Today, 15 July 2018, marks 40 years since the first New Zealand women rode against men at a totalisator meeting.
Last week, through a happy quirk which sees me now working in the same faculty, I asked former National MP Professor Marilyn Waring about her recollections of how things played out back then.
“I remember lots of it,” she said, adding that Linda Jones, who was the face and driver of the movement to get women licensed, had come to her as a constituent of her Waipa electorate.
“Linda had applied two or three times for a licence to the Racing Conference, she’d ridden miles of trackwork and she wasn’t the only one,” Professor Waring said.
“She showed me the correspondence they’d had and the main reason the Conference gave every time was that there was no separate toilet and changing facilities and racing clubs couldn’t afford to put them in.”
Here, she paused to allow those words sink in, before saying wryly, “As we said, how much did it cost for a curtain, if they were really that fussed.”
What played into the hands of Linda Jones and the other women wanting to ride was an election promise from National in the 1975 election.
“The National party had a commitment to establish a human rights commission,” Waring explained.
“And when that draft bill was ready, I sent a copy with a very polite letter – and it was – to the NZ Racing Conference which had always been split on the matter. There were a couple of good guys in there but they kept being out-voted.”
“I drew the attention of the organisation to the equality in employment, or discrimination in employment clauses in the bill and suggested, that given their treatment of women who were applying to have licences, they should have a copy of the bill because they would probably need to make a submission if they wanted to continue with their particular position,” she said.
“Linda tells me that, at the meeting of the board, the letter was received and almost immediately someone said, ‘well we’re not going to have any choice are we, so we might as well move to do it now’ – and that’s what happened.”
At the time, as a local MP, she said attending race-meetings was something she did regularly because it was where people were. She also remembered a number of studmasters and trainers being within her electorate.
These days she is a little more removed.
“It’s not like I pay a great deal of attention, but I get a thrill whenever they’re top of the table,” she said.
When the history of women earning the right to compete against men is recalled the part Waring and Linda Jones played is, rightly, to the forefront. Likewise the fact that licensed Canadian Joan Phipps put a burr under the saddle of the NZ Racing Conference when was brought over to compete in 1977 – they couldn’t deny her a licence and she struck a blow for the movement by riding a winner while she was here.
Then 15 July 1978 rolled around and the first of the Kiwi girls hit the track.
First up on that auspicious day was Joanne Hale riding in a hurdle race at Waimate. In what is now an awesome piece of synergy the race was won by King Bard ridden by Jim Collett, father of this season’s premiership winning jockey Samantha.
Jockeys are renowned for having elephant-like memories when it comes to their winning rides and, Jim Collett had no trouble recalling that day at Waimate 40 years ago.
Those watching our often depleted jumping ranks would probably find it amazing to know that 14 hurdlers went to the start that day.
Collett said there was little or no stick given to Hale, “jumps riders are a bit different, they’re a bit quieter and they tend to look after each other,” he said.
Another interesting fact he dredged up from the day was that there was a false start in the race.
“We had to go back and jump the first fence again, because a gate didn’t open,” he said.
Collett could give chapter and verse about the brilliance of his ride to win the race, but today is all about the women! My memories are centred around Jo Hale and the fact that about six months after that momentous day I was lucky enough to get to know her.
At the time I was (allegedly) attending Canterbury University but, in reality I was hanging out with my best mate from secondary school who was working at Barrie Taggart’s stables and flatting with Jo Hale.
She had an impact on both of our lives at the time. My friend remembers just how much: “She picked me up on Riccarton racecourse when I was just a kid potentially headed down a bad path and taught me the value of hard work; the need to be smart; that class didn’t really account for much; how to look people in the eye and the power that comes from that and that you should always be picked on talent, not gender or whatever else.”
Those were pretty big life lessons for a teenager, and as my friend added, there were a whole lot after us that she inspired too, including her own daughters.
My strongest memory is that she pushed me so far out of my comfort zone I found myself doing something that, at that age, I never would have anticipated. She made me get over my timidity and actually believe I could stand up in front of a crowd and speak….it wasn’t pretty and no one but Jo could have given me the self-belief to do it.
Jo didn’t talk much about that first ride – it was more about living in the moment – but I do remember one conversation we had about wanting to be the first to do something. She said that was part of what drove her and found a newspaper clipping which quoted her to that effect.
My time in Christchurch was short-lived and later contact with Jo was through the ubiquitous Facebook.
In the intervening years and now known as Jo Giles, she had remarried; had a family; represented New Zealand at pistol shooting; competed in motor-sport; entered rock ‘n roll contests; run for parliament; started her own local body political party; run for mayor of Christchurch; and presented a TV programme on Christchurch TV.
In February 2011 she was one of the victims of the Christchurch earthquake in the CTV building.
Her contribution to racing is commemorated with a plaque at Riccarton racecourse. Those who she inspired remember her regularly as the larger-than-life character she was – we thought she was indestructible.
Photo: The writer “horsing around” with Jo Hale in Christchurch in 1979.