I spent Cup Day this year attending a series of talks by animal studies scholars, covering a vast range of very thought-provoking terrain, which included, but was not limited to, some discussion of the Melbourne Cup. It wasn’t until the friend I was there with jumped briefly online at 6pm that I learned the 2015 Melbourne Cup had been won by a female jockey, Michelle Payne.
Payne is one of only four female jockeys to have ever scored a ride in the race, and the first female to win it (think what stat-twisters could do with this fact if they wanted to: “Female jockeys have 25% chance of winning Cup!”). Her victory is history-making, and just moments after the race she thanked the horse’s trainer Darren Weir and part-owner John Richards, before gleefully stating that “everyone else can get stuffed, because they say that women aren’t strong enough, but we just beat the world!”
I can’t deny I think Payne has done something marvellous. But how does her achievement sit with my feelings about horse racing? Obviously I’m not the only one feeling this way – SBS parody site The Backburner satirised the phenomenon with the headline “Nation Unsure How to Feel As Female Jockey Wins Cruel Race”, while feminist news site Daily Life claimed that “Michelle Payne’s Melbourne Cup win highlights the difference between ‘liberation’ and ‘equality’“. Here, the author argues that “a woman succeeding in this particular pursuit may indeed prove she is equal to the pinnacle of her male competitors, but it does very little to further the concept of liberation … because I just cannot reconcile the inherent cruelty in horse racing with feminism.”
I can certainly see where this article is coming from, but I do think it overlooks some key aspects of gender that might differentiate a woman jockey from her male counterparts. It is apparently well-documented that women practitioners display more empathy for their charges in large-animal practices (eg vets working with livestock such as cattle and sheep).  Is it not possible that female jockeys may also exhibit a greater degree of empathy for their mounts? Payne states “It’s not all about strength. There’s so much more involved with getting the horse into a rhythm, it’s getting the horse to try for you, it’s being patient.”  Further, Payne has ridden the winning horse, Prince of Penzance, in 23 of his 24 races, and the two clearly have a bond.  This is evident in the way Payne speaks about the horse, describing their relationship as “pretty incredible”, and highlighting Prince’s “inner strength”. 
It’s possible that such clearly-articulated evidence of a bond, of empathy, is only because, as a woman, Payne is more likely to be asked about her feelings regarding the horse than a male jockey would be (for example, in her interview with Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7:30), however I really don’t think this is the case with Payne, given the sympathetic way she also speaks about her fellow female jockeys. Payne says she “feels bad” for the female jockeys who, if they’d been given the opportunity, could have won.  This sort of humility is not what we are used to hearing from champion jockeys.
The 2015 Melbourne Cup has all the narrative elements of the most romantic Cup tale – a virtually unknown trainer, a horse who’s survived repeated injury, and a female jockey, who, along with her brother the horse’s strapper (who has Down syndrome), achieve an against-the-odds victory on a hundred-to-one long shot. With details like this the telemovie must surely be being scripted as I type!
It’s the sort of story that I imagine the VRC have been hoping for, after a run of bad press due to three horse deaths in the past two Cups. While Red Cadeaux suffered an injury, and they even erected the green Death Tent around him, he was eventually carted off in a horse ambulance, with officials likely breathing a sigh of relief that yet another on-track fatality had been avoided (it remains to be seen what will become of the gelding, whose retirement has been announced – his lack of the necessary equipment means he is not a breeding prospect).
I believe the debate about horse racing, with the issue of animal welfare at its centre, is an important one. I also believe that, with so much money behind it, both from gambling revenue, and the economic significance of the racing and breeding industry as a whole, a ban on horse racing is not likely. However, if the industry wants to retain its popular support, changes need to be made – and this is already happening in some quarters. Perhaps the rise of the female jockey is one more way to achieve a less harmful racing industry?
 James Serpell Q & A, University of Sydney, 3 November 2015
 “Prince of Penzance carries female jockey into Melbourne Cup history,” SBS news online, 3 November 2015, accessed 4 November 2015 http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2015/11/03/prince-penzance-carries-female-jockey-melbourne-cup-history?cid=cxenseab_b&cx_navSource=related-side-cx#cxrecs_s
 “Michelle Payne becomes first female jockey to win Melbourne Cup,” SBS News online, 3 November 2015, accessed 4 November 2015 http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2015/11/03/michelle-payne-becomes-first-female-jockey-win-melbourne-cup
 Michelle Payne interview on 7:30, 3 November 2015. Available on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERaQrLuQTMc