NEWS

Female jockey gains acceptance in a man’s world at the track

One of a total of four women jockeys in Greece, Georgia Alexandri began racing at the age of 21, encouraged by her husband who was already in the business. Alexandri and her husband have parted ways but she is still racing at the track, and is highly rated. We met Alexandri in her office at Attica’s new racecourse at Markopoulo, northeast of Athens. «They never used to accept women as jockeys. I was in the second group of women to complete the course at the school. I had been a runner in everything from the 1,500 meters to the marathon. My height was also in my favor, so I was accepted. But it is nothing like track events,» she explained. The training lasts one-and-a-half years, followed by six months working in the stables, learning the job from the bottom up. Alexandri could not have imagined the feeling she would have for the horses. «You bond with them, particularly if you are an animal lover already,» she said. In January 1990, Alexandri rode in her first race. She has now notched up over 500. At first, she was one of just two women jockeys. «It didn’t only seem strange to me, but to everyone else. Some people laughed at us, others cheered us on. But they didn’t believe in us enough to bet on us, but now that is all past. We began winning races, then other women joined us and we were accepted,» she said. Alexandri says her most memorable times were her first race and then the first race in which she carried a crop. «Novices are not allowed to carry one until they have run 30 races, so as to get used to riding on one’s strength alone,» she explained. Her male colleagues have shown acceptance. «Sometimes there is tension, particularly after losing a race, but then they usually apologize and are always ready to help and give advice. I have no complaints in that area,» she said. As to whether she has encountered hostility from punters, Alexandri said this has sometimes happened when she has won a race as an outsider. The insults come from those who have not bet on her. Yet she herself has never bet on a race. «I don’t like betting. I have heard of people who have been destroyed by gambling,» she said, as her young son Vassilis comes in dressed in a Davy Crockett jacket. He offers to show us around the stalls. In the first one we come to, there is a goat up on the gate. «A psychologist suggested we bring one in to calm the horse; they now bunk down together,» she explained. The ideal jockey should not weigh more than 52 kilos (less for women) and men often go without food to stay within the permitted weight allowance. Alexandri doesn’t need to work out in a gym since she spends hours exercising the horses. «When you work with a stable of 10-15 horses, you have to exercise them all, even if you only race some of them.» The jockeys are paid by the state hippodrome organization (ODIE) according to the races run and the number of horses exercised. «We have a separate insurance policy for accidents, another for illness, and our own social security fund. In order to qualify for a pension, you have to complete a quota of races. Each race is worth two social security stamps and then you earn one stamp for every 17 horses you exercise. Something like flying hours for pilots. It’ll be some time before I can apply for a pension,» she said wryly. There aren’t as many rich jockeys in Greece, where there is only one racetrack, as there are abroad. «But even here, a good jockey can live well,» she explained. Of course, the job is not without its risks and Alexandri has had several mishaps. «In 1995, I had a serious accident in a race, and last year I hit my head hard while training and had amnesia for about a month,» said Alexandri. Although she claims to have overcome fear for herself, she would not want Vassilis to follow in her footsteps. The new racetrack, which is larger than the old one at Tzitzifies in the Faliro delta, is safer as it has more open turns. «The horses also calmed down when we came out to Markopoulo; they have more space,» she explained. As for doping: «You hear that everywhere. Tell me one sport where you don’t hear it.» This article appeared in the April 17 issue of «K,» Kathimerini’s Sunday color supplement. All photos are by Costas Kominis.