Dr Jill Colwell – An Australian Sporting Treasure
An Australian Sporting Treasure
Iconic Australian racehorse trainers, Theo Green and T.J. Smith will always guarantee you a racing headline. Add in Olympic champion marathon runner, Robert de Castella and your headline is starting to become the foundation for a sporting documentary or even a movie script.
But, what about a woman who has been mentored by them all? A young woman on the edge of her remarkable adult life in an astonishing period in Australian history that saw immense social reform for women – the 1970s. A decade that was punctuated with social commentary by public intellectual and renowned feminist - Germaine Greer. Yet a young Dr Jill Colwell was not shouting her accomplishments from the roof tops, far from it. A quiet achiever is the only way to describe Jill, a gifted, gentle soul who was guided by some of the world’s best while at the same time completing a medical degree and unknowingly being a female trailblazer in many areas of Australian working life, breaking through barriers for women. Dr Jill Colwell’s life is extraordinary, so much so that I have asked Jill to convey to Ladies in Racing Magazine readers in her own words her life time account. Reading through the first of a three part series you can’t help but be impressed with her profound passion, hard work and determination that underpins her very existence, compounded with a degree of humility and wit that you will only find in someone that hails from the Australian bush.
Both a professional and amateur jockey; acclaimed local and international track work rider; Australia’s first female representative marathon runner; doctor of medicine as well as being a race caller’s daughter – Dr Jill Colwell may not have won a Melbourne Cup, but she is very much a champion. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Jill Colwell for the first time. A former professional and now amateur jockey, she has developed a love for Arabian horses. Although I have got to know Jill in the later stages of her life, you would never guess her age by watching Dr Colwell contest a race. The first time I actually called an event that featured Jill riding, her tenacity tempered with great skill and balance would rival the best jockeys – a third of her age. Now in her mid60s Jill is successfully enjoying her time in the saddle again with an amateur jockey’s licence. However, amateur is certainly not a word that is befitting of her ability or experience. Dr Jill Colwell’s life has been filled with both professional and Olympic level sporting successes as well as her scholastic attainments that set her apart from most of us - especially with a career in medicine. Additionally, many of Jill’s sporting and medical achievements were also inaugural moments or near first time occurrences for Australian working women.
I think it is a sure bet, that you will enjoy reading about Dr Jill Colwell’s fascinating life story as much as I do.
Victoria Shaw. Race caller & HH Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Arabian racing journalist of the year 2015.
Iwas born on 13th July 1952, the middle child of Fred Colwell (Sheep grazier) and Neta (ex school teacher). I grew up on the family farm, “New Prospect” on marginal country near Walgett in N-W NSW. My two siblings ( Tonia and Kim) and I did our schooling with Blackfriars Correspondence School. Our school lessons arrived once a week on the North West Mail steam train which travelled within three miles of our homestead. The train guard put our mailbag in a 44 gallon drum and we would ride our ponies across to the train line to collect the mail bag. In 1960 my father decided it would be fun to stage a mock robbery of the N-W Mail train. His brilliant idea soon became a much anticipated weekly ritual. We made masks from rags and armed with water pistols, we chased the train as fast as our ponies could gallop along the rough track. The train driver joined in the fun, blowing the train whistle and creating as much steam as he could. Any passenger who lent too far out the window got shot with water. Finally the train guard would throw us the loot - our own blue calico mail bag.
My father had an owner-trainer’s licence and trained a couple of TB racehorses on the property. Fred was a race caller, and we often went to the country races which I found so exciting.
I discovered that if I really applied myself, I could finish my weekly school lessons in less than one day. That left me six days to ride my pony and to help my father with the sheep work and racehorses.
In 1961, at the age of nine, I was sent to Boarding School in Sydney.
Abbotsleigh was a great school, but living in Sydney was a culture shock and I missed so many things about the bush, especially my pony.
I was really conscious that my parents were struggling to pay the private school fees, so I worked very hard and did well at school. My excellent results gained me a Commonwealth Scholarship and entry to Sydney
University Medical School in 1971. None of my ancestors had ever been a doctor. In fact, not many women gained entry to Medical School in those days. My father refused to support my choice of career, but my mother encouraged me wholeheartedly. The Commonwealth Scholarship paid for my Uni fees, but I still needed money to pay for accommodation in Sydney and to buy food, clothes and books. Medical School was a six year course, five full days per week, with each day involving nine hours of lectures, tutorials, laboratory work, anatomical dissection etc, followed by another three or four hours of homework and assignments each night and even more homework on weekends. To earn some money to live on, I squeezed in some part time waitressing on weekends. I did various full time jobs in my Uni holidays, including as a full time Cleaner and another as a Jillaroo on a horse property. On my visits back to Walgett, I would ride trackwork at Walgett Racecourse for the legendary bush trainer Albert (‘AJ’) Hazlett. Albert had no hesitation in putting me on any of his racehorses in trackwork and barrier trials. Ultimately, he was to give me my first race ride. In 1974, the idea occurred to me that I could pay my way through University by riding trackwork on Sydney tracks. Trackwork started just before dawn and I figured that I could ride for a few hours and still get to my Uni lectures by 8 am. Track riders got paid $1.00 per horse in the 1970s. I could not afford a car, but it was cheaper with my student discount to catch a train to Canterbury racetrack. So I turned up at Canterbury early one morning, feeling excited and wearing my riding boots and helmet. However, the trainers simply told me that ‘girls could not ride trackwork’. It was only then that I noticed there were no female riders amongst about hundred track riders. I felt dejected and rejected. Subsequently I heard about a small time older trainer who was really struggling to get a reliable track rider. So I summoned the courage to approach Ken Chilby. He seemed very surprised that a girl was asking for work, but he became interested when I promised him that I would turn up every morning, rain, hail or shine, to ride his racehorses. That is how I became a track rider, the one girl amongst about 100 male riders. In 1974, there was no official licensing for track riders and no riding tests in front of stewards. It was a few weeks before people began to notice that there was a girl out there on the track. And the girl was riding gallops on the course proper. I have always believed that actions speak louder than words. I must have been riding OK because it was not long before other trainers were approaching me to ride their horses. Some of these were the same trainers with whom I had initially tried unsuccessfully to talk my way into a job. Australia lagged behind other countries in accepting female jockeys into the “Sport of Kings”. Some amateur ladies were able to ride at Picnic Races but there was no real career path. The NSW Lady Jockeys Association was formed in the early 1970’s and the members, including the President Wendy Smith began to lobby for women’s right to ride professionally in races. Subsequently a few country race clubs began to programme races for “Approved Lady Riders” on their race days and these races were well supported. In 1974, the stewards approved me to ride in races and I had my first race ride at Coonamble on an Albert Hazlett trained horse. We finished 2nd last, but I loved the whole experience. I kept riding lots of trackwork at Canterbury, but there were not many opportunities to ride in races. One Friday evening in 1975, I came home from Uni, to be greeted by one of my flat mates, Chris, with the news that he had just taken a phone call from a trainer, Barry Turner and accepted me for the ride on his horse tomorrow in a race at Narrabri, about twelve hours away by train. There was just enough time to get to Central Station and catch the overnight North West
Mail which went through Narrabri on its way to Walgett. Chris could not tell me anything about the horse, except that the trainer Barry said the horse might go better for a girl and that he would meet me at Narrabri train station in the morning. This was pre-internet days so I could not look up the fields and form and had no idea about what weight I had to ride. I sat up all night on the North West Mail. I reminisced to myself about the ‘old days’ when we used to rob this train on our ponies. I was not game to eat anything, while everyone around me ate and drank and snored most of the night.. Some aboriginal women befriended me and they were worried that I was not eating. They tried to share all their food with me. I explained that I was a jockey, I only weighed about 53 Kg but I was worried that I could end up overweight if my horse had bottom weight.
The train dropped me at Narrabri at about 7 am. It was in the middle of Winter and it was frosty cold. There was no Barry to collect me. In 1975, there were no mobile phones to ring for assistance. I set off on foot, lugging my race day port, across a few paddocks and eventually I found the racetrack, where I found Barry. He was a man of few words. He took me to see my mount, a chestnut mare named Avon Crag. As I approached her stable, she lunged at me over the stable door, ears pinned back menacingly. I was thinking that if I survived riding her in a race, I would really earn my $27 losing ride fee. Barry volunteered that lately she had been playing up badly in her races, especially in the barrier. She had finished last in her recent races. Then Barry said that if I rode the mare to his instructions, she would win. He said she would sit down in the barrier, her hindquarters would crouch right down and I must let her stay down, She would sling shot out of the barriers and lead easily, but I had to hold her back until the 600m and then let her go. The mare remained cranky in the mounting yard, but I kept talking to her all the way to the barriers and I thought maybe she was starting to like me - just a little. Then the clerk of the course rode up to me and said, ‘watch yourself on that mare, she has tried to kill her last few jockeys.’ Barry had not mentioned that. Barry was a man of few words and he had chosen his words carefully. Avon Crag loaded well into her barrier, but then her back end dropped right down, and I had to take a big handful of mane to stop myself sliding onto her rump. Her nose was way back from the gates. The starter called “Are you ready, Colwell?” and I answered “Yes Sir.” He said “it does not look like you are ready.” Next thing, the gates opened and my cranky chestnut mare jumped two lengths clear and I was still on top. I remembered to steady her as she led the charge along the back straight. I kept talking to her as I counted the furlong poles flying past. At the 600m mark, I released the brakes and she sprinted 4 lengths clear and the race was ours. Just like Barry said. When you ride racehorses that you have never seen before, let alone ridden, all you can do is accept what the trainer tells you about them. This was my very first race win. I can still not adequately describe the euphoria of that moment. Only eighteen months prior, I had been told that I could not even ride track work, let alone consider riding in races. As I returned to the mounting yard, I noticed my Aboriginal friends from the train. They called out that they had come to the races just to bet on me! There was a special presentation after the race. The Narrabri Race Committee members were introduced to me as the winning rider. Suddenly one of these men asked loudly “Would you be one of the Colwell Gang who used to rob the North West Mail Train?” Everyone was now looking at me, and all I could do was nod my head. The Committee member then smiled and explained that he used to be the train guard on the North West Mail and that the robberies were a highlight of his career. And then he added “you sure could ride as little kid, and you sure can ride now”. After the races, I did not have to endure another long trip back to Sydney on the North West Mail train. The happy winning owners bought me a plane ticket back to Sydney and took me out for a celebratory dinner.
above: The Colwell Gang 1960, Kim 4yo, Jill 7 yo & Tonia 11 yo left: Jill the 2 yo jockey in 1954
Jill Graduating with MB BS (Honours) Sydney University 1977
Jill and trainer Albert Hazlett at Come By Chance races 28th Sept 1974
top: Avon Crag & Jill win at Narrabri 26 June 1975 below: Jill Colwell, Avon Crag’s owner, Mr Cameron and trainer Barry Turner