Pam O’Neill is humble about her work to get women into racing. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)
Decades before Michelle Payne took home the Melbourne Cup, one Brisbane woman was quietly making waves to get female jockeys racing with the men.
Pam O’Neill was the first woman licensed to ride in Australia.
Nowadays, women account for a large portion of all new apprentice jockeys, and the numbers are increasing each year.
Yet if it wasn’t for O’Neill’s persistence, they could still be trackside.
Pam O’Neill returns to the mounting yard after winning her first race in 1979. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)
Patting horses was a no-no
The 73-year-old grew up near Eagle Farm racecourse and was interested in horses from an early age.
“Racing was in my blood,” she said.
“My father was a keen racegoer and so was my grandmother, so it was bred in me … I couldn’t avoid it.”
For many years she would lead horses up to the track but had to hand them over to her father as women were not allowed on a registered racetrack.
“I couldn’t even pat them on the racetrack — I was always getting into trouble,” she said.
“I thought, ‘this has to change’.
“You’re put on this world to do something and mine was to change the rules in racing for women.”
A letter a month for change
O’Neill began writing letters, a few at first, then it became a monthly mission.
For 14 years she wrote a letter each month.
“We always got the same answer — ‘there’s a rule in racing that women can’t ride against the men’ — and that’s the way it started and we just kept chipping at it.
“It went on for years and I think they thought it could keep me quiet.”
In the end she wrote more than 140 letters to the jockey board.
Slowly but surely things began to change and in the 1960s women were allowed to be registered as stable-hands, and a few years later O’Neill became the first woman allowed to ride trackwork.
“Then I really had the bug and I wanted to get moving.”
Yet before the rule was changed for women to race against men, Linda Jones from New Zealand was granted an allowance to compete against male jockeys.
Jones’s husband Alan was a successful trainer who wanted to bring his horse to Australia to race and would only allow her to ride it.
The moment was bittersweet for O’Neill, but she said it helped their cause and even loaned her saddle to Jones.
“It was helping us to push the topic,” she said.
“Discrimination against women was a hot topic though and people started to get onboard.
“Women were wanting to become pilots for Qantas too, so we were able to get the rule changed and it was a fight, but it eventually came.”
The first race and Pam’s Penthouse
It wasn’t long before O’Neill was finally granted a jockey’s licence in May 1979.
Four days after receiving her licence, she mounted up at Southport on the Gold Coast at the age of 34.
“I had shot my mouth off for years, so I thought … here I go.
“When I started I didn’t have any change rooms, there wasn’t any for women.
“So we had a caravan with ‘Pam’s Penthouse’ written along the top … I thought that was great.
“I didn’t care where I got changed as long as I could ride — I would have gotten changed in the enclosure I think.”
O’Neill rode three winners — a world record for someone’s first race meeting.
“After that first meeting I thought, ‘Boy, this is the end of a fairytale’.
“You don’t appreciate things until you’re older as when you’re young you’re on a mission.
“I look through my scrapbooks now and I think, ‘Geez, did I really do that’. You don’t realise at the time that you’re pushing for something that you believe in.”
She went on to compete around the world including Japan and beat hall of fame jockey Roy Higgins in Melbourne’s first unisex race.
“I’ve had a lot of exciting times and when my horse Supersnack won the Rocky Cup I got a thrill out of that too, as I was the first female to win the Rocky Cup.”
Pam O’Neill (third from left) before the first unisex race in Melbourne. (ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)
The current state of women in racing
O’Neill retired at 52 but continues to be behind the scenes and believes the future for women in racing is strong.
“I think all the girls that are riding now are great … there’s heaps of them,” she said.
“I think they should all donate a dollar to me to keep me in the life I’m accustomed to, but nothing ever comes across.
“I never thought in my lifetime I would see a woman win the Melbourne Cup. I had tears in my eyes watching Michelle Payne win.”
Linda Meech and Tegan Harrison are two jockeys O’Neill watches closely.
“I find that many of the trainers don’t adopt the women to ride in the city, but they keep them mainly in the country and provincial areas,” she said.
“That’s the only frustrating thing I’ve been finding in the racing lately.
“They expect a woman to be twice as good, well you can only be an equal — you can’t be twice as good.”
O’Neill still coaches jockeys and said she continued to get a thrill out of seeing the next generation of young women.
“I tell young jockeys that they have to have 100 falls.
“It’s not an easy life as there’s long hours and you’re up at 3 o’clock in the morning.
“But if you want to achieve something, you have to work hard to get it.”