TRAILBLAZER PAM O’NEILL TO BE CELEBRATED ON DOOMBEN CUP DAY
Thu 20 May 2021
By Jordan Gerrans
When jockey Tegan Harrison reflects on the influence Pam O’Neill has on today’s female riding ranks in Australia, the words toughness and resilience resonate the most.
The Queensland-based rider admits she has long been fascinated by the career and life of the respected O’Neill, Australia’s first licensed female jockey.
If not for O’Neill’s tireless efforts all those years ago, having campaigned for more than a decade to ride alongside her male counterparts before she could eventually make her debut, Harrison understands today’s conditions for female riders would not even be close to what they are right now.
“If it wasn’t for her, we would not be going as strong as what we are today as female jockeys,” Harrison said this week.
“Back when she paved the way for us, she did an incredible job and it resonates with me because my mum was a female rider and I know first-hand how difficult it was in the early days.
“These days, I think a lot of people take for granted all the hard work that Pam and others did back then, I have so much respect for her.
“It is really important to me what went on back then, I know my mum struggled because she had to do things two times better than male riders to get an opportunity.”
In the 1970s, O'Neill campaigned the governing body to allow her to ride by writing letters, a few at first, before coming a monthly reoccurrence.
They eventually granted her licence and in 2021, a female rider is as common an occurrence as a male jockey at most tracks around Australia.
Just how far female jockeys have come in Australia was underlined at a recent function O'Neill attended for the Brisbane Broncos NRLW ladies’ team, who only play a short season and have to work to pay the bills on the side.
She quickly remembered that female jockeys around Australia compete for the same prizemoney and riding payments as their male counterparts and largely are on level playing field.
The entire racing industry will come together this Saturday at Doomben to celebrate the career and outstanding achievements of the trailblazing female jockey with the running of the Group 3 Pam O’Neill Stakes over a mile for fillies and mares.
In 2018, a one-off race honouring O'Neill was staged as part of the Summer Carnival before high-level discussions were staged to secure a more permanent fixture on the racing calendar.
The race has now found its place on Doomben Cup day, an afternoon of racing that is stacked with black-type action.
“Having a race named after me, it has become a permanent fixture and it has now become a Group 3 race,” O’Neill said.
“So, I have been told, they want to get the race up to a Group 1, which I feel very privilege to have.
“You feel like you have achieved something when you get a race named after you like this.
“It is for fillies and mares, which is good, with the breeding season coming up in August, it works out good if a horse can win a Group 3 like this.
“I am looking forward to the day this year, I have got lots of friends and family going, it will be a big day, we will make it a big day anyway.”
Harrison - a Group 2 winning hoop and former leading apprentice - has worked hard across her riding career to live by the themes that she took from spending time with O’Neill - toughness and resilience.
She described O’Neill as a “strong woman”, who is often recognised by today’s crop of female jockeys for all her dedication to being able to ride on a level playing field.
“That is how you have to be as a female rider,” Harrison (pictured) said.
“She never played the victim and that was crucial in her role to make it known that females can ride in races against men.
“It was good that she had that resilient character because she was never going to give up the fight.
“Knowing Pam’s character, she was never going to back down, you just know that she was the right lady for the job to make it what it is today for us female riders.”
Inducted as a member of the Racing Queensland Hall of Fame in 2010, O’Neill continues to serve the industry as a director of the Australian Jockeys’ Association and secretary of the Queensland Jockeys’ Association.
As she did in her days in the saddle, O’Neill works towards improved riding fees and conditions for jockeys around Australia whilst more generally looking after them when they need it, as well as providing advice and guidance.
“I love racing, racing has been my life; I grew up in Ascot and the races were just up the road as my father was involved in it,” she said.
“I just love the people in racing too, they are usually terrific people.
"It has been my life, I love the industry and I love the animal as well - they are magnificent, beautiful animals.”
While she was the star female rider in her day, O’Neill marvels at the feats of Jamie Kah, Linda Meech, Rachel King, Clare Lindop, Stephanie Thornton, and Harrison in recent times.
She wishes she could be out there with them.
“I was born too early; I would love to have a go now that the girls have the full four-kilogram allowance when they start,” O’Neill said with a smile.
“The girls are pretty well accepted now, whereas I went in fully fledged as a 34-year-old.
“It was a hard fight, I wanted to do it, and we eventually got there.
“I do not regret it at all, I love what I did and I enjoyed it.
“I was only thinking about this the other night, I was born too early, I would love to be riding now.
“It is all worth it, I love it, but I would love to be younger.”
Apprentice Kate Cowan is an up-and-coming jockey O’Neill has recently taken under her wing, regularly offering her advice on her riding, going through her replays together as she builds into her career.
Harrison, who has been mentored by O’Neill across her career, believes running the Group 3 Pam O’Neill Stakes in 2021 and into the future will ensure her legacy is never forgotten.
“Having a race that is named after Pam, it is awesome and needed to be done so that in years to come people can understand and remember,” she said.
“There are more and more girls now, we need to have something there to remember and show everyone that we had to fight to get started.
“It will never be taken for granted when there is a race like this on that constantly reminds us.”
The 32-year-old Harrison has long admired O’Neill and the feeling is mutual.
“I love watching her ride,” O’Neill said of Harrison.
“She is strong with them and rode them well.”
While O’Neill will always have a soft spot for female jockeys, it is a gun rider from Western Australia who she enjoys watching the most these days.
“He rides a bit longer, with his feet in his irons with the old style,” she said about the “Wizard from the West” William Pike.
“He gets the horses balanced and he puts them in the right position and once he gets into the straight, he does not go for them straight away, until they are balanced.
“I spoke to him the other day down the Gold Coast and he is a real country boy, really humble - he stands out to me at present.”