Pam O’Neill has received yet another well-deserved honour when being inducted into the Queensland Sport Hall Of Fame at a function held at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.
‘Pioneer’ is almost a prefix to the Pam O’Neill name and never has that description been more aptly used in the sporting profession. As O’Neill stated in a 2018 interview with the ABC, “You’re put on this world to do something and mine was to change the rules of racing for women.”
Specifically, O’Neill was talking about a rule change that would allow woman to ride against men.
That’s desire was all very admirable, but O’Neill set out to achieve that aim of rider equality between men and woman at a time when many would have told her it was ‘mission impossible’ … and, if she didn’t have a ultra large portion of persistence in her character that would ultimately have been the case.
Females were not even allowed to take a horse onto the track at that time … they could walk it up to the gate but had to hand the horse over the a male counterpart at the entrance, so imagine the self-belief O’Neill had in her ability to move mountains and the determination, carried by an unwavering sense of purpose, that was required to stick at it until the man-made mountain that blocked her way to becoming a licensed jockey crumbled piece by piece.
Would your resolve have lasted fourteen years?
That is how long O’Neill’s battle for woman’s equality in race riding took as she wrote letter after letter to racing authorities challenging the then status quo … always getting the same knockback reply, but never relenting. She was in their face and prepared to go the distance.
In the 1960’s the seismic shift began, albeit slowly. Women were then allowed to be registered as stable hands. It took another few years before O’Neill became the first woman in Australia allowed to ride trackwork … but her fight was still far from won and it continued through many a calendar year before, in May 1979, O’Neill was finally granted a jockey’s licence.
She was thirty-four years old!
Four days after receiving her license, O’Neill backed up her talk by riding three winners at her first meeting as a jockey … which was reported as a world record at the time for anybody riding professionally at their first meeting.
O’Neill was not allowed to claim an allowance by authorities and so rode on absolutely equal terms with her male counterparts, but, interestingly enough, right from day one … in 1979 … female riders got paid the same riding fee as the male riders which O’Neill has described as ‘ a feather in racing’s cap.’
The rest as they say is history.
O’Neill’s trail blazing efforts still bear fruit everyday as can be seen by the ever-growing number of female jockeys, many of whom are talking the sport by storm … and O’Neill’s direct influence is still very much in evidence as she currently is a director of the Australian Jockeys Association and Secretary and Treasurer of the Queensland Jockeys Association and is also involved in the Jockey’s Apprentice School at Deagon.
“You don’t appreciate things until you’re older as when you’re young you’re on a mission,” O’Neill said in that ABC interview. “You don’t realise at the time that you’re pushing for something that you believe in. I look through my scrapbooks now and I think, ‘Geez, did I really do that’?
Yes, you did Pam O’Neill.
The Racing Industry as a whole and generations of female jockeys in particular will forever remain indebted to Pam O’Neill.
He induction in to both the Queensland Sport Hall Of Fame and the Queensland Racing Hall Of Fame as well as the fact that she has a race named after her are all great honours for which she says she feels ‘humbled.’
The bottom line though is that O’Neill didn’t need any of those awards to be looked upon as one of the most respected figures in racing … and therein lies her true legacy.