Bev Buckingham

 Setting Records in the Early Days

Bev was born in Norfolk in England and migrated to Australia with her family when she was two. Her father was a horse trainer in Tasmania and she perused her love of horses through Pony Clubs, Riding Schools, and Gymkhanas. She rode track work and helped her father around the stables. In 1979, at the age of fourteen, Bev left school to become apprentice jockey in her father’s stables. Winner followed winner and she rapidly became Tasmania’s best jockey and one of the best lady jockeys in the country.  In 1981, in her second season of riding she won the first of three Tasmanian

Jockeys premierships with 63 winners while still a 17 year old apprentice. In accomplishing this feat she became the first woman in the world to win a state jockeys premiership.

Bev’s career continued to develop and in 1984 Bev was the first woman to ride in the Caulfield Cup. In 1995 she set a State record of 109 winners in winning the jockeys premiership for the second time.  One day at Mowbray, Tasmania’s leading track she rode 5 winners.

Career Ending Injury

On 906 winners Bev was poised to become the first female jockey to ride 1,000 winners in the Southern Hemisphere, Tragically her career ended with a horrific accident in 1998 which resulted in two fractured vertebrae in her neck, damaging her spinal cord and making her a quadriplegic.

Bev spent many months in a wheelchair with the gloomy predictions of doctors that she would never walk again hanging over her head.  However, showing the courage and fighting spirit she displayed on the racetrack, Bev recovered a lot of her strength and mobility. She overcame both the physical injuries and personal family problems which would have stopped most people.. Australia has no braver sports athlete. Since retiring from race riding Bev lives in Victoria with her daughter Tara.

Bernadette Cooper


Bernadette commenced riding in Queensland in 1990 and in 1993 was crowned Queensland’s first female Champion Apprentice. Bernadette won a further two apprentice premierships at Caloundra and in 1997 she had success in  the Pelican Waters Classic, a race worth $0.5m at her home track..

In 2000 she headed south to ride as stable rider for leading Rosehill trainer Paul Sutherland. Bernadette was very successful, and remains the only female to ride a treble at a Saturday meeting at Rosehill. She won various feature and stakes races including the G3 Japan Trophy at Randwick. Bernadette was an unlucky 2nd in the G1 Coolmore behind champion mare Sunline..  Bernadette rode the winner of the Gosford Guineas, Orange Cup, Dubbo Cup and Moe and Chandon Stakes. She won over 600 races throughout her riding career.

In 2003, Japan’s National Association of Racing demonstrated their appreciation of her ability and issued her a licence to ride in Japan.  Bernadette was only the second  woman to achieve such status. Returning to Australia, Bernadette was the star in an important SBS documentary

 “A Girl, a Horse, a Dream.” This Program  recorded the difficult life of a young lady rider throughout a year on the racing circuit. It also told the history of the hard road to success for all lady jockeys. No longer just a champion apprentice, In 2004 she rode with distinction in Macau recording many trebles, however, a serious fall prevented further progress.. Returning to Australia Bernadette retired from race riding and began a successful life in the media as a Sky Channel racing commentator. With a great knowledge of racing, I reckon her tips are always worth following.

Pam O’Neill


A pioneer lady jockey Pam O’Neill started riding horses at an early age and graduated through pony clubs and gymkhana meets winning many awards. Pam was a more than capable rider who could ride track work. Unfortunately this activity for female riders was not allowed on certain race tracks and after taking horses from the float and stables she had to hand these over to a male rider at the entrance of the Eagle Farm racetrack.

A Long Wait

Pam was constantly denied the right to have the rule changed to allow women jockeys to ride in races competing with male jockeys. A small win eventually came her way when the authorities put a plan to silence her continual demands.  A circuit to allow  a few ladies-only races was set up. But competing against men, definitely out. Her ability as a jockey was confirmed in 1974 when she rode Ropely Lad to victory in the International Race for Women Riders at Eagle Farm. After considerable lobbying and concentrated effort, Pam became Australia’s first lady jockey in 1979 at the age of 34 when she obtained her licence. There was no apprenticeship, no weight allowance while she gained experience, just straight into it as a fully fledged jockey.

Some Big Firsts

And what a start!  On her first day of riding against the males at the Gold Coast she rode three winners.  No professional rider in the world (male or female)  has matched this feat on their first outing.  

Pam wins the Women’s International at Eagle Farm 1974

The pioneer lady jockey set another record in 1980.  Pam O’Neill rode Consular to victory to record the first win in Melbourne by a woman rider against the men. In her career Pam rode over 400 winners. Undoubtedly, her favourite horse was Supersnack a gelding which Pam rode to victory in the 1990 Rockhampton Cup. It was one of his 23 career wins in which Pam partnered 18 times. Pam has been part of mainstream racing in her role as Sales Manager for Queensland Bloodstock. She has been a Queensland director of the Australian Jockeys Association.

Linda Jones

A Hard Road to get a Chance

Linda Jones was born in Auckland New Zealand. She started a long and hard battle for the right to compete alongside men in professional thoroughbred horse races.  In 1976 she became the first woman in NZ to apply for an apprentice licence and this was rejected.

On appeal the Committee ruled that she was too old, not strong enough, and married. The decision was made despite the fact that Linda had just won the inaugural Qantas International Women’s Handicap at Rotorua in 1975 held during International Women’s Year.  Linda and other female riders made a determined campaign in 1978 for equality  Eventually NZ rules were changed to permit female jockeys. Linda gained her apprenticeship and had her first ride on 12th August 1978. By Christmas she was second in the NZ Jockeys premiership behind Shane Dye.  Later In the same year, Linda became the first licensed female jockey in Australia

A Lady of Records

Winning her first race in NZ on Big Bikkies

Linda was the first woman in the Southern Hemisphere to ride 4 winners in a single day. She was  the first to ride a recognized Derby winner (Holy Toledo in the Wellington Derby 1979). Linda   was the first registered female rider to win a race in Australia against male professionals (Pay the Purple, 7th May 1979 in Brisbane).

Linda Wins Two Fights

Linda’s impact on Australian racing is now part of Australian racing folk law. One of her strong supporters, trainer Brian Smith who had taken the horse Balmerino to great heights, entered Pay the Purple for the Labour Day Cup at Doomben. This  was a prelude to taking on the Brisbane Cup and the horse was installed as 3/1 favourite. The Committee advised Brian that his usual rider Linda could not ride the horse. Lady jockeys were not registered in Australia. Justifiably upset the trainer threatened to scratch the horse. In 1979 considerable money was bet on important races months before the race and the scratching of the favourite would not have gone down well with punters. These bets were “all in” and the bookies kept your money when a horse did not take its place in the field.

A hastily convened meeting of Committeemen granted Linda a licence to ride. On race day with an “inexperienced” young girl on board, punters shied away from the favourite. His odds blew from 4/1 to 14/1, but the first licensed female jockey in Australia got him up to win by a neck.

The award of both an MBE and AO recognized her achievements. Linda is a member of both the NZ Sports Hall of Fame and the NZ Racing Hall of Fame. She now lives on the Sunshine Coast with Husband Alan.



Violet Murrell (Farmer)

Early Life

Violet Farmer was born in Melbourne in 1904. It is said that she was a restless baby at night and so her father devised a novel way to solve the problem. Harry Farmer, a Caulfield horse trainer, would take her out to the stables. Put on a horse’s back she would go to sleep.

Violet loved horses so much that she was given her own black pony at the age of 7. By the time she was in her teens she was riding her father’s horses in track work at  Caulfield. She competed in a fund-raising event held by the Red Cross at Caulfield in 1918. At the young age of 14, Violet won an open event against the men. She was an early pioneer of animal rights and joined the Purple Cross Society. This was  an organization which raised money for the welfare of horses involved in the Great War. Violet  made her financial contribution by offering pony rides to children. At the age of 16 she left school to become a full-time stable worker.

The Superb Horse Woman

Violet Farmer soon made an impression as a competent horsewoman. In 1921 she rode against the professionals at Pakenham and the following year rode 4 winners and 2 seconds in one day at the Clyde picnic race meeting. In the mid 1920 she won 17 races from 18 starts. Special permission was required to ride in these country meetings and she also competed at country shows and gymkhanas. Violet was acknowledged as the best equestrienne in Victoria and probably Australia given her successes at the Sydney Royal Show.

Despite all her successes, Violet Farmer remained dissatisfied with her career.  She was prohibited from competing at the city racecourses in Melbourne such as Flemington, Caulfield, Moonee Valley, Mentone, Epsom and Williamstown. In 1927 she married a well-known jumps jockey Bill Murrell. Bill strongly supported his wife’s efforts to be able to ride in city races. In 1929, Violet was given a special horse, Garryowen, and in the next 5 years the two of them won over 200 prizes at shows and gymkhanas. Her successes included first place at the Royal Melbourne Show three years in a row-1931-3.


The Murrells continued with their equestrian pursuits until tragedy struck on Friday 23rd March 1934. The Murrells were awakened about 2.00am by the screams of horses.  Violet rushed outside to see the stables on fire. She ran into the inferno trying to pull Garryowen out, but her nightclothes caught on fire and she was badly burned.  Bill attempted to rescue his wife and dragged Violet back to the house. But he was also suffered serious burns. The horses had to be put down and both Bill and Violet died at the Royal Melbourne Hospital  within a week. Violet was only 29 years old.

Since 1934, the Royal Society has presented the Garryowen award to the best equestrian at the Royal Melbourne Show. This perpetuates the memory of a great horse and wonderful rider.

During her short life, Violet did not succeed in her campaign for women to be accepted as jockeys at city race meetings. However, there is no doubt she was one of the greats and probably the equal of the best of her male counterparts. Certainly better than most.


Julie Krone

Julie the Greatest

Julie Krone was born in Michigan in 1963 and began riding horses at the age of two. By the age of five she was competing in events at shows and County Fairs. Her mother was an accomplished dressage rider and a strong supporter of Julie’s ambitions. At the age of 16 Julie became an apprentice at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.

Julie at only 4’ 10” and weighing barely 45kg showed tremendous balance, courage and race sense and a strong focus on achieving her goals. By the age of 25 she was acknowledged as the best female jockey in history. In 1992 she became the first lady rider to mount up in the Kentucky Derby. In the following year she became the first female winner of a Triple Crown event- the Belmont Stakes on Colonial Affair. She later became the first lady rider to win a Breeder’s Cup event. Julie won six races in one day at Monmouth Park. Six at Meadowlands (twice) and until a few years ago was the only woman of the 200 or so members of the American Racing Hall Of Fame.

It’s a Tough Business

Julie rides Halfbridled to victory in the Breeders Cup

Despite her achievements it has not always been smooth sailing for Julie. In 1983 she was out for 4 months with a broken back. In 1993 she was out for 9 months following a fall which resulted in smashed ribs and a bruised heart.. Her mercurial and exuberant spirit masked her bouts of depression following these injuries but she fought on. During her last recuperation in 2003, her toughness was recognized in an article in USA Today. The sports writers rated her as one of America’s 10 toughest athletes. The list included Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Shaquille O’Neal. Julie retired in 2004 with 3,704 career wins and $90m in stakes with only 16 men ranked above her in terms of earnings.

The Future

Julie might be tough but I found her to be charming, witty, kind and generous and wonderful  company. She is one of those few people about who you  can say “She is  better as a person than she is at her profession.”  She now lives in Carlsbad California with husband Jay and daughter Lorelei.

But has she really retired?  At the Doncaster St Ledger meeting in September 2011, after seven years in retirement, Julie rode Invincible Hero to victory in the Ledger Legends race. .  The race has 18 runners and three of her opposing jockeys has won the English Derby.  The Guardian newspaper described Julie as “a class apart”.


Lesley Bellden

The Starting Point

Lesley Bellden came to Australia in 1969 at the age of 15 from the green fields of Cheshire. She rode a pony at home in England and was always fond of horses. The family settled not far from the Warwick Farm racetrack in Sydney and as there were plenty of horses in her neighborhood she decided to register for track work.  From this activity she found that there were races for lady riders and so she got her license and joined in.

Lesley at the Hall of Fame meeting at Ballina

At this time there were races for women jockeys and Lesley rode at many venues including Moonee Valley in Melbourne. She had an affinity for the tracks of the Northern Rivers and won an event at Casino in 1978 and followed that up later with a victory in the Ballina Bracelet, at that time a $40,000 race.

The Push for Womens’ Rights as Jockeys

Lesley and a colleague Elizabeth Collett commenced a campaign in 1977 to get permission from the AJC (Australian Jockey Club) to enable them to ride in races against the men. One can only imagine the discouragement they must have felt to receive replies such as that dated 24th July 1978 “The AJC regret that permission cannot be given to you to ride in barrier trials with male jockeys”. And this was only for trials. Riding in races seemed a distant dream. However, the ladies persevered and took their case to the Mr Geoff Cahill from the office of Counsellor for Equal Opportunity. Finally after much discussion and many presentations he announced that the AJC would allow female jockeys to compete against men. He made the following comment”…..the two women responsible for ladies getting equal rights in the saddle were Elizabeth Collett and Lesley Bellden”. At the time there were 25 registered lady riders in NSW.

A Number of Firsts

Lesley began riding in the provincials and country and on AJC Derby Day, 4th April 1983, she became the first woman to win a race at Randwick on a 2yo named Mystic Mahal. At the time it was her 17th winner in 120 race rides. She became the second lady jockey to ride in the Golden Slipper in 1990, following Maree Lyndon (1987). Subsequently, Bernadette Cooper became the third in 2002 and Kathy O’Hara the fourth in 2006.

Not only did Lesley champion the cause of women jockeys and keep her own riding career going, but at the time she was bringing up her own two children and providing a foster home for needy children, giving them love and comfort during times of crisis. The number of children she has fostered now exceeds 200. To my knowledge the only recognition Lesley has received for her achievements is membership of the Lady Jockeys Hall of Fame. This was sponsored by the Ballina Jockey Club. However, since racing NSW has taken over administration of the Club, they have been doing their best to bury the concept. Various NSW Governments have also shown no interest in acknowledging her substantial contribution. Lesley now lives in Goulburn with husband Paul.

Wilhelmina “Bill” Smith

Deserted at a Young Age

Wilhemena was a very early lady jockey pioneer championing a woman’s right to compete against men on equal terms. Wilhemena was born in 1887 the daughter of English immigrants who settled in Perth. Her mother died when she was very young and her father, who was struggling financially could not cope. He jumped ship and returned to England leaving young Wilhemena alone. Wilhemena ended up in an orphanage in Western Australia and had a tough upbringing. At the age of 16 she ran away showing the determination and courage she would display later in life. Arriving in Adelaide she obtained a position as a domestic servant but she soon tired of menial housework. Dressed as a man she got a job on a boat.

A Queensland Pioneer Lady Jockey


Wilhemena “Bill” Smith

She sailed to and from Queensland and finally settled in Cairns. There she felt more at home working as a stable hand. The world of racing in the mid twentieth century was entirely a male domain. There was no place for lady jockeys. To find a position within this world Wilhemena Smith dressed as a man, worked as a trainer and jockey, and rode against men under the assumed identity of Bill Smith. She had a day job at the Cairns Brewery. Wilhemena rode her horse “Sydney Two” to work every day leaving him to graze in the brewery yard.

Wilhemena won many races in Queensland riding under the pseudonym of Bill. Her secret was never discovered while she was riding.  Her contemporaries had their suspicions that Bill wasn’t what he claimed to be. He was nicknamed  “girlie” because he always came to the track with the silks on under his clothes. The Queensland pioneer lady jockey refused to change clothes in front of other riders. Wilhemena never married and people considered her a very private and somewhat eccentric individual. In her role as a jockey Wilhemena was a pioneer of women’s rights when it wasn’t fashionable to do so.

Secret to the End

Wilhemena survived on a pension in seclusion near Cairns until 1975 when it was discovered after her death at the age of 88 that Bill Smith was really a woman. She left no family behind and a nurse who looked after her in her latter years pieced together her story. The nurse also painted this portrait of her.

In 2005, both Australian and overseas contributors raised money to place an appropriate headstone on her unmarked grave at the Herberton Cemetery in Queensland where she is now interred under her proper name of Wilhemena “Bill” Smith.

She lived a secret life for many years just to realize her dream of being a jockey. How much happier her life might have been had she been able to share her track glories with associates and friends?


Lady Jockeys


The contribution of women through their association with horses has been essential to development of the nation. In the days when horses were the only means of efficient transportation both wives and husbands took responsibility for the care of the animals. Horses were not merely pets or sporting animals, but were essential means of transport, trade and communication.  As thoroughbred horse racing developed, women played their role in the organization and participation in the sport  The lady jockeys struggle had just begun. However, it has taken many years for this fact to be recognized and appreciated. Only in the early 1980’s  women were allowed to become full members of a number of race clubs. The white lines that showed the restricted areas for women were removed.

The Patrobas Affair

First Melbourne Cup Winner to be owned by a woman. Patrobus Statue in South Gippsland

Perhaps the earliest recorded example of discrimination against a woman’s participation in horse racing occurred in the Melbourne Cup of 1915. The winner, Patrobas, was owned by Mrs Widdis from a farm in Gippsland in Victoria. In addition to her role as owner, she made the jockeys silks herself on her own sewing machine. But the trophy had to be accepted by her husband! As the contemporary commentators put it “the crowd wouldn’t let her through. They could not believe she was the owner.” Other commentators consider there was another reason she was not allowed through to collect her trophy.

Women Jockeys fight for their rights

Although women gained the right to train horses, Australia made slow progress in providing a level playing field for lady jockeys. A string of complaints by women eventually led in 1978 to an investigation by the NSW Office of the Counselor for Equal Opportunity.   Women claimed that they were being denied opportunities solely because they were women. They were unable to get a license to ride against men. The Office took the complaint seriously and communicated directly with 25 thoroughbred racing authorities in 17 different countries. The results reflected badly on the authorities in charge of racing at the time. In every one of these countries ( geographically and culturally diverse as France, Keyna, Japan, New Guinea, Ireland, Trinidad and the USA) women had a licence to participate against men jockeys. In the United States women had been competing against men since 1969.

Queensland makes the move

Linda Jones, Pam O’Neill, and Iris Neilsen’s daughter, the first Inductees into the lady jockey’s Hall of Fame

Queensland  gave lady riders the right to compete against the men in 1979 and the other Australian States followed rapidly.  However, in one sense the lady jockeys struggle had just left the starting gate. The authorities may have given the women permission to ride but did them no special favors. Those ladies who had been riding on the “women only “circuit were not allowed any form of apprenticeship. They began their careers riding as fully fledged professionals. They had always been told that they weren’t strong enough. However, they were offered no compensation by means of a weight allowance as is given to apprentice jockeys to make up for this supposed “lack of strength.”

The battle against prejudice

The punters offered them no favors either. If a woman rider was beaten she was told she was hopeless and too weak to ride a horse out However, if she judged the speed of a race to perfection and won by leading all the way she was told “you can only win on front runners”.  This tirade of abuse and the opinion the lady jockeys are just not up to it continued for many years.  In some parts of the industry there is still an undercurrent of it today. It is a strong testament to the courage of the women riders that these trail blazers soldiered on against what at the time must have seen like almost insurmountable odds.

The fight isn’t over

The struggle for women to gain equal opportunity with men to further their careers and personal goals remains a continuing struggle. Certainly progress has been made. However, the modern female jockey faces some of the same hurdles, Thankfully, the path to fulfilling their dreams to become professional riders is not as rough as it once was.  The early pioneers have done the hard yards. The fact that it is now easier should not deflect us from recognizing the past injustices done to those women. All they wished for was to be jockeys and compete on an equal basis with men. In some circumstances, those responsible for discrimination can hide behind their belief that the discrimination was necessary to improve the lot of those being discriminated against. There can be no such excuse for the discrimination against lady jockeys.

What is discrimination?

The lady Jockeys struggle to be able to compete on equal terms with their male counterparts has improved through legislation. But attitude to their careers and achievements is equally important. It is best summed up by the diplomatic statement made by Julie Krone while on her second visit to Australia. Julie is the greatest of all lady jockeys and one of the best jockeys of all time. She summed it up as “It would have been a lot easier if unnecessary obstacles had not been put in my way”.