Horse racing: The sport of queens?

Jockey Andrew McNamara rides Tranquil Sea to victory at Cheltenham Racecourse, 2009

Jockey Andrew McNamara rides Tranquil Sea to victory at Cheltenham Racecourse, 2009 - Credit: Archant

Sally Rowley-Williams tells Katie Jarvis why Women in Racing is out to improve the role of women in making the big decisions about the so-called Sport of Kings

How times are changing.

A bare few years ago, despite being a successful racehorse owner, there was many a moment when Sally Rowley-Williams felt invisible as far as the racing world was concerned. “I remember going to the wedding of Noel Chance’s daughter [the National Hunt trainer] and speaking to a trainer at drinks before dinner. He turned to my husband and started asking him about my horse. I said, ‘Why are you looking at my husband?’ This man just presumed that, even though the horse raced in my name, it was something a husband does for a wife.”

She shakes her head in incomprehension. “I’ve worked very, very hard my whole life to get the money together to have horses in training.”

Quite. And if you’re looking for racing analogies, then consider that particular trainer to be blinkered. Because Sally Rowley-Williams has just been asked to address the MPs who comprise the All-Party Groups on Racing and Bloodstock, and Betting and Gaming.

That’s an honour in itself. But it also means her message – that racing ignores women at its peril – is getting through loud and clear. “I asked [these MPs]. ‘What would you like me to talk about?’ And they said, ‘Tell us how we can help’.”

Sally’s answer is straightforward: get more women into decision-making and strategic roles – in other words, into the boardroom. It’s a message that was rammed home across all industries in Lord Davies’s famous report, Women on Boards: he told companies to double the number of women on their boards by 2015 or face government measures.

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“That report needs to be applied not just to public companies but across a much broader spectrum,” Sally says. “Why can the BHA [British Horseracing Authority] go under the radar with only 12% women when it’s been proven that boards perform better with a more diverse group?”

It’s a good question. And it’s one Sally intends to get answered. In 2009, she set up Women in Racing, an independent initiative to raise the profile of women in the sport, and to encourage senior appointments across the industry. Four years later, the organisation has 125 members, ranging from some of the sport’s most renowned women, alongside stable staff and jockeys; there are women racecourse MDs, workers in the betting industry, and PR and marketing staff, as well as a myriad other racing service providers.

For a modest membership fee – all of which is ploughed back in – they can take advantage of a panoply of events, featuring inspiring and informative speakers: “We’ve had talks on the finances of racing; we’ve had issues about career development. Last night, we had women who came from cricket and football, comparing those sports with racing. It’s also a networking opportunity to meet other women.”

There’s a mentoring programme, too, covering a whole range of areas such as law, accountancy, the gaming industry, education, and breeding and bloodstock.

“What Women in Racing is meant to do is to redress the balance,” Sally says. “Men have always had many places in racing to meet and become friends or have a drink, whether it’s the pub or on the racecourse or in a bookies. Women don’t necessarily hang out at bookies. On racecourses, when you go to the bar, there often aren’t a lot of women. So what we provide is an opportunity to meet in a comfortable, no-holds-barred environment.”

She has prime qualifications to do what she’s doing. For a start, in her tucked-away Oxfordshire home (Helena Bonham Carter is a neighbour), the napkins on the coffee tray are decorated with jockey paraphernalia; through the window, as if munching on the lawn, is a horse sculpture painted by Cheltenham’s internationally-known artist PJ Crook; in the dining room is the Celebration Chase trophy won by her one-time horse River City in 2006. “Up until the horse I have now, he had been my best; now I have an even better one.”

In other words, she has the passion.

But she also has the background. Born in Manhattan (her American accent is striking and attractive, “But I’ve lived here so long, I don’t even think about it now”), her family were high-achieving immigrants, who’d fled Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Packed with lawyers, successful businessmen, university professors and doctors – “My mother’s father learned English in one year, went to Harvard University at 16 and became a doctor; they actually have a wing of a hospital in Boston named after him” – this was a family bred for success.

Sally is no exception. While studying at the elite William’s College, she first visited the UK, on an exchange programme in 1978 with the then-City of London Polytechnic (now London Guildhall University). Maggie Thatcher was coming to the fore; Britain was experiencing the Winter of Discontent.

“It was completely different but I loved it. My big takeaway was that, in America, Democrats and Republicans were variations on a theme because they both believed in capitalism; when I was at the London Poly, it was completely socialist/communist in outlook. It was eye-opening for me.”

Once back home, she opted for a career in finance: it was – and you’ll notice a theme here – a case of being a woman in a man’s world. (Even at Williams College, she was outnumbered 10-to-one). “For me, the best opportunities happened to be in the man’s world,” she says.

It was while studying for an MBA at the London Business School that she met her husband, Edmund, and came to live in England to continue with a successful banking career. Successful for a woman, that is.

“The bank that I had been with so happily for seven years didn’t have one woman amongst the management ranks and there was no job for me: I had to leave. That was what was truly appalling.”

She was also ready for a change. Sally moved to Korn/Ferry International, a leading global executive search firm, where she carved out a second glittering career. In fact, it was with a well-deserved bonus that she bought her first racehorse: there was no looking back. “A big part [of ownership] for me is going to the gallops, spending time with the horse, getting to know the trainer and the staff who look after it.

“I actually often will go to where they’re stabled before they even get saddled up. I’m always there when they’re saddling up, and in the parade ring; every single second that I can be with my horse, I will be there.” She has great hopes for her current horse, six-year-old Special Tiara, who won the Grade 1 two-mile steeplechase on Grand National Day at Aintree. And with some of those winnings, she has another youngster who she hopes will come out in the spring.

That’s a side of racing she adores. What she’s not so keen on is the way women are sidelined – and sideline themselves. While high-profile initiatives such as Ladies’ Days make racecourses money – which she’s all for – they don’t alter the gender balance in any real way.

Her argument is that having more women at the top level will materially improve the sport. “When I was on the ROA [Racehorse Owners Association], I was one of the only people that was always questioning the figures. People wouldn’t even ask about what they didn’t understand. [Yet] the finances of racing have been largely deplorable.

“There have been many studies [by leading banks] that show the benefit of diversity in groups. These studies have been particularly about avoiding group-think.

“And then women tend to approach problems differently and they tend to ask questions – like, ‘I’m sorry; I know this sounds stupid but could you please explain this because I don’t get it.’ And most of the people round the table – including the men - are probably thinking: Thank god she asked that! But men are afraid to do that.”

What Sally is after is a non-confrontational, cooperative approach that will reap benefits for all.

Nevertheless, is she ever seen as the Mrs Pankhurst of the racing world?

“I hope not!” she laughs. “I think people do misunderstand it. I’m not here to burn bras or knock down the doors. I’m here to say racing could improve with more gender diversity at the decision-making levels. It would be lovely to have women in those positions, but also to develop a pipeline of women coming up through the ranks so you have more choice of highly-qualified women in the future.”

It’s a challenge with more hurdles than the Grand National. But the odds are, she’ll do it.


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