Norah Wilmot (1889–1980) was the first British woman racehorse trainer to officially train a winning horse. Her historic win came with her filly Pat, at Brighton in August 1966, just one day after she became one of the first two women to be granted a training licence by the Jockey Club.
Norah was the eldest daughter of racehorse trainer Sir Robert Wilmot, 6th Baronet (1853–1931) and his second wife Eleanor Georgiana, née Hare.
In 1931 her father’s obituary in The Times described Norah as deserving of a trainer’s licence, being as knowledgeable of horses as any man, and able to ride as well as many jockeys. But the Jockey Club, which governed British racing, disagreed; it forbade women trainers and jockeys regardless of rank, knowledge or experience.
Before 1966 women could only train in an unofficial capacity, and were forced to employ men to hold licences on their behalf or have licences in their husbands’ names. In the unmarried Norah’s case “her” licence was held by her successive head lads: Rickards, Metcalfe, Swash, and finally Bob Greenhill. Although Norah had successfully trained racehorses since inheriting Binfield Grove Stud, Bracknell in 1931, had been her father’s assistant trainer for twenty years before his death, and counted the Goodwood Cup and the Doncaster Cup, with Haulfryn, in 1937 among her uncredited wins, she was not an officially acknowledged trainer. Since inheriting her father’s stable Norah had frequently applied to the Jockey Club for a training licence, and each time her request had been summarily declined.
This situation was often unpopular with the racegoing public, especially as Norah’s patrons included Queen Elizabeth II. When Norah’s multiple three-year-old winner in 1961, No Fiddling, owned by one of her greatest supporters, Captain George Drummond won at Kempton the crowd chanted her name. In defiance of Jockey Club Rules the royal racing manager, Captain Charles Moore, took Norah into the unsaddling enclosure to stand beside her winning horse in the manner of a male trainer. She produced another three-year-old winner for Captain Drummond with Don’t Tell at Folkstone in 1964.
Norah was a contemporary and friend of the feminist and fellow trainer Florence NagleTrainer and breeder of racehorses, a breeder of pedigree dogs, and an active feminist, who had long campaigned against what she saw as an injustice to her sex in British racing. Eventually, frustrated by the Jockey Club’s persistent refusal to grant women a training licence, Florence sought legal redress; initially unsuccessful, her fight finally reached the Court of Appeal in 1966. Using its considerable influence within the Establishment, the club twice had her appeal blocked. Following her third appeal, Florence emerged from the court victorious. The verdict of the three presiding law lords, Lord Denning, Lord Justice Dankwerts and Lord Salmon, was, in the words of Lord Denning, that “If she is to carry on her trade without stooping to subterfuge she has to have a training licence.” Of the Jockey Club itself, the Law Lords went on to pronounce that “The rights of a person to work should not be prevented by the dictatorial powers of a body which holds a monopoly.” Faced with the court’s damning and embarrassing decision, the Jockey Club was forced to capitulate, and on 3 August 1966 Florence Nagle and Norah Wilmot became the first women in Britain to receive licences to train racehorses. According to Ferelith Somerfield, wife of Stafford Somerfield and author of Florence’s biography, it was the way the Jockey Club dealt with Norah that “proved the catalyst” to the case being undertaken.
Besides Halfryn, Norah’s most notable horses were Halcyon Gift and Squander Bug.
The last years of Norah’s life were blighted by crippling arthritis, leaving her unable to saddle her horses at race meetings. But horses she had bred, including No Trespass and Pick Me Not, continued to race successfully and bring her credit. Norah died on 23 March 1980, never having married.