Celebrating trailblazers, quiet achievers and impactful women in racing

8 March 2023 Written by VRC

On March 8 we celebrate International Women’s Day, a time to reflect on the countless triumphs, contributions – and sometimes struggles – of women in the racing industry, and their vital roles in shaping its past, present, and future.

From the trailblazing trainers to the quiet achievers, we share here just some of the women who have made, and continue to make, an impact.

When Patrobas won the 1915 Melbourne Cup, new ground was broken when Mrs Edith Widdis of Rosedale, Victoria became the first female owner of a Melbourne Cup winner. Having won the Caulfield Guineas and then the Derby, this was the only horse to win the three races in the one year. Trained by Charlie Wheeler and ridden by Bobbie Lewis, Mrs Widdis received Patrobas as a birthday present from her husband. Edith, mother of eight, was described as ‘an intuitive horsewoman and clear-eyed businesswoman’. In a lovely synergy, exactly 100 years after this win in 2015, Michelel Payne became the first woman to win a Melbourne Cup with the  number 19 on Prince of Penzance’s blanket – the same number worn by Patrobas.

1915 Melbourne Cup winner Edith Widdis and Patrobas. (Australian Racing Museum)

Although New Zealand trainer Hedwick Wilhelmina ‘Granny’ McDonald was the first ever female trainer of a Melbourne Cup winner (with Catalogue in 1938), she was denied the opportunity to be listed as the winning trainer due to the fact there were no female licenses issued at the time in the state of Victoria. The answer to that conundrum was to transfer the 8YO into the name of her husband, Alan. The horse was owned by Mrs A Jamieson, just the second female after Edith Widdis in 1915 to own a Melbourne Cup winner.

Granny McDonald (Courtesy of Wayne Judd)

Sheila Laxon, trainer of Ethereal and the first female trainer of a Melbourne Cup winner, there are only fond memories as she reflects back on what was a stellar period in her life. While a matron now at stud, Ethereal will go down with enviable career stats of 21 race starts for eight wins and $4.76 million in prizemoney, including the 2001 Caulfield and Melbourne Cup double as well as the 2002 BMW Stakes at Rosehill and the 2001 Queensland Oaks at Eagle Farm. All Group 1 races.    In recent years, Laxon lives and trains up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland with partner and trainer, John Symons and while engaging with activities connected with the Lexus Melbourne Cup Tour as one of its ambassadors, always reflects back with fond memories that unfolded in the spring of 2001.

Read more about Sheila as she reflects on her Cup victory 20 years on

Sheila Laxon after her Melbourne Cup win in 2001

Waterhouse’s story started in the late fifties when she was born the only child of Sydney’s legendary horse trainer, Tommy (T.J.) Smith, who in the space of a half-century, managed to rewrite the record books that still stand Australia-wide. After graduating, Waterhouse began a career in acting, both here and in England. The horses lured her back, however, and she decided to become a trainer, like her father. Although gaining her training license was not straightforward, thirty years later she has clocked up more than 22,000 starters and saddled up over 4,500 race-winning horses. She has amassed a staggering 153 Group 1 winners to date, and won nearly every major race across the Australasian landscape, including the 2013 Melbourne Cup with Fiorente.

Learn more about Gai and her way with horses.

Gai Waterhouse

Maree Davey (nee Lyndon) was the first woman in New Zealand to win a Group 1 race, the New Zealand Cup, the Auckland Cup, the Adelaide Cup (on Lord Reims in 1987) and the first woman to ride in the Melbourne Cup in 1987. She was 24 when she finished 20th on Argonaut Style – an uptight stallion who was beaten “before he even got to the barrier” – in the year Kensei won the coveted two-mile race under the urgent riding of Larry Olsen. She is reflective and proud of her past, but never rode in the race again, nor did she ever return to Flemington. Her racing career took a back seat as she started a family, concentrating on other things than racing.

In 2015, Michelle Payne became the first female to ride a winner of the Melbourne Cup. Riding Prince Of Penzance at 100/1 Michelle jumped from barrier 1, enjoyed a great run in transit and hit the front at the Flemington clock tower. The highlight of her career so far, Michelle won international fame in what was a groundbreaking feat in the 155th running of the race. She won the ‘The Don’ Award 2016 for Most Inspirational Australian Athlete from the Sport Australia Hall of Fame and in 2017 she received The Longines Ladies Awards, celebrating women who have consistently achieved at the highest level within the equestrian world. Michelle still rides, but concentrates on her training operation as well as working in the media.

Michelle Payne wins the 2015 Melbourne Cup

Leon McDonald and Clare Lindop had long been a winning combination in South Australia, so securing the 2008 AAMI Victoria Derby (G1) was just an extension of an already successful partnership. But smashing the glass ceiling in racing has not always been easy, and when Lindop secured the coveted Group 1 she etched her name in history as the first female to win the oldest classic in the country. When Lindop competed in the Melbourne Cup days later, she became the first Australian female to ride in the race, paving the way for many after her. Lindop was also the first female to win the South Australian Jockeys Premiership (2005) and the first Australian-born female to win a Group 1 race (2006 Adelaide Cup).

Leading jockey Jamie Kah’s potential and talent were plain to see from early in her career. During the first six months of her apprenticeship, she rode 40 winners. In her first full season in 2012/13, she won the Adelaide Jockeys’ Premiership. By the time she turned 18, she had 163 wins. Now, she has already made history by being the first jockey to ride more than 100 Victorian metropolitan winners in a season (in 2021) as well as in Hong Kong when she became the first female jockey to win one of Hong Kong’s principal feature races, the HK$12 million Classic Mile in January 2023. On home soil she has raced in and won many of the biggest races on the Australian calendar, including the Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup (twice). Off the track, Kah re-trains ex-racehorses.

Find out more about Jamie Kah as she sits down for an exclusive Q&A.

Jamie Kah

Annabel Neasham may have only saddled up her first winner in August 2020 and been training for a few years, but she and her horses are making a big impact already. After arriving in Australia from her native England on a working holiday six years ago that included stints with Gai Waterhouse and Ciaron Maher, she took out her training license at Warwick Farm for the 2020-21 racing season. The trainer of Zaaki and Mo’Unga grew up in the Northamptonshire village of Croughton in the United Kingdom,and honed her horsemanship skills through eventing, show-jumping and hunting. Zaaki’s back-to-back win in the Group 1 Champions Stakes in 2021 and 2022 has cemented Neasham as one of the most exciting trainers in the country.

Read more about Annabel and her training expertise - Training with hands and heart.

Annabel Neasham

Lisa Coffey has worked in the racing industry for most of her life. Hailing from Ireland, where she worked as an apprentice jockey teacher, and at Aidan O’Brien’s stables helping fly his horses around the world among other jobs, Coffey ended up in Melbourne purely because of the Melbourne Cup, where she worked for Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Sheila Laxon, riding work at her stables in Seymour. A desire to experience racing in the city took her to Peter Moody’s stables, then to Racing Victoria and then into rehoming and retraining. This led to her founding the organisation Racing Hearts, which combines her two areas of expertise – thoroughbred racehorses and counselling people towards better mental health. In 2022 she was recognised at the Racing Victoria Off the Track awards in the Emerging Retrainer of the Year category.

Find out more about Lisa's work - Healing with horses

Lisa Coffey

As assistant trainer to Peter Moody, Katherine Coleman brings a youthful energy to combine with the champion trainer’s wisdom, setting high expectations for their stable.

It’s likely Moody and Coleman will become a partnership before too long, continuing a steep trajectory for the latter, reflecting her enthusiasm to learn – and learn from some masters – and a sharp work ethic. As well as her ability with horses, Coleman conducts roles in not just talking to the media but being a part of it, including appearances on panels.

Read more about Katherine's training partnership - Moody and Coleman - The perfect training match

Katherine Coleman (R) with Peter Moody and Jamie Kah

Don't miss out on tickets! Australia's most famous sprinting handicap, the $1.5 million Group 1 Yulong Stud Newmarket Handicap (1200m), is a highly anticipated date on the racing calendar for racing purists and eventgoers alike.