“The glass ceiling is shattered,” trumpeted the headline as horse racing history was created by Rachel Blackmore, a 31-year-old Irish farmer’s daughter from Tipperary, on winning the Grand National, one of the world’s most famous horse races.
The story went on: “It was a win that rendered gender irrelevant in horse racing. There will not be male jockeys and female jockeys anymore - just jockeys and one of the great landmarks for female athletes in quickening the quest for respect and equality.”
The horse, by the way, was Minella Times, priced at 11-1 which, in an event which was said to have attracted £100m in bets, must have made someone a bob or two.
It is not many years since women jockeys were not taken at all seriously and even this year regarded with a degree of scorn by the male of the species. Rather like motorbike racing. Not any more, since jockeys like Blackmore (six winners at Cheltenham) and Briony Frost, winner of the King George VI at Kempton, but taken to hospital after a fall at Aintree, hit the headlines.
Is man handling a two-ton horse at Aintree less difficult or less dangerous than piloting a Superbike round Silverstone? Whatever your answer it does beg another question: Why are women jockeys capable of beating men in a sport where there are as many, if not more, broken bones than in motorbike racing?
And in other sports such as rugby, football, cricket and even boxing where women are being taken seriously and attracting big audiences, why has this not happened in motorsport, both two wheels and four?
Andrea Coleman, founder and CEO of the charity Two Wheels for Life, and winner of the Women of the Year award, was born into a motorcycle racing family. Her father was Jack Williams, designer and developer of racing bikes like the AJS7R, the G45 and the famous Porcupine.
Her brother was Peter Williams, like his father a great developer, but known to most as a great champion and multi-winner on both road and track who died recently.
Not surprisingly she was mad keen on bike racing, competing on number of UK tracks in the sixties. Her ambition was to race in the Isle of Man but was told rather sternly by a Manx Grand Prix official: ”We’ve got enough trouble without having you. No you can’t have an entry.”
Her response, perhaps inspired by suffragette Emily Davison who in 1911 put herself in the path of a horse at the Derby and was killed, was a threat to lie down in front of the starting line on the Glencrutchery Road. Common sense prevailed but it certainly got a lot of publicity. Her frustration is that nothing has changed very much since then while female participation in most sports has increased by leaps and bounds.
How have these women, and others, broken the glass ceiling, successfully invading a man’s world? And while not ignoring the achievements of Spanish star Ana Carasco and Maria Costello in the Isle of Man among others, we seem a long way short of what they have done.
It can be said that the ACU, the sport’s ‘governing’ body, does not seem to see the potential of encouraging more women but with riders like Emma Bristow we have had a lot of success in off-road sport.
These are in categories for women which don’t exist in track racing although attempts have been made to run them. Is it because there’s lack of interest, worried parents or a desire to compete only with the best as Costello would claim.
Coleman would not agree with any of that. A sport which has occupied most of her life and has dished out pleasure and pain in equal measures is being held back by its macho culture which hasn’t changed much since she was turned down by Manx GP officials because she was a woman. The girl who bought her first motorbike with money from a paper-round admits she was hugely influenced by her family.
“I must have been 19 when I first started racing. Then Peter also bought me some lessons at the Chas Mortimer racing school where Paul Smart was a tutor. I bought a Yamaha TD1C from the Padgetts. When the crankshaft broke Ian Mackay, a great friend, also mechanic for Lewis Young and Jack Findlay, volunteered to help.
“By that time, one or two people were asking me to race their bikes and I was even asked to ride a Greeves for Reg Orpin. Later, I bought a Yamaha TZ250.
“In the meantime I wanted to see the Olympic Games in Mexico. So I hitchhiked all the way down the US east coast and back up the west coast staying with Mike, now Michelle Duff, and some friends on the way.
“That was in 1968 and when I came back I took racing more seriously. Harry Thompson from Harrogate offered me his Suzuki Super Six for a women’s race at Cadwell and I thought this was the best thing and I won. That Suzuki was a very good motorbike.
“I met Tom (Herron) on the Isle of Man when I was there to help my brother with preparation for the TT. I had been working at Chelsea Football Club and I used to race in Chelsea colours, my leathers were blue and had yellow and white stripes.
“It was a great time actually working for Chelsea because during that time ‘we’ had won the FA Cup. And when I met Tom I went to race in Northern Ireland. I crashed at the Mid-Antrim and broke my collarbone and my ribs. I must say, it put me off. I really didn’t like being hurt.
“After we were married Tom and I both sold the bikes we had (Tom’s a 350 Yamaha) and bought one, an ex-Kel Carruthers Yamaha, for Tom because he was really talented. Then we went racing at European GPs with me as a novice team manager. Fortunately I learned fast and by 1979 Tom was riding Suzukis with Barry Sheene as his team-mate.
“Even before Tom died at the North West 200 I was changing my perspective on road racing. I was concerned about the loss of life in road racing and that with no insurance or any protection if they were hurt or killed their families would have nothing to fall back on except for the wonderful TTRA run by an equally wonderful woman Frances Thorpe. I wanted to do something to move things along and I started a riders’ union in Northern Ireland to address that issue.
“In the early days, I had wanted to ride in the Isle of Man in the Manx. So I certainly understand the appeal but in those days the powers that be wouldn’t allow it. They said: ‘We’ve got enough trouble here in the Isle of Man without women riding in the Grand Prix.’ But I knew that there had been notable women, who had actually ridden and side-car passengers, Diane Rowe and Rose Hanks who raced in the Isle of Man. And Eunice Evans was also racing at this time on UK circuits with some success.
“I noted that when I was racing I seemed to get a lot of publicity in national papers at that time, particularly with The Daily Express through Leslie Nichol, who was a great supporter and promoter of mine. Then I got publicity about why I wanted to ride the Isle of Man but wasn’t allowed to.
“It was at the time of course when women were pretty vocal about the old ways and attitudes to women. I did say that I would lie down on the starting grid. Actually, I didn’t do that perhaps because I didn’t think it was dignified or, more likely I wasn’t that self destructive. But I did say it and at the time I meant it. I had entered and it had been turned down but I still went to the Island because I wanted to hear their reasons and discuss it. But I just wasn’t taken seriously.
“However, with the experiences I have had in the sport I still wonder whether women choose not to race or if the environment of the sport is discouraging. Then I look at other sports that have attracted more women. And in those sports both men and women are serious enthusiasts and fans at women-only football, boxing, golf, tennis . So what is it that keeps the number of women participants low?
“It just may not be something many women want to do. Or do they feel intimidated or simply not attracted to such an all male environment. And certainly often, in the past, the rules and regulations of national federations have been behind the times. I do feel that male dominated attitude has held motorcycle racing back quite a long way, This has an influence, not just on the participants but the spectators because you’re excluding 50 per cvent of the population, and making people feel that it’s not appropriate, that it’s a man’s world.
“Some of the Engineerng and science has included few women. There has been an underlying belief that engineering (before new tech) is to do with men, helped by things like ‘umbrella girls’ and women promoting products in the paddock. I understand the arguments people put forward about women wanting to do it and get paid and, in addition, motorcycle racing wants to find ways, understandably, to encourage sponsors. So all explicable but there must be ways of achieving those goals in other ways.
“Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, in his leadership role, successfully encourages women in all sorts of roles in MotoGP. And the Spanish and Italian federations invest in very young talent, both male and female. But what I’ve seen in Spain is completely different and something to learn from. They invest in youth sport and riders like Ana Carrasco and Maria Herrera are the outcome.
“They’re good. But if the management of motorcycling is looking for ways to build the sport with sponsors, audiences and women as participants I think it is important to invest in keen, young talent and also to recognise there is a connection between encouraging young women into tech and engineering.
“Some consideration could be given to developing all-women races. I have heard people say that women would only want to compete against the best. Would that mean only racing in MotoGP if we assume they are the best? We need to start somewhere and developing the sport around women would enhance the sport in my view.
“I understand that Bernie Ecclestone thought, rather like top horse trainer Ginger McCain, that women aren’t strong enough or tough enough to win big races. He obviously hasn’t heard of our top off-road rider Emma Bristow, a multi world champion and is strong and elegant. And when you look now at the number of crashes as opposed to the number of serious injuries, it’s a relatively safe sport.
“Certainly no more dangerous than horse racing where women are making such an impression. And women do not want or need to be protected from themselves when it comes to their choice of sport.
“The women’s commission at the FIM, led by Nita Korhonenis going to have a real influence on motorcycling worldwide and I believe this will also have an impact on women in racing. Incidentally, the FIM produces a book called ‘Dream Big, FIM Women in Motorcycling’ featuring top women in motorcycling. Look out for it - you’d be surprised how many women are working, unseen, in motorcycling.
“And, as we have seen, the investment that has been made in the Spanish championships is bringing along young talent. Both boys and girls. They’re fast. It shows you if you put the investment and belief into it you will get girls coming through and being really good.
“Let’s all give it some thought. If our sport is going to grow and move with the times there is a strong case for making it accessible, welcoming and diverse.”
The Times of February 11, 1921, carried the following story: “The coming motor-cycling season will be particularly interesting from the point of view of the woman rider. The burning question is whether manufacturers will permit their cherished products to be steered to victory or defeat in the 1921 Reliability Trials. General opinion is against this. They contend that women are disqualified through capability, experience and physical strength. Further they maintain that such an innovation would cause jealousy and dissatisfaction among their male competition riders.
Times conclusion 100 years ago: “No manufacturer can afford to ignore his women clients and the fact that any machine ridden successfully under the most strenuous conditions by one of their own sex will strongly influence other women in its favour…”