Pam O’neill – A Lady of True Grit
A Lady of True Grit
Pam O’neill was a trailblazer for lady jockeys and is an icon of the racing industry, She has paved the way for the young female riders of today.
As I pulled up outside her home in outer Brisbane, Pam was outside waiting for me, with her favourite Russian Wolfhound, Bailey, by her side. “Come on in, I’ve baked you a cake,” she said. Once settled inside, while enjoying our coffee and cake and getting to know one another she remarked, with a twinkle in her eye, “I didn’t really bake it, I bought it; I don’t bake!” That broke the ice and showed me the lady behind the legend; funny, warm and completely down to earth. As someone who has admired her for many years, after having seen her ride at Doomben and Eagle Farm back in the 1970s, it was my great pleasure to finally meet her in person and discover we have many mutual friends in the racing industry. Surrounded by her many trophies and framed photographs and with a beautiful painting of her on horseback as a backdrop, Pam told me her story. The younger daughter of Georgina and Winton Rhodes, Pam grew up in Kent Street, Ascot, Brisbane with her sister Gail, who was four years her senior. Pam said, “Dad loved the races. He was a Fruiterer and also a hobby trainer, so he often took me to the races with him. We had three stables behind the house as did almost everyone else in our street in those days.” Winton was named after the outback Queensland town where his family owned a large property, Mt Campbell. His mother in later years moved to Brisbane and attended the races every Saturday. An eccentric and fearsome woman, she was known as Chewing Gum Kate and was considered one of the characters of the tracks. “We kids used to hide when we saw her!” And with good reason, Kate would verbally abuse the jockeys when her horses didn’t win, but she also tried to “sling money their way when they did”. Ascot was very different back in the 1950s and 60s. Before Racecourse Road was a trendy area to dine and shop, ponies were kept there in paddocks on agistment. “Patch, my pony, used to constantly escape and the local police used to bring him home all the time,” Pam remembered. Loving horses, Pam joined the Hendra Pony Club and won plenty of ribbons. A friend of the family, Joan Neimann, taught Pam to be a horsewoman and obtained her first show horse, Ballerina and later, Aristocrat, a bay. She was introduced to horses very quickly at the age of 10, when a horse belonging to her neighbour, the late Bart Sinclair Snr, bolted down Kent Street with Pam on its back. Pam recalled, “The pony took fright at something. I was hanging on for dear life. I don’t know if I would have fallen off or not, but Barty risked his life as he threw himself in front of the pony and pulled it up.” Both Pam and Gail attended Ascot State School, the third generation of their family to do so. However, “I hated school” Pam told me, “and I asked Dad if I could leave when I was 14.” He finally agreed, as long as I could make myself useful and help out with the horses.” That was when Pam first learnt about the discrimination females faced in the racing industry. As her father’s early morning helper, she could ride a racehorse from the stables to Eagle Farm for track work, but she had to dismount at the gates and let the male strappers take over. It didn’t seem fair to her.
“Ever since I was a young girl I wanted to be a jockey. I wanted ride in races, but the rules didn’t allow it.” she recalled. ‘This business of only males being able to do something gets my back up, I’m a feminist; I’ve always spoken out for what I believe in.” Some of the rules were relaxed in the early 1960s and allowed women to be registered stablehands and a few years later, Pam became the first female allowed to ride track work. On the personal front, Pam met and married an entertainer at the tender age of 18. The young couple had two children, Cherie and Gavin, and moved to Sydney where there were more employment possibilities. While she was there, Pam was registered as a strapper and rode work for trainer Percy Atkins at Rosehill, as well as Tommy Smith at Randwick. In the evenings she had a part-time job as a cigarette girl at Chequers Nightclub. However, when her father became ill, Pam and the children returned home. Sadly, he passed away the age of 52. Pam regrets that her father didn’t live to see her success. Back in Brisbane, she wanted to be a licensed track work rider. Clyde Morgan, the Chief Steward at the time observed her, saying, “She can ride, that girl!” Her license soon followed, and her first employer was the well-known trainer, Vince Markey and then Harry Hatten, who became her stepfather. As a young mother who worked long hours, Pam was fortunate that her mother was able to care for her children while she was riding track work in the early mornings when it was still dark. It was at this time she met prominent jockey Colin O’neill and as her first marriage was now over, they became a couple and married when Pam was in her mid-20s. In the early 1970s during the first years of their marriage, when Colin was one of the leading riders in Australia and Pam still a track rider, racing crowds started to drop off. To combat this, Ladies only races were inaugurated, mainly as a novelty, and Pam was invited to country Victoria to compete in amateur ladies’ races, first at Pakenham where she won on a horse called Mission, and then a few days later at Healesville. She won again, this time on Happy Pirate. On her return to Queensland she participated in many such races throughout the State. One memorable meet was at Callaghan Park, Rockhampton in 1975 when Pam’s mount won the Dolly Varden Stakes. She was presented with the trophy by the glamorous Italian film star Gina Lollobrigida, who was there as part of her Australia wide visit to raise awareness about Multiple Sclerosis on behalf of Apex Clubs. Pam still remembers how beautiful the actress was and how stylishly she was dressed in an elegant pantsuit. During that decade, the former Queensland Turf Club staged an International Stakes race for women riders at Eagle Farm, Pam won that race on Ropely Lad and started to think seriously about a career as a jockey. With her customary grit and determination, she commenced a letter writing campaign to the Queensland Turf Club. “I wrote dozens of letters asking for permission to ride in barrier trials and seeking consideration for the licensing of female jockeys’ she said. “Whilst I didn’t ever give up, I was starting to think I would be on a pension before we were given permission to ride against the men.”
After more than 10 years of countless submissions to the authorities, Pam was finally granted a jockey’s licence in May 1979. “I couldn’t have done it without the help of my staunch supporters, Keith Noud (legendary race caller) and Al Grasby (A Minster in the Whitlam Government)” she told me.
It is obvious that she is still so thankful to them and has so much respect for those mentors who helped to change her life. “I was no longer interested in ladies only races. I had fought too hard for equality and I became to like it. Unlike other professions, female and male jockeys, race under equal terms and for equal pay.”
However, she was given no favours when she started. At the age of 34, she was not allowed to complete an apprenticeship, nor was she given a weight allowance. The Stewards also insisted she complete 10 barrier trials before her licence would be granted. This she did in only one day!
To mark her success, Pam was invited to Parliament House where Sir Llew Edwards, who was Racing Minister at the time, presented her with an opal brooch and a book on racing.
Her debut as a fully-fledged jockey was only four days after gaining her licence, at the Gold Coast Turf Club (GCTC). Then considered a country track, Pam was able to ride there, as initially, her licence stipulated that she could not ride against males at the metropolitan tracks of Albion Park, Doomben and Eagle Farm.
The GCTC were obviously not prepared for a female jockey, as Pam had to get changed in the casualty room. They later organised a caravan for her which was dubbed, Pam’s Penthouse.
Despite these challenges, Pam rode three winners that day and when she returned a week later, she rode another three winners.
A very impressive start - six winners in eight days!
However, Pam still faced discrimination, even from her colleagues. Australia’s most prominent jockey of the time, Roy Higgins, said to the press “Women are not strong enough to ride against men.” Other senior jockeys agreed with him, saying “Women jockeys are great against other women jockeys but we are against them riding against men.”
But Pam made Higgins eat his words. A year later, riding Consular at Moonee Valley she beat his mount by ten lengths! She laughs at the memory. “We were good mates.”
At approximately the same time that Pam launched herself into one of the toughest and most competitive arenas, Colin bowed out. After only about twelve years in the saddle, but with around five hundred wins, he was forced to retire after battling weight issues throughout his career. As he was only thirty-two, he commenced a new career as a trainer, with stables at Dobson Street. With the children now grown, Pam was free to explore further opportunities and in 1983 she was invited to ride in Japan for a month. Steward Tommy Murphy went with her as a chaperone.
Pam told me she loved the experience, both the people and the country. In turn, she was very popular with the punters with her blonde hair and big smile. She found the style of riding very different from Australia however, as the racehorses are ridden full pelt from the starting gates to the finish post. Also jockeys were expected to saddle up themselves. Despite the strangeness, Pam still managed to ride three winners. Whilst there, she noticed she was losing weight and was feeling a bit off colour, so on her return checked with her doctor and was given a shocking diagnosis. She had cancer. Once again, she showed true grit and was determined to overcome the setback. This she did and was cleared to ride again after three months. And ride she did. Pam O’neill had a stellar career - she rode 400 winners and only retired at the age of fifty two after she’d had a fall at Caloundra and was having bouts of vertigo. She told me that it was hard to give up her licence. “I’d still love to be out there today.”
Whilst chatting, I asked her about the lovely painting of her on horseback which has pride of place on the dining room wall. She told me the story behind it. The artist was Anna Kohler, a friend of Pam’s who was a lecturer at TAFE. The horse, Pam’s favourite, was Supersnack, nicknamed Winky in the stable. To understand why Pam had formed such a bond with Supersnack, one needs to know the background. Pam had ridden a two year old to consecutive wins at his first three starts in Brisbane, but when he finished second, the owners replaced Pam with a male Jockey. Pam was upset but her friend Anna was even more upset for her. She suggested that a syndicate be formed to buy a horse for Pam that nobody could take from her. Anna talked to her work colleagues who helped with funds. Everyone pooled their money, raising $25,000, enough to buy Supersnack at the Easter Yearling Sales in Sydney. He was amazing, racing 129 times for 23 wins, most of them with Pam as his partner. Only suspension or injury denied her the mount. “The biggest thrill was winning the Rockhampton Cup in 1990. But all the wins on Winky were special” she said. Both Pam and Supersnack retired from racing at approximately the same time but neither stopped working. Both found employment at Queensland Racing’s training school for apprentices where Pam taught the young riders. Sadly, Winky had to be put down in 2009 at the age of twenty four. It was great friendship that the two enjoyed. Pam spent almost ten years at the training school which she enjoyed immensely, taking a special interest in the welfare of the apprentices. Her next position was involved with visiting studs and choosing weanlings and yearlings for sale on behalf of Brisbane Bloodstock owned by Col Richards which she did for some time. Even today in retirement, she is still passionate about the racing industry and keeps her hand in as secretary/treasurer of the Queensland Jockeys Association and Director of the Australian Jockeys Association. Her love of the racing industry has been passed down to her children as well. Daughter Cherie took over Colin’s trainers licence in 2008 after he decided not to renew due to ill health and she has enjoyed substantial wins over the years.
Colin O’neill tragically passed away in 2012 after battling brain cancer for several years. Son Gavin has ridden professionally and one of Pam’s proudest memories is of the two of them riding in the same race together at Beaudesert. She believes they are the first mother and son to have done so. They all share a love of horses as do her cherished grand daughters Taylah and Celine. And Pam shared with me the exciting news that she will be receiving a special Christmas present from Celine - a brand new great-granddaughter. If that little girl decides to make riding her chosen career she will never have to face the obstacles and discrimination that her family’s matriarch endured. It is only because of the grit and determination of Pam O’neill and other brave pioneers like her, that the young female jockeys of today can compete on equal terms with their male equivalents and I wonder if they realise how hard the fight for recognition was. They owe her respect and a debt of gratitude for making their own journey through life so much easier. As Pam waved me of with a cheery grin, the faithful Bailey by her side, I mused what a privilege it was to meet such an inspirational woman and such a likeable one too. I look forward to our next meeting.
Above at Moonee Valley from left: Cherie Saxon (NZ), Linda Jones (N Z), Maria Sacco (Italy), Pam O’neill (Australia) and Paula Wragg (Australia) with Roy Higgins before the Qantas/hsv 7 Handicap. left: Pam O’neill on Ropely Lad after winning the international ladies jockey race.
Pam O’neill on Breakfast Creek