Lilly Pinchin, Britain’s leading female jockey over jumps this season, says the new changing room configurations to prevent the sexes having to mix at racecourses is putting female riders at a big tactical disadvantage.
Cotswolds-based Pinchin, who is being followed by a film crew for an end-of-season documentary, believes that at courses where the changes have already been made following the Bryony Frost/Robbie Dunne case, female riders are missing out on the male jockeys’ pre-race chat about tactics and therefore are going out to ride ‘blind’, with no knowledge of how a race is likely to unfold, certainly in the early parts.
“The changes have produced some fantastic facilities, don’t get me wrong,” Pinchin says, referencing Warwick, Fakenham and Leicester as prime examples. “It was important they were made but normally, because we are usually the minority, we’d have joined the men in their changing room five minutes before going out to the paddock to ask ‘what’s the plan?’
“There’s only so much you can glean from the form book. It’s helpful to tell your owners how a race is likely to unfold. It’s the first thing your trainer is likely to ask you; what’s Harry [Cobden] doing, what’s Nico [de Boinville] doing. Not knowing is making us look unprofessional and, ironically, the playing field isn’t quite level now.”
Traditionally when the jockeys are given a five-minute warning to tie their caps, female jockeys have joined the male jockeys in the men’s changing room where an informal discussion usually takes place among the riders; who might be going forward, who is likely to be dropping their horses in, who thinks their horse is perhaps not the best jumper and therefore not one to necessarily follow, where the pace, if any, is likely to come from.
For example, if three jockeys say they want to make the running, you know they are unlikely to be hanging around, even if such plans are only a rough guide to how a race might unfold in the early stages. This information is imparted to the trainer and owner in the paddock and factored into how you might ride your own horse.
Pinchin says: “Of course having females walk into a men’s changing room is not normal but, until now, that’s where the valets have been. You wouldn’t be expected to do it if you went to the local swimming pool and they talked about female valets, but it would be impractical if there was only one female jockey riding at a track. We will have to adapt somehow and it’s difficult to explain but could the lads come out to the new communal areas five minutes before a race?”
Pinchin, 25, who was brought up at the bottom of Jonjo O’Neill’s gallops in the village of Ford where her parents — her father Darren was a rally driver — run a Land Rover repair business. “I’ve been a passenger with him on one occasion, it was pretty scary,” she recalls.
Her mother had some interaction with horses through her sister-in-law and Lilly was taught to ride early. When they moved to Ford they bought a place big enough to keep their own horses at home. “Mum wouldn’t let me pony race because she wanted me to event but eventually I persuaded her,” she recalls. “It was on the condition that I rode the same pony in the event the day after the race. It won the race, won the event and so I was away.”
At 15 she pulled herself out of school, rang Fergal O’Brien the next day and he got her going on Creevytennant, on whom she won three races. She also bought a pointer off O’Brien and worked to pay him off but, with Covid putting a brief end to amateur racing, she turned professional.
“I was getting a bit lost at Fergal’s. He had quite a few other young jockeys at the time so I said, ‘Thanks, it’s now time to go and progress my career’.” She went to Graeme McPherson and is now based with Charlie Longsdon, who revitalised her career after a serious injury. She is also getting rides for Richard Hobson, Martin Keighley, Billy Aprahamian and up-and-coming Newmarket trainer James Owen. She rode 24 winners last season and is on 17 for this season, one ahead of Frost.
It has not all been plain sailing, however. She broke seven vertebrae, two ribs and chipped a bone in her neck in a fall at Chepstow on Grand National day 2021. While she was being wheeled into hospital, Rachael Blackmore was making history for female jockeys up at Liverpool on Minella Times.
“I think it’s tough for females coming through in what has traditionally been a male-dominated sport but quite a few of us have ridden out our claim,” she points out. “It can be done and I feel trainers now view it not as whether you are a boy or girl, but how you ride. Trainers are supporting us. Otherwise none of us would be riding out our claims.”
The Cotswold Film Company has been following Pinchin since July and captured her riding out her claim, with her 75th winner, at Fakenham in November. “It takes in the riding and will include horse welfare and mental health,” she says, before adding, teasingly, “and it’s got a really good twist.”