It was a landmark victory for female jockeys and a place in the history books for Lizzie Kelly at one of Boxing Day’s most iconic sporting events. The 22-year-old National Hunt jockey became the first woman to win a Grade One race over jumps in Britain after beating an all-male field in the Kauto Star Novice Chase.
Kelly could be heard shrieking with joy as she pulled her horse Tea for Two up after crossing the finish line four lengths ahead of the favourite Southfield Royale and Noel Fehily. Despite not being Kempton Park’s title race of the day – that was the King George VI Chase – Kelly received the biggest cheer as she entered the Winner’s Enclosure.
“It’s awesome. I’m absolutely delighted,” said Kelly immediately afterwards. “To do it on this horse is fantastic as we are so proud of him and he’s shown everyone what he’s worth.”
While it was the fresh-faced Devon lass who made the headlines, Kelly was keen the world should know that this is very much a family affair. The horse is owned by her mother, Jane Williams, and trained by her step-father Nick Williams; her brother Chester helps look after the horses and 12-year-old sister Loveday helps exercise the stable’s racehorses.
After the race an exuberant Kelly told reporters: “It’s massive for me as a jockey to be able to say that I’ve won a Grade One. There’s always people with stories where they nearly achieve something, but I’ve done it, and we’ve done it as a family which means a hell of a lot more. It’s important for people to be able to see that we can do it. We [female jockeys] are getting somewhere, people are becoming more accepting of it.”
Her mother said: “I’m thrilled for her. It’s really important for women to make it in racing. We set out to try and do it with Elizabeth and show that girls can win Grade One races.”
It has been a long-term plan for the family to reach this landmark. They have targeted their two best horses at races around Europe in pursuit of their daughter’s dream. “We went to France with Aubusson and Ruby Walsh just pipped us to the post, so we looked around. Tea for Two’s Exeter performance was really thrilling and he has won here [at Kempton] twice before, so we thought it was worth trying the trip. If you don’t try you never know.”
The mother paid tribute to the daughter’s tenacity. “It’s Lizzie’s day. She’s the one who rode it. She’s the one who’s put the hours in and grafted day and night, and has done for years. She’s ridden all through being at college and university. It’s her day, not my day.”
National Hunt racing has long been a man’s world. While men and women frequently line up alongside each other at the start, it is still uncomfortably common for men to be offered the fastest horses and the safest jumpers.
Yet this past year has been a milestone for female jockeys around the globe, on the Flat as well as over jumps. Just a month ago Michelle Payne became the first female winner of the Melbourne Cup in its 151-year history. Earlier in the year, Katie Walsh won the Irish Grand National, and an all-female team of Hayley Turner, Sammy Jo Bell and Emma-Jayne Wilson won the Ryder Cup-style Shergar Cup at Ascot against male opposition.
Kelly is quick to point out that this is about more than political statements and has always preferred racing against the boys. She said: “I’m not a bra-swinger, by any means. I always think that people should put the hard work in. I’ve worked in racing since I was 14 years old. I’ve put my summer holidays and Christmas holidays on the line, and not had them, and worked instead. More people should probably do that.”
Indeed, the 19-times champion jockey AP McCoy made it clear in his acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Sports Personality of the Year: “To all young people, make the sacrifices, it’s worth it.”
It seems that Lizzie Kelly has proved his point.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eleanore Kelly is a multi-media journalist who competed in three-day eventing at elite level. She runs an equestrian business in Hampshire and still has a burning ambition to compete around Badminton. At present her role as an assistant producer for the BBC has to suffice. Eleanore’s latest articles.