Right To Ride, Presented By The Kentucky Derby Museum: The Racing World Reacts To Female Jockeys

This is the third in a four-part series examining the arrival of female jockeys in American horse racing – why and how they broke in to the sport when they did, and how racing has reacted. In this third installment, we’ll learn about the reaction of the racing world to an influx of female jockeys — and the career path women took in pursuit of race riding.

Find part one here and part two here.

This series is sponsored by the Kentucky Derby Museum, which will open its Right To Ride exhibit on Oct. 16. The exhibit marks the 50th anniversary of Diane Crump’s historic ride in the Kentucky Derby in 1970, when she became the first female jockey in the race. You can learn more about the exhibit and access current COVID-19 safety protocols for Museum visitors here.

After Kathy Kusner’s success in obtaining a jockey’s license, it might have seemed the floodgates should open, and hundreds of women jockeys would appear at the nation’s tracks. That isn’t what happened, and there are several reasons why. The first, and easiest, is that owners and trainers of the day continued to flout the federal requirements of the Civil Rights Act. Men believed that racing was still such a patriarchy that women could basically be ignored. Perhaps women at that time were so used to being blocked that many of them felt it was fruitless to even try.

Although the Civil Rights Act is a federal law, and a judge had decided that Kusner must be granted a license, she still had to face the members of the male-dominated racing world. As such, the opinions of male jockeys are worth noting.

Nick Jemas, the national manager of the Jockeys’ Guild, told The Chicago Sun in 1968, “[The racetrack] is no place for a woman.” An unidentified rider said, “It is a man’s game and that’s the way it should stay.”

The News Leader reported that several of the Laurel jockeys said it would be a great idea. “It would add some color to racing,” said jockey Bill Passmore. Another rider, Phil Grimm, told the Star, “I’ve seen a lot of girl exercise riders. They are good and I don’t see why Kathy wouldn’t be a good jock.”

Unfortunately, the negativity from the male jockey colony sometimes escalated past mere verbal posturing. Jockey Penny Ann Early received a provisional license in 1968, but a jockey boycott over her anticipated ride forced Churchill Downs to cancel racing for two days. It is worth mentioning that many of the fans booed the boycotting male jockeys with taunts of “chicken.” At Diane Crump’s first professional race in 1969 she required two armed guards to escort her to the track.

If you have followed the career of Hall of Fame jockey Bill Hartack, you are correct in assuming he would have an opinion on the matter.

“I think women should get a chance to ride,” Hartack wrote in the Dec. 13, 1968, issue of Life magazine. “It’s a matter of principle. Women have legal rights, probably too many, but they’ve got them, and that’s all there is to it.

“As a group, I don’t think their brains are as capable of making fast decisions. Women are also more likely to panic. It’s their nature.”

Hartack’s comment harkens back to the late 18th century when progressive scientists embraced phrenology, which included the belief that intelligence could be predicted by head shape and size. Male voters embraced that theory and used it in their crusade to keep women from voting. (History does, in fact, repeat itself.)

If there was so much pressure to keep them out of the sport, why then did women decide to complicate and even risk their lives by going against the odds to ride racehorses? Over the last decades some of the most prominent female jockeys have told their stories. What prompted them to go into racing?

A quick study of the biographies behind the biggest names reveals that almost all female jockeys were introduced to horses (not necessarily horse racing) at an early age.

Although jockey/journalist Donna Barton-Brothers’ route should, to the casual observer, seem a fait accompli, Donna resisted the pull of the racetrack. Her mother is famed female jockey Patti Barton, the first woman to win more than 1,000 races. Donna’s brother and sister were both jockeys, but Donna only started grooming horses as a way to make money in college. Grooming led to galloping, and galloping to riding.

Julie Krone is America’s winningest female jockey, with earnings over $90 million. When Julie was only six years old her mother permitted her to ride her pony several miles away from home. She disliked anything that took her away from horses. When her parents divorced she convinced her mother to spend spring break at Churchill Downs, and Julie convinced Clarence Picou to hire her to do just about anything. Her focus was on becoming “the greatest jockey in the world.”

Rosie Napravnik, winner of over $70 million, was surrounded by horses from birth. Her father is a farrier and her mother trained event horses. By age seven she was riding in pony races, and it was around that time she began dreaming of becoming a jockey.

Sandy Schleiffers (left) and Penny Ann Early (right) at Hollywood Park in 1969

Jockey Diane Nelson pleaded with her parents for a horse or a pony for as long as she could remember. When her mother asked Crump about her college plans, she replied she was only interested in a career that involved horses. Jill Jellison learned to ride when she was three years old and was galloping racehorses by age 14.

Diane Crump, the first woman to ride as a licensed jockey, and the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby, was first introduced to horses at age seven, when she rode a pony at a carnival. She began taking riding lessons at age seven, and was licensed to gallop racehorses at age 16.

The above examples reinforce that women generally don’t learn about becoming a jockey at the high school career fair; they are exposed to it at a very early age.

Although Kathy Kusner’s victory was profound in that it enabled women to ride professionally as jockeys, and Diane Crump’s appearance in the Kentucky Derby proved that women jockeys were no fluke, they still had to overcome a public perception that at times tended to ignore their considerable riding abilities. Media depictions of early female jockeys encouraged this, focusing on the riders’ emotions somewhat more than they did with men.

Columnist Bill Braucher of The Miami Herald quoted Crump as saying after her first race: “Wasn’t that wonderful? Everyone was so nice to me I could almost cry.”

Braucher finished his column with the quote and a comment – “Just like a girl.”

Undated image of jockey Mary Bacon

Braucher was far from alone in his portrayal of the first women jockeys. They were frequently presented more as novelties and not as serious athletes. In 1970 Judy Barrett had become the first British woman to be licensed to ride racehorses in America (women were not permitted to professionally ride in England until 1972). In a British newspaper, the Saturday Titbits (yes, the spelling is correct. Perhaps compare it to a 1970s hypersexed version of the National Enquirer) referred to her blossoming race career in the United States with an accompanying picture of her in a miniskirt, complete with comments about her hair color and the descriptors “lissome,” and “shapely.” There was no mention of her race record, riding ability, or overall horsemanship. That “lissome” individual eventually left racing to become a Thoroughbred breeder, and is one of the most successful breeders in Pennsylvania, twice winning the Pennsylvania Horse Breeder’s Association’s Breeder of the Year Award.

“Women not only had to work harder to get mounts, they had to fight the conscious efforts of the media to keep gender at the center of the argument,” said Jessica Whitehead, curator of exhibits like Right to Ride at the Kentucky Derby Museum. “No matter the talent, there was an enormous amount of public perception for these women to subvert.”

Our first assumption is that men were the only ones to ignore female riders’ capabilities. However, the aforementioned article in the Saturday Titbits was written by Jane Goldstein. Later, she penned an article about female jockeys in Turf and Sport Digest titled “Move Over Billie Jean.” In that article she made a coarse comparison between jockey Julie Krone and Elizabeth Taylor, noting that Crump was “hardly a Liz Taylor type,” noting Taylor’s midriff bulge and increasing number of husbands. She also related how “women everywhere were beginning to challenge their prescribed role as the weaker sex.” At the same time, we can look at Goldstein’s writing style in much the same way we assess the evolving national attitudes toward racing. Her article went on to quote Lou Cunningham, then publicity director at Atlantic City Race Course. He said, “One of the problems with women jocks, generally, I think, is that a lot of girls ride and are terribly interested at first, but then find out how rough a sport this is and get discouraged by the brutal workload. A lot of them disappear from the scenes.”

One could easily read Cunningham’s comment as blatantly sexist. Perhaps it was. However, there is no denying the high attrition rate in the profession of professional jockeys among both men and women.

By the early 1970s the women’s movement was at full speed. We began to see women advancing in many different sports. And yet, they continued to struggle with the perception that they were a novelty. Was it only male writers and sportscasters to blame? After her very public thrashing of Bobby Riggs in 1973, tennis superstar Billie Jean King started her own sports magazine titled womenSports. The magazine was intended to be a Sports Illustrated for women. And yet King’s new magazine still pandered at times to the prurient interests of men. When jockey Mary Bacon was pictured in her racing jodhpurs and spurs with her polka-dot bikini underwear visible underneath, female readers were irate.

“Now this is exactly the kind of sexist shit that I’ve always objected to in the likes of Sports Illustrated,” wrote a reader from New Hampshire. “Why does she have to be pictured as a piece of ass on your contents page? Please try to get away from this approach.”

Billie Jean King’s magazine is proof that these were transitional times, with both men and women adjusting to women’s changing roles.

Not all the female athletes embraced this more radical new brand of outspoken feminism. Said softball player Joan Joyce in 1974: “I’ve pretty much done what I wanted my whole life, so I don’t need feminism.” Or as jockey Robyn Smith said in 1972: “I’m not trying to prove anything as a female jockey. I do it because I enjoy it so much, and I think people should do whatever makes them happy.”

Smith makes a good point, but Kathy Kusner made the same point prior to her trial, and it was Kusner’s bold step that enabled Smith to make that choice to do what made her “happy.”

David Beecher has a master’s degree from Shippensburg University and a PhD from Penn State, where he is currently a lecturer. Dr. Beecher’s research and teaching interests are American history with an emphasis on Early American and Civil War History. His dissertation explained the role of Thoroughbred racing in the Antebellum South.

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