The rise of women jockeys is a cause for celebration but allegations of bullying have cast a dark shadow over the sport. Lydia Hislop fears racing is closing ranks to avoid confronting the unpalatable
Last Saturday, something unprecedented happened in European horseracing: two women rode the two best horses in the most important jumps race of the season to date.
In the Champion Chase at Northern Ireland’s Down Royal racecourse, Bryony Frost partnered Frodon and Rachael Blackmore rode the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Minella Indo. Blackmore’s mount faded to third but Frost won – leading throughout and eliciting some bold leaps from the little horse who continues to deliver her greatest triumphs.
This was remarkable, ostensibly the latest milestone in the upward trajectory of professional female jockeys on either side of the Irish Sea. However, admiration for Frost’s focus and nerve was also influenced by the darker knowledge that she has recently accused a fellow jockey of persistent harassment – an official complaint that has not gone down well with many of her colleagues.
The story has provoked wildly differing interpretations. Jockeys feel their culture has been attacked. Others believe a lid has been lifted on a groupthink that seeks to diminish those not in the club. Where many insiders see an admirable self-policing culture of hard knocks, intrinsic to a competitive and dangerous sport, outsiders see pernicious workplace behaviour that seems routinely condoned in the riders’ changing room.
The rise of what is still a minority of female riders – and the media attention that follows them – may also be playing a part in this story.
It’s not merely jealousy, however. Racing still lacks the infrastructure to put women jockeys on an equal footing, tacitly endorsing their marginal presence – as embodied by their comparative lack of racecourse facilities, a factor in this tale.
Frost – then 25 – first went to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) on 15 September 2020 and later made detailed allegations of continuing bullying and intimidating behaviour towards her by another jockey, Robbie Dunne, now 42. She said this began in her days as an amateur rider in 2017 and culminated in ugly confrontations in the weeks preceding her complaint.
Following a seven-month investigation, the BHA indicted Dunne in April – including with the gravest charge at its disposal, Rule (J)19 “Conduct prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horseracing in Great Britain”, which carries a maximum penalty of a three-year disqualification from the sport and a consequent loss of livelihood.
A date for an oral hearing in front of the disciplinary panel – independent from the BHA with a legally qualified chair – is thought to be imminent.
Frost’s concerns trickled out in public following cryptic comments she made in the wake of her headline-grabbing success in last Boxing Day’s King George VI Chase on Frodon. In the past three weeks, via an as-yet-untraced leak, extensive details of the case prematurely emerged when the Sunday Times published extracts from the BHA’s charging documents.
As a result, the BHA was forced to report itself to the Information Commissioner’s Office because it could not be certain the leak did not derive from its staff, triggering grave potential consequences for the self-regulation of the sport.
Dunne’s solicitor accused the BHA’s integrity department of being “unfit for purpose” and breaking “pretty much every rule of professional and neutral evidence gathering … including the misrepresentation and selective editing of witness testimony”.
Perhaps most troublingly, the Professional Jockeys’ Association (PJA) released a statement 11 days ago asserting that, because the BHA’s charge letter and accompanying documentation had been leaked, “a fair hearing is impossible” for Dunne.
The PJA concluded that the case “cannot now be permitted to proceed” and called on the BHA to throw it out “however unsatisfactory that it is”. This from an association that is supposed to represent both Dunne and Frost.
Frost submitted two written statements to the BHA, describing persistently inappropriate behaviour from Dunne in the shared workspace male and female jockeys occupy, including that “he would stand in front of me naked”. “I didn’t want this and none of the other jockeys were like that,” she stated. “I would try my hardest to avoid him at all times.”
Yet, according to her statements, the problem escalated and after two post-race altercations, at Stratford racecourse in July and a prolonged encounter at Southwell in September, she became “very worried for my safety” and started to think “I don’t want to be here anymore”.
Dunne – who until this week had been sidelined by a neck injury since August – was interviewed in December and, whilst he denied using the more aggressive language alleged, he did not dispute – in view of witnesses – threatening to “put [her] through a wing”. That means using his horse to squeeze out Frost’s horse into the infrastructure of a fence, thus risking causing serious injury.
Dunne painted this as a tit-for-tat response to what he believes is Frost’s tendency to cause interference, in particular during a race at Southwell resulting in the fatal fall of his horse – an interpretation of events the BHA’s raceday stewards did not share.
During its investigations, the BHA interviewed at least 12 other jockeys and three valets (men – invariably – who oversee the jockeys’ equipment). Some were also questioned about Frost’s assertion that other female riders had been subjected to Dunne’s “crudeness”.
All those questioned recalled the various incidents to some degree, according to the leaked extracts quoted often using remarkably similar phrasing. All but one – the former amateur jockey, Hannah Welch – sought to play down their importance, averring they would have intervened had Dunne gone “over the top”.
But Welch recalled an incident after her horse had raced on the inside rail – which Dunne had denounced as “pushing up the inner of professional jockeys” – when he “placed himself right in front of me and was squaring and mouthing off at me”. She found it “bizarre that none of the other jockeys intervened”, adding that “it would be more difficult for a person still involved in racing to make a statement like this”.
Her testimony offers a glimpse into the hierarchical nature of the jockeys’ insular community. It is widely known that two codebooks operate: the official Rules of Racing and rider etiquette, under which who’s allowed to do what – and deliver censure – appears subjective and depends on status. This tension has been lately exacerbated because some jockeys think the official interference rules are not applied strictly enough by the BHA stewards.
The BHA’s report into Frost’s complaint concluded: “There is a cultural issue in which threatening behaviour is condoned and not reported in the weighing [changing] room. It is submitted that it is likely that this is why it has been difficult for the BHA to gather detailed witness evidence from occupants of the weighing room.”
This has proved inflammatory and has thus far only served to deepen the weighing-room code of omerta. Asked about relations with Frost since her complaint, Dunne told the BHA: “Not great … it’s not the done thing.”
In January, the former jockey Rhys Flint – the son of the trainer whose horse was killed at Southwell – tweeted: “Bad form going to the BHA … say what you have to say, take it on the chin, move forward.” His tweet, since deleted, was liked by a number of current jockeys, trainers and stable staff.
Since the Sunday Times articles appeared, various jockeys have taken to social media, newspapers and television to defend their culture. The speed and certitude of their response to an as-yet-unheard case has been unnerving. This tweet from senior jump jockey Tom Scudamore, who was interviewed by the BHA during the investigation, typifies the approach:
The Racing Post, the sport’s daily newspaper, has published three pieces from current or ex-jockeys in the past eight days. All were affronted by what they saw as negative generalisations of weighing-room culture, and all countered with generalisations about their own positive experiences.
No credence was given to allegations of bullying, nor mention of others who might feel differently. Yet all three referred to “strong words”, “dressing down” or “bollockings” taking place, without reflection on whether those delivering this impromptu professional advice were always executing the lesson well, or best qualified to judge how it might be received.
One – now a journalist – even put forth a slew of insinuations, including that “others” might have expressed similar frustrations to Frost “about her mounts drifting across” and even that Welch could have been biased in her evidence because she often rode for trainer Jimmy Frost, Bryony’s father.
Readers were invited to agree that the BHA’s report is “deeply unsatisfactory” because “a number of the jockeys and valets who gave statements believed that their comments were transcribed inaccurately, and some refused to sign them off for that reason”. Insider hearsay, it was repeatedly implied, is more trustworthy than the official investigation.
Yet since the leaked case went public, news broke of a second ongoing complaint from an unnamed female rider against a male colleague and, emboldened by Frost speaking out, a male former jump jockey for the first time disclosed a campaign of physical and verbal abuse he’d suffered 20 years ago – including faeces being “put in [his] bag regularly, equipment spat on” – that caused him to walk away from the sport.
In this toxic atmosphere, the concern is not that the case has been compromised – this is not trial by jury, there has been no contempt of court – but that the failure to go ahead would fatally undermine the future capacity of the sport’s justice system. However, there must be a risk that some witnesses would feel too scared to appear, and that other victims of bullying might be deterred from coming forward.
It also tends to be forgotten that Frost must go to work each day and steadfastly execute her skills under this intense, often hostile, scrutiny. A less courageous person might have crumpled. It should be stressed, too, that Dunne is riding under the shadow of suspicion. He must get the opportunity to answer the case against him or else he may always be tagged as a bully in the unqualified court of public opinion.
Finally, if the disciplinary panel is not allowed to do its job what will that say about the sport itself? The perception will remain that its participants would rather that people suffered in silence than ask independent experts to hear what they have to say. It is this, not the complaint itself, that is the real danger for British racing.
Lydia Hislop is a racing journalist and broadcaster.
In the new edition of the Tortoise short book of long stories, Giants, out next week, Lydia Hislop writes about the meaning of Rachael Blackmore, the rider who shattered two centuries of myth about women in sport by winning the Grand National this year. It will be available in the Tortoise shop next week.
Photographs James Crombie/Inpho/Shutterstock, Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile, Alamy Images, Harry Trump/Getty Images