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.
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.