Pull Together America: An Example of Horse Racing’s Future in Britain

Influential women in horse racing is an occurrence that happens far too infrequently.

Updated: July 5, 2019 • 12:45 PM ET

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Scottish jockey Lucy Alexander is among a small number of females in her position.

I knew a rowing coach once, an introverted fellow, who was pretty profound when he spoke. He always said that rowing was the sport where you could take a very average athlete and mold them into something with great potential. Over the past 10 years, I’ve taken this notion of new starts to heart.

Speaking of new beginnings, back in April in an unprecedented move, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) unanimously named a new chairperson to lead their organization. Her name is Annamarie Phelps, and she’s a rower. No, I mean she was a rower at the Olympic-level. Yet, using a double-meaning, her approach to her life and horse racing is one of a rower’s mentality.

This past week in London, she addressed members of the Racehorse Owners Association with a spirit that was quite refreshing and beyond progressivism. Several points stood out.

First, if we think about sports, there are few instances where women and men compete on the same stage. Of course, there are mixed-doubles in tennis and other regional sports (figure skating and curling come to mind) that compete regularly and during the Olympics; but unfortunately, these examples are rarely televised.

Phelps touched on this point by proffering that horse racing has the most opportunity to expand its vision when it comes to gender relations. After all, women jockeys can easily beat their male counterparts, and gendered connections can equally challenge one another at any level, no matter what kind of race it is.

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We’re at a unique point in the history of the world, where sport is evolving based on the power of the consumer to choose. Social media has in turn created a social leveling experience — real world indeed!

Regrettably, men’s salaries are still higher than women’s, but that won’t necessarily continue, nor is that a litmus test for popularity (i.e. examine Women’s World Cup play). We can do more to stamp out gender bias in horse racing and invest in a more diverse future. Phelps is on to something.

It’s about demographics. Horse racing as a global sport has done little to court younger people from outside the folks that regularly attend the track. Yes, major race dates do their part, but regular strategy-making on this count has fallen short.

In the U.S., there are few female jockeys at the elite level. Since Rosie Napravnik retired, not one female jockey has emerged to take her place. Likewise, track race callers continue to be male with few examples of female voices that boom in the air of the grandstand.

In the front office arena, Belinda Stronach is probably the most prominent example of a female power player, but she is shrouded in mystery, as far as I am concerned, when it comes to leadership. This fight with her father, Frank, has clouded the sport and turned Santa Anita into a spectacle rather than a laboratory for progressive spirit, in my opinion. In other words, she’s too close to the situation.

Where is the impartiality? On other fronts, for the most part, males dominate every other racing syndicate.

Thus, the BHA’s move to name Phelps as their chief shows great promise considering that she understands that racing entities like horse owners and Jockey Clubs can butt heads at the slightest instance. She also spoke of the need for advocacy, which I think speaks to the idea of stewardship.

In America, there’s all kind of “talk” on this subject. This past week, the Breeders’ Cup offered its support of Santa Anita hosting their marquee event, despite the controversy, and other tracks put forward their advocacy as well. It was impressive to see.

But time will tell if this was just a bunch of ostriches sticking their heads in the proverbial sand. The question remains, will anything really change? Transparency is still up in the air and tracks are still ruled by fiefdoms, rather than a strong national authority. Where is Alexander Hamilton when we need him?

As for the BHA, they were wise to choose someone outside the racing establishment, a rower mind you. Phelps understands how to get people to pull together. It should be noted she also chaired a committee that appraised British cycling, one of the most controversial and tainted sports of the past 25 years when it comes to doping. Point being, her record is made of stern stuff.

I wish her nothing but the best moving forward. Perhaps her leadership will continue to serve as an example to us all that horse racing can have a future.

During a week of talk concerning independence, American racing should take note in order to row together.