Paula Wagg has been an iconic name in Western Australian racing for over forty years now, initially as a jockey and now a trainer.
Wagg was the first female to become a fully-fledged jockey when starting her career back in 1979, she was unable to get an apprenticeship so went up against the men on equal terms.
“I was 24 when I started to ride, so they said I couldn’t do an apprenticeship, it certainly made it much harder having to compete against the boys immediately on equal weights,” she said.
While it was hard to get opportunities on the track initially, the public took to Wagg and were fascinated with her place in the industry.
“It was an amazing time, people were so interested that I was riding against the men,” she said.
“I got so many weird opportunities, I did the lotto one night, I did a lot of promotional roles, I was treated a bit like a celebrity off the track.”
Not being allowed to have a claim when she started riding ended up being a blessing in disguise as she was offered an opportunity to head to Malaysia in 1981.
“If I had of had a claim, I wouldn’t have been able to go to Malaysia,” she said.
“Looking back on that now, I would have missed out on possibly the best opportunity I’ve ever received in my life.”
Wagg succeeded in Malaysia riding plenty of winners across different cities and was also invited to ride in Singapore.
“I was the first woman to ever ride in the Singapore Gold Cup,” she said.
“They treated us like royalty over there, I even got the nickname ‘Wonder Woman’ which they used to chant every time I came into the mounting yard.”
While conditions were not great in Western Australia, with Wagg often finding herself in a caravan or makeshift rooms on race day, in Singapore she was allocated proper spaces and treated like the men.
When returning from Singapore, Wagg still had to silence many of the doubters that were nationwide about female jockeys trying to make their way into the industry.
“All the big names were coming out to the media and saying, ‘women won’t make it, they’re too weak, they’re not good enough’,” she said.
“I still have a lot of the newspaper clippings from what they said, it was actually disgusting looking back on it now.”
“Thankfully my first week back in Perth I rode a double, one was $50 and the other paid $66, so that helped me settle back in.”
Wagg continued to exceed expectation for 10 years until the battle with her weight became too much and she decided to become a trainer in 1991.
“I loved training from the moment I started,” she said.
“I got to ride them, feel how they were going and adjust my training program for them, all while not having to worry about my weight.”
Having been so well respected in Singapore, Wagg gained some valuable clients who bought horses and allowed her to train them.
While Wagg enjoyed the aspects of training, she said the biggest change was becoming a businesswoman.
“When you’re a jockey you just ride track work, ride on race day and then go home,” she said.
“I thought training would be a little bit harder, but I underestimated how much of the business side I had to learn to be successful, it wasn’t just about the horses.”
Having seen so much change throughout her forty-year career, Wagg says the industry is in a much better place and only continues to improve.
“Look how many girls are involved in the industry now,” she said.
“We have so many trainers and jockeys, the girls really want to be involved from a young age and it’s easy to see when they have people like Jamie Kah to look up to.”
“The pathway is much easier for them now, they have support, they receive guidance and they’re expected to do well.”
While we should be grateful that women in the industry are able to succeed and are provided with amazing opportunities regularly now, we should also remember people like Paula Wagg who made the opportunities possible, who defied the odds, ignored the comments, and continued to persevere, even when the experts said she couldn’t succeed.