YEAR: 2014


With Natalie Rasmussen leading UDR tables and Sam Ottley aiming at becoming the third female to top the Junior Driver's premiership, women are driving high just now. And considering it took 80 years for them just to be licenced their achievements are notable. The pioneers were Ethel Abbott and Bella Button both of whose careers were ruined by Victorian hypocrisy.

Abbott was granted a licence by the Otahuhu Trotting Club in 1890 aged just 16. She was a pioneer of riding astride, wearing bloomers as did Button. But official licences were issued nationally and theirs were always refused.

Button drove winners in Canterbury but with a one day club permit. Because of these two the subject of female drivers was discussed as early as at the first Trotting Conferencein 1896. It was noted that "rules would have to be changed" to allow them to be licenced but there "seemed to be some degree of support fot it". 75 years later it happened.

Button, originally from Mid-Canterbury, owned and trained Star, the first winner of the inaugural Ashburton Trotting Club meeting in 1890. As usual she sent the good news home by carrier pigeon. She drove in lightweight "wagons" and later in the high seated sulky in ladylike fashion. Something of a legend, Bella also starred in the then famous Australasian travelling rodeo show. O'Neill's Buckjumpers.

At one Christchurch Show she was asked to ride all four contenders in the final round of the hurdles and did. She was the first woman to win a race at Riccarton only an hour after Slow Tom, a horse she had developed and sold, had won the 1904 Grand National Steeplechase.

The licencing system drove her out of trotting and when she operated from the landmark Brooklyn Lodge stables at New Brighton in later years she was mainly involved with ponies and show-horses - though she was in demand for educating or sorting out difficult racehorses. Jack Litten was one who spent his early working days with her at Brooklyn Lodge.

The arrival of speed carts and the "unladylike" poses they required seemed to prevent progress of female drivers for decades even though the talent was there.

Another noted horsewoman, the formidable Julia Cuff, later of Hinds, was the first woman licenced to train in Southland in 1935 but she was not suited to race driving. It wasn't until the "Eyelure Derbys" and similar - mainly non tote races showing female talents in the 1970's - aided by the push to licence female jockeys, that real progress was made. A number of stars of those chose to remain amateur.

Una Anso operated her own stable of horses with the "Red" prefix at Otorohanga and became the first woman to win at trials. Then three raceday licences were granted in 1979 to Dorothy Cutts (open licence) who became the first to win a totalisator race against the men with Kenworthy at an on-course only meeting at Cambridge in February that year.

Lorraine Watson (amateur licence) followed as the first southerner to win with Hydro Byrd at Methven and Anne Cooney was granted a junior driver's licence. As Lorraine Grant the former was later the first woman trainer of a NZ Cup starter, cult pacer Rainbow Patch.

The female profile was raised in 1972 with the visit of personable American Bea Farber, the first woman to drive in the World Driver's Championship after topping the American UDR ratings three years in a row. She ultimately drove over 1800 winners. The real American pioneer had been "Grandma" Burright who drove for 25 years including at major night meetings until well into her 60's in the 1950's. The immortal Greyhound's trainer-driver Sep Palin held her driving in high regard.

The amazing feat in American up until then - still astonishing today - was 11-year-old Alma Sheppard driving trotter Dean Hanover to a world 3-year-old record 1:58.5 in a time trial at the Red Mile in 1937 a feat which had her rivalling Shirley Temple for national media attention. Alma's media response on this remarkable feat was "I didn't do it. The horse did it" and she retired from public driving in her teens.

In the last two decades here Jo Herbert(twice) and Kirstin Barclay have topped junior driving premierships and Nicole Molander(Group Ones) and Nikki Chilcott(500 wins) have made a major impact. Herbert, no longer driving, had three NZ Cup drives placing fourth in one of the best female efforts before Rasmussen. Earlier Maria Perriton and Karen Williams won the Maurice Holmes Junior Trophy at Addington, Lyn Neal drove at the top level, Maree Price won trotting features and others such as Michelle Wallis and Susan Branch had moments in the headlines.

So why has there not been a greater overall commitment in the Australian style of Kerryn Manning's 3000+ wins?

Maybe the brutally frank Farber who had no family, had the last word. In the heat of battle she once said, it was so ruthless it made no difference to rivals if you were "a man, a woman or a hippo." The track grit caused her complexion problems and she rarely shopped for clothes or had time for it. "I am 37, my sister is 50 and everyone says she looks younger than me" was another quote. Then there was her retort to a media question about her private life with then husband, trainer Chuck, a marriage she once claimed as "as much a business arrangement as a relationship. You try having a sex life when you work 20 hours a day," said Bea who retired to Florida in 1995 with multiple arthritic, muscle and joint injuries caused by years in the racecart.

Maybe a lot of skilled Kiwi horsewoman just had other prorities.

Credit: David McCarthy writing in HRWeekly 19Mar2014

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