“Ever since I was a young girl I wanted to be a jockey. I wanted ride in races, but the rules didn’t allow it.” she recalled. ‘This business of only males being able to do something gets my back up, I’m a feminist; I’ve always spoken out for what I believe in.” Some of the rules were relaxed in the early 1960s and allowed women to be registered stablehands and a few years later, Pam became the first female allowed to ride track work. On the personal front, Pam met and married an entertainer at the tender age of 18. The young couple had two children, Cherie and Gavin, and moved to Sydney where there were more employment possibilities. While she was there, Pam was registered as a strapper and rode work for trainer Percy Atkins at Rosehill, as well as Tommy Smith at Randwick. In the evenings she had a part-time job as a cigarette girl at Chequers Nightclub. However, when her father became ill, Pam and the children returned home. Sadly, he passed away the age of 52. Pam regrets that her father didn’t live to see her success. Back in Brisbane, she wanted to be a licensed track work rider. Clyde Morgan, the Chief Steward at the time observed her, saying, “She can ride, that girl!” Her license soon followed, and her first employer was the well-known trainer, Vince Markey and then Harry Hatten, who became her stepfather. As a young mother who worked long hours, Pam was fortunate that her mother was able to care for her children while she was riding track work in the early mornings when it was still dark. It was at this time she met prominent jockey Colin O’Neill and as her first marriage was now over, they became a couple and married when Pam was in her mid-20s. In the early 1970s during the first years of their marriage, when Colin was one of the leading riders in Australia and Pam still a track rider, racing crowds started to drop off. To combat this, Ladies only races were inaugurated, mainly as a novelty, and Pam was invited to country Victoria to compete in amateur ladies’ races, first at Pakenham where she won on a horse called Mission, and then a few days later at Healesville. She won again, this time on Happy Pirate. On her return to Queensland she participated in many such races throughout the State. One memorable meet was at Callaghan Park, Rockhampton in 1975 when Pam’s mount won the Dolly Varden Stakes. She was presented with the trophy by the glamorous Italian film star Gina Lollobrigida, who was there as part of her Australia wide visit to raise awareness about Multiple Sclerosis on behalf of Apex Clubs. Pam still remembers how beautiful the actress was and how stylishly she was dressed in an elegant pantsuit. During that decade, the former Queensland Turf Club staged an International Stakes race for women riders at Eagle Farm, Pam won that race on Ropely Lad and started to think seriously about a career as a jockey. With her customary grit and determination, she commenced a letter writing campaign to the Queensland Turf Club.
“I wrote dozens of letters asking for permission to ride in barrier trials and seeking consideration for the licensing of female jockeys’ she said. “Whilst I didn’t ever give up, I was starting to think I would be on a pension before we were given permission to ride against the men.” After more than 10 years of countless submissions to the authorities, Pam was finally granted a jockey’s licence in May 1979. “I couldn’t have done it without the help of my staunch supporters, Keith Noud (legendary race caller) and Al Grasby (A Minster in the Whitlam Government)” she told me. It is obvious that she is still so thankful to them and has so much respect for those mentors who helped to change her life. “I was no longer interested in ladies only races. I had fought too hard for equality and I became to like it. Unlike other professions, female and male jockeys, race under equal terms and for equal pay.” However, she was given no favours when she started. At the age of 34, she was not allowed to complete an apprenticeship, nor was she given a weight allowance. The Stewards also insisted she complete 10 barrier trials before her licence would be granted. This she did in only one day! To mark her success, Pam was invited to Parliament House where Sir Llew Edwards, who was Racing Minister at the time, presented her with an opal brooch and a book on racing. Her debut as a fully-fledged jockey was only four days after gaining her licence, at the Gold Coast Turf Club (GCTC). Then considered a country track, Pam was able to ride there, as initially, her licence stipulated that she could not ride against males at the metropolitan tracks of Albion Park, Doomben and Eagle Farm. The GCTC were obviously not prepared for a female jockey, as Pam had to get changed in the casualty room. They later organised a caravan for her which was dubbed, Pam’s Penthouse. Despite these challenges, Pam rode three winners that day and when she returned a week later, she rode another three winners. A very impressive start - six winners in eight days! However, Pam still faced discrimination, even from her colleagues. Australia’s most prominent jockey of the time, Roy Higgins, said to the press “Women are not strong enough to ride against men.” Other senior jockeys agreed with him, saying “Women jockeys are great against other women jockeys but we are against them riding against men.” But Pam made Higgins eat his words. A year later, riding Consular at Moonee Valley she beat his mount by ten lengths! She laughs at the memory. “We were good mates.”
Tessa Richardson alongside Winx and Hugh Bowman after a Royal Randwick win
Above at Moonee Valley from left: Cherie Saxon (NZ), Linda Jones (N Z), Maria Sacco (Italy), Pam O’Neill (Australia) and Paula Wragg (Australia) with Roy Higgins before the Qantas/HSV 7 Handicap. left: Pam O’Neill on Ropely Lad after winning the international ladies jockey race.
SPRING 2018 #31