Female jockeys making big gains in France with weight concession
French racing authorities yesterday revealed a significant increase in the number of rides for women after the introduction of the controversial weight allowance for female jockeys.
Women had more than 300 additional rides during the first three months that the allowance has been in operation compared to the same period last year – a 39 per cent increase.
The number of winners, meanwhile, rose by 12 per cent during the same period, a rise that France Galop said proved the 2kg (4.4lb) allowance had not "destroyed the balance" of the French weighing room by handing female riders the advantage.
When the measure was announced by France Galop president Edouard de Rothschild in February there was significant debate both inside and outside the country over a measure that abandoned the notion of men and women competing equally, something that is almost confined to equestrian sports.
Britain's champion apprentice Josephine Gordon was a vocal critic of the allowance, which applies to all races below Class 1 (the category of races below Listed and Group level).
Jean-Pierre Colombu, one of Rothschild's two vice presidents at France Galop, said on Thursday the trend was encouraging but added the real proof of the allowance's worth would come only with an increase in the number of licence requests from women.
"When you look at the figures across the period, there has been a 39 per cent jump in the number of rides for women, which is a decent rise, while a 12 per cent increase in the number of winners would tend to suggest it has not been such a revolutionary measure as to destroy the balance," said Colombu.
"Seventy-nine per cent is a good figure in terms of [the increase in] placed rides because it means they are earning a better living and are better able to stay in the profession."
Columbu added: "Thirty-nine per cent shows a significant movement underway and gives us plenty of hope for the future. The main indicator will be in the number of licenses issued and, in my opinion, we may not see any great change next year. That could take a bit longer to develop."
Breaking the statistics down by month, it is no surprise to see there was an initial rush in March, with a 69 per cent jump in the number of horses ridden by women against 2016.
The relatively short notice between the allowance being announced and implemented left many trainers and agents scrambling for a response to the new environment.
'There was a gulf'
April and May taken together accounted for a 20.7 per cent increase in the number or rides, although May on its own is near the three-month average at 37 per cent.
Colombu said: "In the initial study we undertook [before bringing in the allowance] there was no great difference between men and women when it came to the number of horses who finished placed but, when it came to win percentages, there was a gulf.
"The average man wins one in every 12 to 15 rides whereas with female jockeys the number is much higher. Our aim was not necessarily to artificially boost that win percentage but to encourage more different women to ride."
Rothschild has been a key figure in attempting to advance the cause of female jockeys in France, having increased the number of sex-restricted races during his first period in office and then overseeing the first all-women's Quinte handicap at Saint-Cloud last October.
In a personal capacity he has also played a part, given that Amelie Foulon became the first (and so far the only) woman in France to ride a Group winner on the Flat when she partnered Rothschild's homebred Elliptique to success in the Grand Prix de Vichy two years ago.
There are significantly fewer professional female jockeys over jumps, with more women choosing to remain as amateurs. The figures for the three months of the allowance as it applies to that sphere show a 22 per cent rise in the number of rides and a 66 per cent increase in the number of winners.
Positive figures, but do ends justify the means?
The figures released by France Galop suggest the controversial 2kg allowance appears to be achieving the aim of boosting opportunities for women in French racing.
While that is unquestionably positive news, the consideration that remains is whether the ends justify the means.
When the allowance was proposed criticism to it was focused on the notion it suggested women needed one to compete with men and that one would undermine their achievements.
Opposition remains strong: Josephine Gordon, Britain's top female rider, this week described the allowance as "extremely sexist" and said none of her female colleagues approved of the idea.
And that, ultimately, should be the end of the road for this concept on these shores. For all that instinct is to applaud an initiative that is increasing diversity in the weighing room, it is impossible to support an allowance that even those it is supposed to benefit want no piece of.