Tall Tales of the Track: I Am Woman, Watch Me Win!
“Anything you can do, I can do better,” Annie Oakley sings her challenge to Frank Butler in Annie, Get Your Gun, arguing for her sharpshooting skills versus the taller and stronger fellow crack shot. That sentiment of man versus woman played out on the racetrack too, though without a jaunty tune to accompany it.
In the first years of the 19th century, Alicia Meynell rode in not one but two match races against a man on an English racecourse, demonstrating that same self-assurance and drive that many a woman, including Annie Oakley, would need in their male-dominated pursuits.
The Lady Can Ride
A daughter of a Norwich watchmaker, Meynell was reportedly a lovely woman, blonde with blue eyes and a confident rider to boot. She had an older sister who married well, to William Flint, a Yorkshire horseman, whose neighbor was Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Thornton of the Second Regiment of the York Militia. Through her connection to Flint, Meynell met and fell for the much older Thornton, who was more than thirty years her senior.
The two may have married, though records are inconclusive about their exact connection; regardless, Meynell and Thornton shared an intimate enough connection that the elder gentleman encouraged her equine pursuits. She owned three hunters and rode to hounds alongside Thornton and other men despite the challenges of riding over uncertain terrain in a sidesaddle.
It was her skills in the saddle that prompted a friendly challenge from Flint. On a visit to her sister and brother-in-law’s estate, Flint and Meynell squared off in a friendly match race, with the former riding his favorite Thornville and the lady on Thornton’s Vingarello.
They raced each other twice – and the lady won twice.
Flint was unhappy with the result and challenged her to a proper duel over a proper racetrack for a wager of 1,000 guineas, around £125,000 today. He thought she would decline: Alicia accepted, their meeting set for August 1804, at the Knavesmire, now known as York Racecourse. Flint rode Thornville again and Meynell was again aboard Vingarello with their contest set for four miles. Her riding kit was a dress in a leopard print with buff-colored waistcoat and blue sleeves and cap, while her opponent rode clad in white.
Flint set the terms for the match. The lady would not ride with anyone alongside to aid her if her sidesaddle slipped, plus Flint had claimed the side of the course that he wanted, which of course meant she had to ride on the side that would not allow her the use of her whip. Despite those impediments, Meynell led three of the four miles, but had to pull up when her saddle started to slip. Flint rode on, pushing Thornville hard to win by as much as he could.
Lieutenant Colonel Thornton refused to pay his portion of the wager, claiming that the wager had been a joke. Flint was outraged by this and would do his best to collect what he felt Thornton owed him. This would come to a head the next time Meynell met a challenger on the racecourse.
The Lady Proves Herself
The following year, Meynell engaged in another battle of the sexes, but this time, her competition was a professional: jockey Frank Buckle stepped up to try his own skills against that of the lady.
Buckle was not just any jockey either; by 1805, he had already collected at least 10 classic victories, including three consecutive wins in the Oaks at Epsom as well as three Derbies. Meynell was facing the man who would retire after nearly fifty years in the saddle with 27 classic victories, a number eclipsed by only Lester Piggott’s 30. With Meynell on the mare Louisa and Buckle on a horse named Allegro, the two went at it over two miles.
Buckle bided his time, waiting for the last part of the race to mount his bid. In the final furlongs, the two raced neck and neck, but, at the last, the lady got the decision. The Annual Register wrote of the race: “Mrs. Thornton, by the most excellent horsemanship, pushed forward and came in in a style far superior to anything of the kind we have ever witnessed, gaining her race by half a neck.”
The contest was an exciting one, leaving an impression on the crowd present with the lady’s victory so noteworthy that the Jockey Club retroactively recognized her as the first woman rider to win a race. She did enter the race with somewhat of an advantage though: Louisa carried only nine stone, six pounds (132 pounds) while Allegro and Buckle came in at 13 stone, six pounds (188 pounds).
As for Thornton and that unpaid wager, Flint soon had his revenge. The gentleman confronted the Lieutenant Colonel in the stands the day that Meynell met Buckle and angrily demanded payment. When Thornton refused, Flint beat him with a horse whip until fellow racegoers intervened. Flint went to jail for assault and later sued Thornton.
He was never able to collect on that bet.
The Lady Remembered
Meynell and Thornton parted ways the following year when the gentleman’s fortunes began to wane. He fled to France after selling his estate while she went on to marry a naval officer. Though Alicia Meynell essentially disappears from the historic record after that, her name lives on in her rides against the men who dared challenge her skills in the saddle and found themselves coming up short.
In the words of the musical version of Annie Oakley and generations of women since Meynell’s turns at the Knavesmire, “Yes, I can, can, can!”