Tuesday, 10 March 2009

One for the ladies

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

It’s been a demoralising week for females, with the release of a Home Office Survey revealing the depressing fact that there are still many people who think it is all right to hit a woman, and that rape victims are still seen as responsible for their fate (short skirt? She was asking for it). But today, there was an uncomplicated, shining moment of glory, when the fabulous Nina Carberry scored one for the girls.

‘Woman wins race’ might not seem like a banner headline, but when you take into account the contributing factors, we should all be hanging out more flags. This victory took place in the unreconstructed confines of British National Hunt racing, where women riders are so vanishingly rare that they have to change into their silks in broom cupboards, because the facilities are all for men. Racing is in some ways the noblest of sports - the first thing a losing jockey will do is congratulate the winner – but it can’t even spell feminism.
In some ways, the discrimination against women comes from an old-fashioned and quite charming courtliness. Men on the racecourse still lift their hats when they greet a lady, and the idea of half a ton of horse crashing down on a soft female body at 35 miles an hour makes them squeamish. Nina Carberry had to bash through some pretty entrenched ideas even to take her place in the starting line-up. But she was brought up riding like a cowgirl with her brothers, who admit that she is the best of the lot of them, and she has a famously sunny temperament that tends not to see obstacles to her ambitions.

Even more glorious, her win happened at Cheltenham, the Olympics of jump racing, the toughest and most brutal and most thrilling meeting of the year, where all the best horses from Britain and Ireland come to battle up the gruelling hill. There is no quarter given, and no excuses to be made. Every cliché is present – the sheep are sorted from the goats, the men from the boys; fortunes are won, gambles pulled off, and hearts are broken. Racing people look forward to it like children yearn for Christmas. More particular still, the race she won is a testing oddity – a cross country contest which twists and turns all over the course (acute navigational skills are required so that the riders do not get lost), and the horses must jump banks, ditches, hurdles, steeplechases, and an Aintree fence at an acute angle.

So she was up against everything – the men who still think the racecourse is no place for a women, a complicated race in the blue riband meeting of the year, a pack of determined and talented competitors. She plotted her strategy, and picked her moment, and nursed her horse over the three and half miles, and then pulled him out to give him plenty of daylight at the finish.

And when she won, the commentator said: ‘There is that famous Nina smile’. The grin of pure joy flashed out from her muddy face, and despite all the bad news that I have read this week, I thought: if a woman can do that, we can do anything.

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