Pam O’neill – A Lady of True Grit

A Lady of True Grit

Ladies in Racing - - Contents - Story by Dale Ols­son • Im­ages by Ross Steven­son and Rac­ing Queens­land

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

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