23-year-old Lizzie Kelly has become the first female jockey to ride in horse racing’s most prestigious race, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, in 33 years. The last woman to do so was Linda Sheedy back in 1984, who rode a 500.1 outsider. Unfortunately Kelly was unseated from her horse Tea for Two at the second fence, but she can still be proud of her achievements last week.
Devon-based Lizzie rides for her step-father, Nick Williams and Neil King, who are both trainers.
Back in December 2015, Lizzie became the first-ever female jockey to win a Grade One jumps race in the UK, winning on board Tea For Two at Kempton, so that should bode well for another good run at Cheltenham. Tea For Two is a horse owned by Lizzie’s mother, Jane, so it was something of a family celebration given that step-father, Nick is also his trainer.
It has not always been an easy ride for Lizzie in the sport of horse racing. Kelly has spoken out on numerous occasions about the difficulties the sport holds for young women looking to break through as jockeys.
Since the age of just 18 months, Lizzie has ridden horses in the family’s Devon yard with the aim of breaking the mould and challenging the male-dominated sport.
“There are plenty of reasons why trainers don’t use girls, and it is never going to change,” Lizzie told The Telegraph in a 2015 interview.
“Every generation, there are two or three female jockeys who are used, but it doesn’t go any further. The subconscious idea of females being the ones who should be at home, looking after the children, is part of our make-up.”
It’s hardly a cheery view on the world of professional horse racing, but Lizzie has accepted the sport for what it is, gritted her teeth and got on with it. With horse racing yards brimming with jockey competition, sometimes young riders only get the one opportunity to demonstrate their potential to trainers.
There is no doubt that her success in the Kauto Star Novice Chase at Kempton underlined her promise. It also rounded off one of the most encouraging years for female jockeys to date, with Michelle Payne becoming the first women jockey to win a race at Australia’s Melbourne Cup, Katie Walsh prevailed in the Irish Grand National and Royal Ascot’s Shergar Cup was won by Sammy-Jo Bell.
Lizzie had also made waves by defeating legendary champion jockey, AP McCoy, as an amateur at Cheltenham’s New Year’s Day meeting.
The powers that be are reportedly considering implementing a new weight allowance for female jockeys, giving them a better chance of overcoming the men. However, Lizzie has wasted no time in speaking out against the proposed 4lb weight allowance, claiming it would result in ‘artificial’ wins for women riders, as well as encourage an unhealthy lifestyle for female jockeys.
It’s an admirable but understandable attitude given her life-long ambition to be considered as an equal to male jockeys.
“I’ve basically trained my whole life to be as good as any male jockey,” Kelly told The Telegraph reporters, Rozina Sabur and Ben Rumsby.
However, Lizzie always had the sense to have a Plan B behind her in case her route to professional horse racing was blocked. She studied for an events management degree at Winchester University, something she openly viewed as a back-up while riding horses outside of study periods.
There’s a steely resolve about Lizzie Kelly which belies her age. From the tender age of 12, she had always believed that she would become a professional jockey and her ride in the 2017 Gold Cup could well be the start of another exciting chapter.
Lizzie hasn’t had a female jockey role model to aspire to as she’s trained through the years; she’s merely had her goals and ambition to drive her forward. But just like Linda Sheedy, who rode family-owned horse Foxbury, Lizzie knows that her chances of riding a horse like Tea For Two would be much slimmer if he wasn’t family-owned too.
Nevertheless, her success with Tea For Two at Kempton two years ago must not be discounted. As a 50/1 shot, it’s still highly unlikely that Lizzie will be vying with the likes of Ruby Walsh and Noel Fehily at the finish post but to get to where she has in such a short space of time must be commended.
Kelly’s main concern for the race itself is ensuring that Tea For Two is calm enough for the big occasion.
“The horse is exceptionally temperamental,” Lizzie admitted recently to the BBC.
“He likes going to Exeter, but I’m not sure he particularly likes going to Cheltenham. We’ve got to get there – it is a concern because he will have a lot of stage fright that day I suspect, because the festival is completely different to any other race meeting.”
Those words are not likely to see many shrewd punters putting their money behind Tea For Two for an outright win, but maybe, just maybe, Kelly can coax him round enough to target a place in the top six.
As for the Cheltenham Festival as a whole, it has largely been one to forget for the punters, with many of the short-priced favourites failing to live up to expectations. The 1-4 shot, Douvan failed to even place in his race, while another 1-4 shot Altior won without impressing the watching public.