Dr Jill Col­well – An Aus­tralian Sport­ing Trea­sure

An Aus­tralian Sport­ing Trea­sure

Ladies in Racing - - Contents - Fore­word by Vic­to­ria Shaw • Main story and im­ages cour­tesy Dr Jill Col­well

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

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