The first thing I can remember wanting to be when I grew up was a jockey. Well, that obviously didn’t happen, but I do wish there was a “fantasy jockey” camp, similar to what they have for baseball – I’d be the first to sign up!
Being a jockey was a nontraditional career for a woman when I was a kid, and it still is today. About 10% of professional thoroughbred jockeys are women; the Department of Labor defines a nontraditional field for women as one in which 25% or less of those employed are female.
As in other male-dominated fields, the women who pioneered in racing faced many challenges. The first woman jockey to ride in a pari-mutuel race was Diane Crump, in February 1969 at Hialeah, but she wasn’t the first to try. When Penny Ann Early attempted to enter three races at Churchill Downs in 1968, she was prevented from riding because the other jockeys boycotted the races. Barbara Jo Rubin faced not only boycotts, but a bricks thrown through her trailer window, when she entered a race at Tropical Park in January of 1969. However, Rubin did become the first female jockey to win a race on February 22 of that year when she won at Charles Town. Rubin was forced to retire about a year later due to injuries; however in her brief career of 89 races she won 22 times and was in the money 20 more times. Diane Crump made history again in 1970 when she became the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby. She won over 230 races before she retired in 1985.
Although the number of women jockeys is still quite low, they race in a very different environment than the pioneering women jockeys did. The first women jockeys faced the prejudice and hostility of their male colleagues, who did not want women racing against them. The men would sometimes cut them off or commit other violations, which were ignored by the race officials. They would even slash them with their whips! (The irony of this is that one of the concerns of the male riders was that they felt racing was too dangerous and the women would get hurt!)
Diane Crump was invited to compete in a match race in Puerto Rico. The male jockey riding against her did everything he possibly could to unseat her from her mount, including grabbing her saddle cloth, knocking her foot from the stirrup, and grabbing her reins. Crump fought back by cracking him on the head with her whip, but he wound up winning the race by a length. However, the women in the crowd cheered Diane and cursed and threw rotten tomatoes at the male jockey!
The early women jockeys also faced opposition from the jockeys’ wives, who were uncomfortable that the women would see their men in various states of undress, even though dressing quarters were separate. As a matter of fact, there were no women’s dressing quarters – the women often had to change in horse trailers and couldn’t even shower until they got back to their hotel rooms at the end of the day.
Getting good mounts was also a challenge, as many owners and trainers did not want their horses ridden by a woman. Sometimes the female jockeys were pressured to exchange sexual favors in return for a mount. When they did get mounts, they were often harassed by the fans at the track, or “goosed” as they were given a boost into the saddle by the trainers.
The tide started to turn in the 1970s at the small Eastern race tracks, the “minor leagues” of racing, when the dedication and work ethic of the women riders stood out against that of the men. The women began to gain acceptance, and gain more and better mounts around the country.
The most successful woman jockey is Julie Krone. She began her racing career in 1981, and won 3,454 races before she retired in 1999. At the time of her retirement, she had won more than $81 million in purses and ranked 16th in earnings on the all-time list for all riders. She un-retired in 2002 and continued to win, finishing her career with 3,704 wins and more than $90 million in purse earnings. In 1993, Krone became the first female to win a Triple Crown Race, when she rode 13-1 long shot Colonial Affair to victory in the Belmont Stakes. She is the only female to win a Breeder’s Cup race. She accomplished the rare feat of riding six winners in a day. She is the only woman rider in the Racing Hall of Fame, inducted in 2000.
Krone “put the lie” to the idea that women weren’t tough enough or strong enough to handle massive animals in a dangerous sport. At 4’10” and 105 pounds, she was tiny even by jockey standards. However, her size didn’t prevent her from winning races, from coming back from injuries that would have ended the careers of other riders, or from picking fights and wrestling matches with male jockeys who had wronged her.
Following the path of Krone and the other trailblazing female jockeys, more and more women are racing successfully, and face much less prejudice and resistance than did the women in the early days. (Although it still occurs.) On March 26, 2009 top young jockey Maylan Studart won her 40th race with a win at Aqueduct, moving her from apprentice to journeyman status. Three of the seven jockeys she beat that day were women! Aqueduct currently has five women jockeys competing at the track. John Lee of the NY Racing Association stated that “I don’t think we’ve ever seen so many talented women riding here at the same time. And when they’re riding in New York, they’re riding in the major leagues.”
I look forward to seeing many more women compete as successfully as jockeys. (And I continue to hope for that fantasy jockey camp!)
© Koval Associates LLC