It was almost 150 years after Diomed crossed the line to win the inaugural race in 1780 when the first female gained victory in the Epsom Derby. Gainsborough, owned by Lady James Douglas, held off challengers to win by a length and a half in 1918. Another 50 years passed until Marjorie Nightingall, with Benroy, became the first female trainer to have a runner in the Classic; only six women have repeated the feat since. But it was 1996 before Alex Greaves stood out from the field to become the first female jockey to compete in the Epsom Derby when she rode the 500-1 outsider Portuguese Lil.
Horse racing remains a male-dominated arena at all levels, and it took outstanding talent and tenacity for Greaves to break through and forge a path for others to follow. A year after placing 20th in the Derby, Greaves became the first woman to win a Group 1 race in the UK when she dead-heated in the Nunthorpe Stakes at York on Ya Malak. Her success set an inspiring precedent for others to follow.
“Going back 20 years now, when it was the first time a woman rode the Derby, there being a female jockey did probably make it a higher profile outside of racing,” says Greaves. And although it raised the profile of female jockeys, it took another 16 years before the world’s greatest flat race saw another female runner, with Hayley Turner riding Cavaleiro.
Turner has won three Group 1 races in a storied career that included 100 flat race victories in 2008. Her Derby experience attracted huge interest from the non-racing audience, but within the racing community, her outstanding talent was already widely recognised. “Trainers and jockeys thought it was quite normal, because we do it every day – they had accepted us as jockeys – but for everyone else looking in, it was a big deal,” she recalls.
The atmosphere is actually different on Derby day to any other day
Turner ran in last on Cavaleiro, but has fond memories of the unique character of the Derby. “One side of the track everyone’s wearing top hats and tails and having champagne, and then on the other side of the track you’ve got a fairground and people having barbecues,” she remembers.
Greaves agrees: “The atmosphere is actually different on Derby day to any other day. Usually, when you’re riding you don’t really notice the crowd, because you’re focused and your mind’s on your job, but at Epsom, even when I got to Tattenham Corner, I was still aware of the buzz and the crowds and everything else.”
Thanks to these pioneering female jockeys leading the way, the Investec Derby has proven to be a place where meritocracy rewards outstanding talent, regardless of gender. The world’s greatest flat race didn’t have to wait another 16 years from Hayley Turner’s entry to have another female rider: in 2017, Ana O’Brien rode 66-1 outsider The Anvil to 17th place, beating Pealer into 18th and becoming the first female rider to beat another horse to the line. As talented female jockeys continue to deliver Out of the Ordinary performances, it seems only a matter of time before Epsom sees a woman win the richest horse race in the UK.