02/08/2017 3:50PM

Hovdey: A weight break for female jocks? No, merci


You’ve got to hand it to the French. The powers of horse racing in the land that gave us Napoleon, Sartre, and “Barbarella” have outdone themselves this time.

The recent decree that female jockeys should have a two-kilogram break in the weights – or about 4.5 pounds – when riding against their male counterparts was at first greeted with an appreciative nod at the lengths to which they would go for a good laugh. I mean, French cineastes pretended for years that they loved Jerry Lewis movies, and the gullible Americans swallowed it whole.

Then came the realization that the French were not fooling this time. They really do think women are considered inferior when it comes to competing with men on horseback, and they want to do everything in their power to even the playing field that nature so cruelly tilted against the majority gender.

The reason presented (how do you say “lame excuse” en Français?) is to increase the representation of women among the population of licensed jockeys, which has the unmistakable aroma of a marketing chef at work in the corporate kitchen. One can only conclude that every other problem in French racing has been solved.

Affirmative action has its place in helping to adjust grievous historical distortions in the cultural fabric. Opportunity should be guaranteed, but not success. If a racing culture wants to encourage greater participation from qualified women with a passionate desire to ride professionally, there are ways to accomplish that goal on an institutional level without tampering with the races themselves.

Most young jockeys, male or female, are woefully prepared to compete. They are generally ignorant of healthy nutrition, weight control, and fitness. They are told they are small, so why not go be a jockey? Voila!

Thankfully, there are countries that offer young men and women a chance to at least learn the basics of the trade. England has the British Racing School and the Northern Racing College. Panama has the Jockey Training Academy, named in honor of Laffit Pincay. The Japan Racing Association requires prospective jockeys to complete its Horseracing School before they can apply for a license. The United States is far behind the curve in its training of young riders, but at least there is the North American Racing Academy in Lexington, Ky.

France has its own tradition of training young jockeys for flat racing careers through its Association de Formation et d’Action Sociale des Écuries de Course (AFASEC) at two locales. Christophe Soumillon, Mickael Barzalona, and Olivier Peslier are notable grads. Presumably, the young men and women who attend are offered the same curriculum.

Once licensed, young riders the world over are allowed weight concessions as apprentices. It is assumed that such concessions act as incentives for owners and trainers to provide experience. Once the terms of apprenticeships are exhausted, the real world looms, all bets are off, and gender only counts when it comes to the quality of their respective male and female jockey rooms.

Predictably, the reaction to the French decision from the English-speaking world has been derisive. Josephine Gordon, champion British apprentice, found the idea “offensive.” Julie Krone, the lady of this house, held her nose and called it a racing version of “ladies’ tees.” Hayley Turner, the only woman to ride 100 winners during a British season, hit the nail on the head in her comments to “At the Races.”

“It just seems a bit unfair on the lads,” Turner said. “It’s a hard job whether you’re male or female.”

Give young riders the training and conditioning they need. Provide modern facilities for their working day. Require regular health examinations and nutritional guidance. Yes, there is institutional sexism in every workplace, and it should be called out and condemned. But if a young woman has that rare combination of ability and desire to be a professional jockey, she doesn’t need a toe on the scale.

Sex and sensibility

And while we’re on the subject of gender in racing, I would like to place a gag order on anyone suggesting that Unique Bella, the latest West Coast filly phenom, be tossed in against the boys in the Kentucky Derby.

Rags to Riches, Rachel Alexandra, Winning Colors, and Genuine Risk are nothing more than window dressing on a idea rife with senseless failure. Here is what usually happens to fillies in Triple Crown races, at least over the last 50 years:

Cupecoy’s Joy, 10th in the Derby. Life’s Magic, eighth in the Derby. Althea, 19th in the Derby. Serena’s Song, 16th in the Derby. Excellent Meeting, fifth in the Derby. Three Ring, 19th in the Derby. Eight Belles, second in the Derby, RIP.

Excellent Meeting, pulled up in the Preakness. Winning Colors, third, and mugged, in the Preakness. Genuine Risk, second, and mugged, in the Preakness. Ria Antonia, 10th in the Preakness. Genuine Risk, second in the Belmont. Silverbulletday, seventh in the Belmont. Winning Colors, sixth in the Belmont. My Flag, third in the Belmont. Unlimited Budget, sixth in the Belmont.

The Europeans have it right. The spring classics are a chance for the best of both genders to rise to the top of their crops, which is why an Oaks in England or France is held in the same high esteem as a Derby. Then, come July, let havoc reign.