The part of racing that most people love – the dressing up, the socialising, the champagne – is the part Linda Meech finds the most frustrating.
She loves attending the races as much as the next person, but when she’s a guest rather than a rider she watches the jockeys with envy.
“I really hate watching other people do something I love doing,” the 36-year-old says.
Meech, who moved to Australia from the tiny New Zealand hamlet of Pongaroa when she was 18, has done the hard yards to carve out a long and successful career as a jockey.
She may not be a household name like her pal Michelle Payne, but her strike rate speaks for itself. This season it’s sitting around 22 per cent, meaning she’s ridden a winner one out of every 4.4 rides. Her entire career strike rate is an impressive 15 per cent.
Meech never wanted to do anything other than ride. At four she told her mum she didn’t need to go to school because she was going to be a jockey. And she admits at the start it was hard for women to stake their place in the industry.
“It’s a lot easier now,” she says. “You used to have to beg for a ride. I’d call every trainer and still might not get a ride. It didn’t matter if you were good: you were a girl. That whole mindset has changed now.”
In many ways that mindset has changed faster from within the industry, she says.
Trainers and owners now have confidence in female riders; it’s the punters who appear to be more hesitant.
Michelle Payne’s ground-breaking win at the Melbourne Cup saw her climb on to Prince of Penzance with odds of more than 100 to 1. Meech says had she been a male jockey those odds would likely have been much lower.
Meech joined the rest of Australia in celebrating Payne’s historic win, the first by a female rider at the Melbourne Cup. “I cried when she won,” Meech says. “I was that happy for her. I’m pretty good friends with Michelle. We’re in the rooms together a lot so I was just rapt for her.”
Earlier this year Meech was invited to Casablanca, Morocco by the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy to compete in its invitational women’s race.
The academy’s mission is to promote and facilitate women’s sport in the United Arab Emirates, and Meech returned inspired and impressed. “It’s all about empowering women to be more than they think they can be,” she says.
While the impression of the life of a jockey is constant dieting, early starts and long hours, Meech says she’s managed to strike a good balance. She keeps her weight under control simply by eating healthily, rather than stints in saunas and running. She makes sure she takes regular holidays to avoid burn out, and manages her time so she’s not run ragged driving around the country.
Still, she has an eye to what comes next. “I’m getting pretty old for a female jockey and it’s not something I can do forever, as much as I love it. I don’t want to be 50 and still race riding,” she says. “It just gets harder on your body. It’s hard on your hips, your elbows…”
She’s bought a piece of land near Stawell in western Victoria. Like many other retiring jockeys, she plans on transitioning into training. “I’ll go into it gradually and iron out all the kinks, make small mistakes instead of big mistakes.”
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