There were emotional scenes when Rochelle Milnes won the Port Lincoln Cup early this month.

Just two years prior, the 22-year-old apprentice jockey was being actively discouraged from pursuing a career in racing by her jockey father who feared she would be hurt.

But after growing up around horses and working part-time in stables, she naturally gravitated towards a career in the saddle.

Rochelle Milnes returns to scale after winning the Cup aboard I Need A Drink.(Supplied: Country Racing SA)

“I don’t have the words yet; nothing describes the thrill of having a hometown cheer like that. People have been so good to me,” Milnes said of her Cup win.

She was one of four female jockeys to compete in the main race that day, a telling sign of how far the industry has come in its attitudes towards women. 

In South Australia alone, the number of female jockeys is continuing to grow, with the latest figures from the Australian Jockey Association showing that 58 per cent of all jockeys in the state are women.

For Milnes’s part, when the Port Lincoln-born-and-bred rider took up her apprenticeship in 2022, she discovered an industry that was embracing women jockeys with gusto.

Rochelle Milnes grew up around horses but her parents weren’t keen on her becoming a jockey.(Supplied: Rochelle Milnes)

Level playing field

Women brought a love of the animals to the competitive and sometimes dangerous sport, Milnes says.

“The girls have a real passion for riding horses, so they come through and want to be jockeys, they’re really interested in it, they love horses and that shows in their riding.

“Go the girl power.

“I don’t even really take notice anymore [of other women jockeys] because we’re so common out there in the placings and the wins that it’s a very level playing field.”

The first female jockeys in Australia had to disguise themselves as men, using pseudonyms and costumes to follow their sporting passion.

Today no such facade is necessary, with women dominating cohorts of licensed and apprentice jockeys across the nation.

In South Australia, 58 per cent of jockeys are female.(Supplied: Racing SA)

In South Australia, of the 21 apprentice jockeys enrolled in Racing SA’s program, just one is male. In Victoria, the most recent apprentice jockey intake saw 12 females and one male.

It’s a sport that naturally lends itself to smaller bodies and is embracing women jockeys on a level playing field for the first time in its storied history.

Women bring ‘different approach’ to racing

Racing SA apprentice academy master and former jockey Briony Moore says gender is becoming irrelevant as a merit-based system takes hold.

Briony Moore is the apprentice academy manager at Racing SA.(Supplied: Racing SA)

“If a rider is going well and they’re proving themselves on the track, then we’re finding here in South Australia particularly that trainers are happy to put on who is in form and who’s that right fit for the owners and the horse.”

Moore says female riders bring a different approach to the sport.

“I can’t quite put my finger on it; maybe they are just that better body type and size for a jockey.

“I always say with females they love the animal, they love their horses, they’ve come through pony club.

“Males typically would get into racing because they love the speed, the adrenaline, the lifestyle, the money.”

Female jockeys make up 36 per cent of the total number of jockeys and apprentices nationally, according to the Australian Jockey Association.

Tasmania has the highest ratio of female jockeys at 67 per cent, with South Australia second at 58 per cent.

In the past decade, the number of female jockeys has increased by 10 per cent.

Clubs adapt to gender shift

It’s a far cry from the experience of Australia’s first licensed female jockey, Wilhemena “Bill” Smith, who gained success in the 1940s and ’50s masquerading as a male rider, arriving at the races already dressed in her silks because she refused to change in front of other riders.

It was only in 1979 that women in Australia were given the right to legally race as jockeys against men.

At the Port Lincoln Racing Club (PLRC), the evolving gender makeup of the jockey cohort has forced changes.

Elouise Dukalskis says country racing provides opportunities for women.(Supplied: Elouise Dukalskis)

When the change rooms were built in the 1990s, the men’s rooms were substantially bigger than the women’s.

In the past 12 months, those change rooms have been swapped over to cater to the large rise in female jockeys.

PLRC general manager Elouise Dukalskis says country clubs provide a supportive environment for women to rise through the ranks.

“In regional areas, you often get the opportunities that perhaps are a little too competitive in metropolitan areas for people that are just starting out.

“It’s a wonderful first step for people to interact with racing, perhaps find their feet, get their first job strapping, maybe get on a horse and do some track riding in the mornings.

“When someone like Rochelle Milnes, who is locally raised, comes through the ranks and takes out the Cup, there’s not a dry eye in the house.”

For the young jockey’s family who were initially against her pursing a career in racing, that moment “was like magic”, according to her proud father.

“It was a great feeling, it was a magic moment for her. It really was,” Graham Milnes said.

“She’s had a lot of success, and it just shows the hard work that she’s actually been putting in.”