It's 40 years since women won the right to become professional jockeys in New Zealand. Mike Dillon talks to pioneer Linda Jones.

A myriad of thoughts flooded through Michelle Payne as she embraced the screams of applause guiding Prince Of Penzance to become the first woman jockey to win a Melbourne Cup in 153 years.

She admits one of them was for Kiwi Linda Jones.

You could argue Payne may not have achieved that 2015 feat but for the remarkable battle Linda Jones and husband Alan fought for equal rights for woman jockeys.

It was 40 years ago this week when women were finally allowed to be licensed professionally in New Zealand.

Advertisement

As the former Cambridge horsewoman toughed it through that lengthy battle she continually told the nay-sayers, essentially the New Zealand Racing Conference blocking her licence application, "one day a girl will ride the winner of the Melbourne Cup". The shiny bums, as the popular call is these day, scoffed.

Jones first applied for the right to be licensed in 1976 soon after coming back from competing in an international women's jockeys' comp in Brazil. "There were 18 of us from around the world and the Australian girl and I were the only ones who were not licensed to ride against the males in their home country."

The conference reply was short. "No."

The Jones' asked for reasons and that reply is now a cliche: "Not strong enough, you're married, too old (24), you'll take earnings of male jockeys and no appropriate changing rooms." Good try guys.

Unfortunately for the conference, the Human Rights Bill, which included sexual discrimination, was about to be passed by the National Government. The conference tried to take credit for finally agreeing to licence women, but they did so grudgingly and after being hauled through the corridors of Parliament.

Marilyn Waring, MP for Waipa, which included Cambridge, tapped a couple of conference stalwarts on the shoulder and said: "Pass this because once this Bill becomes law you guys will be in breach of the law."

Jones receives a kiss from Prime Minister Rob Muldoon after winning the Racing Personality of the Year Award in 1979. Photos / Herald files
Jones receives a kiss from Prime Minister Rob Muldoon after winning the Racing Personality of the Year Award in 1979. Photos / Herald files

We tried to confirm this, but apparently the reply was something like: "So what." Well, that will be a fine of $1000. "So what" probably occurred again, prompting Waring, a lifetime huge supporter of women's rights, to make sure they understood that would be $1000 per day. Well, okaaay.

Pregnancy prevented Jones being the first woman to ride a winner against the males, that credit going to her great Canadian mate Joan Phipps, who got Daphalee home at Te Awamutu in 1977. "We invited Joan over ourselves because we knew as a high profile Canadian rider they wouldn't be able to refuse her a licence," says Jones.

Phipps became a Canadian racing steward when she retired from the saddle then later came back to New Zealand and spent a decade in a religious cult in the Auckland area. She was inducted into the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame in 1996 and into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall Of Fame last year.

There is a much-seen photo of Jones guiding a pushchair through the Matamata birdcage moments before she mounted up for her first raceday ride at Matamata on August 12, 1978. If the look on her face isn't determination, we've never seen it. She'd come a long way. "I used to ride at trials when we weren't meant to. I'd just put my name down as L Jones."

The game was up when she won a trial and stewards twigged.

"I wasn't nervous at all that day at Matamata. I'd ridden against these guys for a couple of years at trials and knew them well. They used to call me Mrs Jones." The humour came that day at Matamata when Bobby Vance, champion apprentice at the time, narrowly beat Jones on Big Bikkies, who a week later was to become her first winner. "As we went over the line Bobby said: 'Thank Christ I beat you — imagine the shit I'd have got in the [jockeys'] room if you'd beaten me'."

Ten weeks after that Matamata debut, Jones was a media sensation. Four winners of the of the eight races at Te Rapa on Labour Day showed looks were not the only asset.

This was a class act. You know you're a champion when your profile goes way beyond the periphery of the sport you're in. Way beyond. Linda Jones and Bonecrusher are magnificent examples. Both household names.

The worst nightmare for the boffins at the Racing Conference had arrived — this young woman was licensed, she was very good and she was running riot.

By January, Jones had become the first woman in the developed world to ride the winner of a Derby when Holy Toledo narrowly won the Wellington Derby.

An interesting moment arrived. About the time women were licensed six months earlier, champion trainer Dave O'Sullivan approached Alan Jones. "I really admire what you and your wife are achieving, but please don't ask me to put her on one of my horses."

After the Derby win, O'Sullivan engaged Linda for the favourite in the George Adams, forerunner to the now group one Thorndon Mile. It wasn't to be. Two days after the Derby, Jones crashed heavily on the home turn in the NZ Oaks and the rib she'd broken in a fall at Thames 2-weeks earlier — yes, she was riding with a broken rib — pierced her lung.

"I was trying to get out of the hospital bed to ride for Dave O'Sullivan." The longest shot she would ever attempt — she was sidelined for 12 weeks.

When you're fighting for a rightful cause, you do what you have to do to win.

SHARE THIS QUOTE:

Australia called. They could see the promotional genius of this. "I'd previously turned down an opportunity to ride in Australia because I felt I didn't have the experience. When I did go I'd still only been riding for seven months, which is a blink."

A huge crowd showed up at Sydney's Rosehill when Jones was to partner her husband's Northfleet in the Manion Cup, the first time a woman had ridden professionally in Australia.

"If I wasn't nervous before Matamata, I was fair dinkum beside myself the morning of Rosehill. I had my head down the toilet the whole morning. I threw up everywhere."

After a perfect ride tracking the two leaders, Northfleet hit the front early in the home straight and wasn't quite strong enough to hold out the first two. He went across the line in third with the commentator on the day saying: "If you didn't like that ride you're a nark."

Jones says she learned a lot in that ride. "I trailed the first two and they were riding that tight I couldn't see a gap between them. The next week I rode a horse at Newcastle and it drew wide. The favourite drew the inside and led and I went straight across and sat outside it. I lay on it the whole way round and the apprentice jockey was screaming at me.

He beat me narrowly because of the respective draws and he came back and grabbed the trainer and nearly cried. I learned a lot from that."

Resentment remained. "When I received the MBE, the jockeys in the Central Districts lodged a protest basically saying 'What did she do to deserve that'." Clearly they didn't see racing promotion when it hit them on the head. "I received a fair bit of hate mail, many of them saying I should be at home looking after my daughter, who was well looked after."
Wives of rival jockeys were suspected.

"The northern racing scene was fine, but the Central Districts pushed me away. I was totally embraced in Australia."

Young women on both sides of the Tasman wrote, wanting to replicate the glamour and success. "I never discouraged any of them, but I tried as gently as possible to point out this wasn't just a matter of just getting out there and winning races. This is a lifetime of dedication, hard work and often failure."

Two broken necks and many other significant injuries dramatically shortened Jones' career, not even coming close to completing her apprenticeship. The rise of her star was astonishingly short. "I didn't ride for very long and I believe if I had I would have been a much better jockey. Every ride you have you improve your balance and where you put your weight."

You could argue that. Horses "ran" for Jones and they can't do that if they're not balanced.
You can put any name you like on it, but Jones cleared the way for a much louder voice from women.

When Payne was taking the saddle off Prince Of Penzance in her moment of glory she said straight into a television camera lens: "To think that Darren Weir [trainer] has given me a go in such a chauvinistic sport. I know some of the owners were keen to kick me off and John Richards and Darren stuck strongly with me, and I put in all the effort I could and galloped him all I could because I thought he had what it takes to win a Melbourne Cup and I can't say how grateful I am to them. I want to say to everyone else, get stuffed, because women can do everything and we can beat the world."

A friend and colleague Craig Young, known as "Stinger" in racing ranks in Australia, was looking for an angle for the Sydney Morning Herald at Randwick one morning a couple of decades back and ran into top class Kiwi jockey Maree Lyndon. "So, you're a female jockey?"

Lyndon, who didn't mince words, said: "No, I'm a f ... g jockey."

The war was a tough one. It wasn't until 1982 that Victorian racing abolished the "white line" in all members sections of Flemington Racecourse.

A white line was painted on the floor in every bar and women were not allowed over it. Melbourne was known as the "white line society", astonishing when the Victorian Racing Club, hosts to the Melbourne Cup at Flemington, now has a high profile woman chairperson, Amanda Elliott.

Gai Waterhouse, as professional as any in the horse business, often talks of the glass ceiling women face in Australian racing. "Make no mistake, it's there and it's tough to break through."

Times did change a little though — Waterhouse took Racing New South Wales to the Supreme Court and won the right to train and you have to believe Jones played at least some part in that acceptance.

Horse racing is not an easy game, even with exceptional ability. Jones says she wakes every morning with a cranky body, despite living in the warmth of Queensland's Sunshine Coast. When we did the interview she was experiencing severe nerve pain from the breaks in her neck and surgery is imminent.

Regrets? "Probably the main one is that Arthur Hughes, president of the Auckland Racing Club and chairman of the Racing Conference at the time of our struggle, didn't live long enough to see how well women have done. He told me once, during the struggle, 'Women will never ride while I'm alive'. I told him I didn't believe in the word never. I was probably right.

"If there was one thing I wish I hadn't had to do it was chatting to the wives of prominent administrators at social functions. I would say: 'Do you know your husband won't let us women ride in races' I probably caused a few domestics.

"But when you're fighting for a rightful cause, you do what you have to do to win."

The perfect mantra for a champion jockey.