The sport of Queens?

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:14 PM ET

Horse racing may be the Sport of Kings but the 151st running of the Queen’s Plate on Sunday has a decidedly feminine mien.

Actually, instead of O Canada they should probably play I Am Woman, battle hymn of womanhood. From grooms, to trainers, to jockeys and the horses themselves thoroughbred racing may be the most gender-blind of professional sports.

“Times have changed so much there really is no gender issue. It’s one of the few sports where women compete equally with men,” said Carolyn Costigan, one of three women trainers who have a horse in the race.

There are two women jockeys, Chantal Sutherland aboard Smart Sky and Emma-Jayne Wilson — who became the first woman jockey to win the Plate in 2007 — riding D’s Wando. Only six fillies have ever won the Plate but two are entered Sunday. Costigan is running Roan Inish and former Maple Leafs netminder Curtis Joseph made Moment of Majesty a supplemental entry Thursday in the 13-horse field.

While Costigan is making her first appearance, Catherine Day Phillips has watched the sport evolve since training her first Plate horse in 1999. She has not convinced the playing field is exactly level but at least women aren’t facing mountains of prejudice like those encountered by Mary Hirsch, the first woman to earn a trainers’ licence in the ’30s, or Mary Keim, who faced similar obstacles as late as the 1960s. “The days of guys sitting in a bar, smoking cigars, trying to steal another trainer’s owner are gone,” Day Phillips said. “It has become more professional.”

But it can still be a difficult profession, “especially for (women) jockeys to be taken seriously. And it’s still difficult for public trainers to get men to give them money and horses. You need to have someone who really believes in you,” Day Phllips added.

Day Phillips has found such a believer. “Fortunately I’ve got that in (Vicar Street owner) Rocco (D’Alimonte).” She has become one of the more succesful trainers finishing second twice in the Plate.

So, what was her welcome-to-the-bigtime moment? “I don’t know if I have arrived,” she said, laughing. “A really fun moment was with Jambalaya. We went to Saratoga (in 2005) and ran in the Saranac Stakes against my favourite trainers Billy Mott and Jerry Bailey. We were head and head down the lane. To be even in the same race with these guys was terrific. I thought we were second and I was delighted against those guys ... but we won.

“The press after the race were all ready with their pens and you could just see them thinking: They all kind of paused like: ‘Who the hell is this woman?’ It was kind of funny.”

Female jockeys didn’t make inroads until 1969 when Diane Crump became the first woman to ride in a parimutuel race in North America. It is less than 20 years since Julie Krone became the first woman jockey to win a classic — the 1991 Belmont on Colonial Affair. “Being a woman may have mattered once but not anymore. It’s so far down the toilet it’s gone,” Wilson said. “It’s not an issue anymore.” When she climbs into the irons Sunday it will be her sixth consecutive Queen’s Plate appearance.

“She’s very strong, very intelligent. Put those together and you’ve got a good rider,” says D’s Wando trainer, Ian Black. Women, he says, might actually be better suited to be jockeys. “There aren’t many men these days who are naturally 110 pounds or lighter. Most of the guys struggle with weight. It’s given women an opportunity because they’re lighter yet they can be just as strong than some of the guys because they’re not dieting all the time.”

Sue Leslie has training horses since before Krone made it fashionable for women to don silks. “More women are persuing this as a career now,” said Leslie, an owner-trainer since 1983 and part of Joseph’s late entry. “Women are just very good with horses. They have an empathy with horses ... and it’s part of the evolution of society.”

And if anyone still wants to argue, maybe they can take it up with the boss of all of us and the star of the show. Name’s Liz. Look in the royal box. Rumored to be one of the best judges of horseflesh in the world. A woman. Of course.


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