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In the 1990s the Hong Kong Jockey Club invited some of the world’s top female jockeys to compete at its Ladies’ Purse fixture yet the jockeys’ roster has remained an all-male domain for most of this century.
Julie Krone does not at first recall her winning ride on Northern Fire Ball, it was 28 years ago, after all: ‘I would love to see the race to refresh my memory,’ she messages via sms. Not everyone in Hong Kong nowadays remembers it either but for hardcore racing fans of a certain age, it is considered a ‘special’ ride, renowned for Krone’s ‘strong arm’ handling of a wayward galloper.
Krone’s memory is jogged when she watches the footage. It was the Orchid Handicap of 15 October 1994, the divided first section of the day’s feature, the Ladies’ Purse Handicap. The world’s highest-profile woman jockey of her time – a historic Belmont Stakes win, all-time leader in wins and prize money, appearances on Letterman – was there by special invitation from the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club to showcase Hong Kong’s very own ladies’ day. It was to be the first of four consecutive Ladies’ Purse days to feature overseas female jockeys.
“That horse didn’t like being hit, I do remember figuring that out,” she tells Asian Racing Report later via phone from her home in California. “At cruising speed, I think he was comfortable but once I asked him to go faster, I think he had some kind of muscle issue in his back or down in his butt, so when he pushed off it caused his leg to go weary on one side and that made him lug in.
“But when I reached down to hit him left-handed – sometimes that’ll kind of snap them out of it – it made him more mad and he lugged into my stick more. He pinned his ears and instead of digging in and pulling at the ground to catch the other horse, he started to back off and pat the ground. I had to stop hitting him.”
Krone was locked in a neck-and-neck tussle with John Marshall aboard Northern Leader and her mount was doing everything he could to resist going forward.
“He had his head turned and his body was trying to follow it but there’s a fine line,” she says.
“You have to let them take a couple of feet forward and turn them so they don’t bump the other horse; there has to be increments of inches going forward that are greater than the distance keeping them sideways.
“You have to straighten them out, let them go forward a little, straighten them out, let them go forward; so, it was dabbling and getting that fine balance between not letting him go in and bother the other horse and bumping, but still trying to encourage him to go forward without hitting him.”
Krone won by a head to seal a race-to-race double at only her third ride in Hong Kong. She finished up with two wins, two seconds and three fourth-placings from nine rides. It was a day, and a ride, that seemed destined to uplift the profile of female jockeys in Hong Kong.
Tony Cruz, Hong Kong’s great homegrown jockey turned Group 1 trainer, was riding that afternoon and understands something of the impact Krone made on those who saw her in action.
“Julie Krone left an impression here,” he says. “She was very famous in Hong Kong and all the locals loved her even though she only came here one other time. She was very good in a finish and she could change the whip very quickly and often, and she was so strong. The Hong Kong people love a big-name jockey who can do those things.”
The following three years brought Emma O’Gorman and Alex Greaves from Britain, Lisa Cropp and Kim Clapperton from New Zealand, and Krone again with her fellow American Donna Barton, now Donna Brothers.
It was a time of change in Hong Kong. Not only was it the years leading to and including the 1997 handover from British rule to Chinese, but it was also a new era for women in racing.
While in the United States women had been race riding since Diane Crump broke that barrier in 1969, it was only in 1993 that Sherie Kong, at age 17, became the first local woman to compete in a race in Hong Kong; and just three weeks before Krone rode at Sha Tin for the first time, Win Chung became the first woman to win a race in the city.
Female riders were passing through Hong Kong’s apprentice jockey school and actually race riding. Those mid-1990s Ladies’ Purse days were all part of this new dawn and the Jockey Club – not known to do things by halves – did its best to make it special. The visiting jockeys had functions, cocktail cruises, island dinners, and their faces on giant posters around town.
“It was a five-star experience,” says O’Gorman, Britain’s leading female rider when she rode the Ladies’ Purse in 1995. “When my brother walked out down the passageway in the airport, we kind of turned a sharp right and he just went into reverse and said ‘get ready for this!’ There were loads of paparazzi, a stretched limo outside, it was amazing.”
Greaves, Britain’s first Group 1-winning female rider, says it was “a big thing back then” for a woman to be asked to go and ride in Hong Kong.
“Back in the day girls didn’t travel to ride in places like that; it wasn’t a thing” she adds of her 1997 experience, having previously been asked to ride on the NAR Queen Jockey Series in Japan, which by contrast she says was “great fun, but like riding at Southwell.”
Krone returned in 1996 but the record books show that she and Barton (Brothers) – the top two female jockeys in North America at the time – did not find much joy on that year’s ladies’ day.
“I didn’t know how to read the racing form and neither could Julie,” says Brothers, whose mother Patti Barton was the first woman to ride 1,000 winners. “I didn’t know what running style my horse had and I didn’t know the odds until I got out for the post parade. To be honest, every single race I just went out there and looked at the Tote board and I would see who the favourites were on the board. I would identify them in the post parade and my goal was to keep up with them but I never could.
“Every race was just a crap shoot,” she laughs. “Honestly, none of my horses could run. When you don’t have the horse, you can’t race-ride, all you can do is try to keep up. We were both like, ‘Wow, that was tough.’”
One of my closest friends: Legend Julie Krone & me. Love her. 😊 pic.twitter.com/DywnBmMm8X
— Donna Brothers (@DonnaBBrothers) April 14, 2014
After 1997, the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) did not invite any more female jockeys to ride at the Ladies’ Purse. Krone’s two wins in 1994 were the only wins the six women were able to achieve from a combined 48 rides.
“I felt like they did treat us very nicely and I wish it was something they’d done more often with other riders because they did a great job with it,” says Barton, who, like Krone, remembers meeting female apprentices at the HKJC apprentice school.
“They took the school there seriously and it was a unique situation for them to have three or four apprentice females there and they were quite proud of the progress they had made in women’s participation in the sport by that point.”
But while Krone’s handling of Northern Fire Ball in particular left a lasting memory, the legacy of those days is not what it might have been. At first, Hong Kong’s female apprentices continued to emerge from the HKJC school but then they stopped.
The feeling in Hong Kong is that the HKJC changed tack following what Cruz describes as the ‘terrible’ death of Willy Kan in March 1999 after she fell from her mount at Sha Tin.
“The Jockey Club became very restrictive with all these apprentices after that,” Cruz observes. “They got a new format of how to train them and send them overseas to ride and get a lot of experience, ride a lot of winners, and prove they’re good enough before they come back.”
Since the turn of the century, Kei Chiong in 2015 is the only female apprentice to have made it through that process and been licensed to ride in Hong Kong: she flourished and faded, all within a couple of years.
But the HKJC has not rushed to bring in established female jockeys from overseas either. Emma-Jayne Wilson, Chantal Sutherland and Hollie Doyle have been called up to ride the International Jockeys Championship, held at Happy Valley one night each December. Only Wilson has been given a longer licence but her spell in early 2008 was cut short.
“We should invite those big-name jockeys to come and ride in Hong Kong, women like Hollie Doyle, they’re big-name jockeys. We need them here now,” says Cruz.
Krone agrees. “They should bring women back to the racing,” she says. “It gives a clean slate and it has a lot of aesthetics.
“First of all, to see more than just guy jockeys: it brings a flavour and a certain quality to racing and it’s kind of good for everybody. It seems that people like female athletes, too, they latch on to them in a different way than they do the guy athletes.”
This year’s Ladies’ Purse is on Sunday. The HKJC marketing arm has used its Instagram account in the past week to post profiles of the worthy achievements of Doyle, Sutherland, Mickaelle Michel and Nanako Fujita as part of its big race promo. Yet the card will not have a woman riding; the Hong Kong jockey roster is all-male.
When Krone described her ride on Northern Fire Ball she said, “It’s all about timing, the increments of giving and taking, giving and taking, and inches; unlimited adjustments that you had to make, thousands of tiny adjustments with horses all the time.”
But time has stretched long since those optimistic days of more than a quarter of a century ago when the Hong Kong Jockey Club seemed to be proactive in dismantling gender barriers for female riders. Strides were made at a rapid rate in an all too short time, only to be reduced to an inch here and less there.
Just like Northern Fire Ball, the club has not accelerated its advance as it might have: there has been little appetite to licence female jockeys despite adjustments since the turn-of-the-century as to how women are perceived and accepted in sport and society, in Hong Kong and in the west. Whether or not that is about to change lies in the decisions of its Licensing Committee. Just one adjustment would do it.
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