then you see them win a race, there’s nothing more satisfying. It’s amazing that the way you work with your animals, you communicate with an animal that doesn’t speak English – it’s amazing. You learn what they’re doing, they learn what you’re doing you work together and it’s incredible.

N: What would you like to happen next with the racing industry?

I want to see more females get involved with race horse ownership. It’s the last of the boys’ clubs. It’s still very much a male-dominated industry in that regard. Beyond the champagne and hats, it’s an amazing sport.

And in other sports news from the week… 

– Aussie Sevens star Emilee Cherry has been named the Sevens Player of the Year as well as the Australian Rugby’s Women’s Player of the Year at the John Eales awards. Congratulations, Emilee!

– Cricket’s Southern Stars captain, Ellyse Perry, led our Australians to victory during their Twenty20 clash in Canberra. They managed a nine-wicket victory, with Perry completing three successful overs with the ball to finish with 1-14 – despite having a knee injury.

Is there anything in the sporting world this week that you’d like to talk about?

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