Trio Of New York Officials Show Stewarding Can Be Women’s Work, Too

When Samantha Randazzo started in her new position as the Jockey Club steward at Finger Lakes, she became part of a history-making team. Randazzo’s appointment marks the first time New York racing has simultaneously had as many as three women in its group of six stewards. It may be the first time any American jurisdiction has had 50/50 representation of men and women across its pool of stewards. Erinn Higgins works alongside Randazzo at Finger Lakes as the state steward there, and Dr. Jennifer Durenberger took the stand as the Jockey Club steward at New York Racing Association tracks last year.

For all three, the journey to becoming a racing official started with the love of the horse.

Higgins grew up assisting her father, trainer Bill Higgins and working in H. Allen Jerkens’ barn, hotwalking, grooming, and working as a veterinary assistant. For her, the transition to the frontside came after graduate school. She knew she wanted to work in racing but also knew she didn’t want to train. She realized she didn’t know much about the front office of a racetrack and jumped at the chance to work as an assistant to the stewards at Finger Lakes, where she worked in the licensing office, wrote up rulings, and assisted with the test barn management.

“I ended up really enjoying the position,” she said. “I still got to work in racing every day, but from the frontside. It allowed for a bit of a normal lifestyle, which was a good feeling. I didn’t have to do the seven days a week, 5 o’clock in the morning, but I still got to work in the industry.”

Randazzo grew up around horses at her parents’ farm outside of Reading, Penn., where her mother had a small breeding and lay-up operation. She learned to shoe horses, went to law school, and ultimately became an assistant to Linda Rice, working in Rice’s barn for 27 years.

“I’ve always been interested in the regulatory end of racing,” said Randazzo. “Being on the backside I was interested in having a level playing field. When I was a kid, in the Racing Form on Page 3 you had the rulings printed from all over the country and I loved to sit there and read them. I’ve always kind of liked to read rules. I guess that’s the way I am.

“I thought about going to stewards’ school for many years, but it was never at a good time. Of course in racing, there’s never a good time for anything.”

But more than that, by the time she turned 50, Randazzo said her work on the backstretch had changed. While the early morning hours had once been her favorite part of the job, she found they had become taken up with juggling schedules and set lists to account for help that didn’t show up. The backstretch wasn’t the extension of an agrarian society she had grown up knowing. It seemed like it might be time to move on.

Durenberger came at the role via a summer job in the test barn at Canterbury Park during college. Veterinarians there suggested she go to vet school, and while she did get her veterinary medical degree (and later, a law degree), she didn’t intend to go into private practice. It was all part of the background study for a job in regulation.

“I’m probably the only vet in the country who went to vet school specifically to work on the regulatory side,” said Durenberger, who noted she follows veterinarians Drs. Ted Hill and Manny Gilman in the path from NYRA chief veterinarian to The Jockey Club Steward. “It was the era when medication positives and veterinary practices started the age of reform in the industry. The stakes were getting higher and higher so if a positive finding was called, it was worth fighting. It wasn’t just a slap on the wrist from the stewards; now you started looking at losing purses or more significant suspensions. As I started looking at how all of that played out it was really interesting to me intellectually.”

Durenberger worked her way through jobs in the test barn, then as an examining veterinarian before transitioning to stewarding roles.

All three attended steward’s school, withstanding 60 hours of courses, hours of on-the-job experience, and a five-part exam with a 50 percent pass rate.

All agree that despite being in the minority as female stewards, they haven’t encountered pushback from colleagues that seemed colored by gender. They believe that’s because they were known entities around the backstretch by the time they took the stand, and were fostered in their early days on the frontside by fellow officials who valued their knowledge.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced [gendered pushback] from a trainer or jockey or owner when I’m dealing with a regulatory issue,” said Durenberger. “I think that’s because I see them on a daily basis and I interact with them, so they know me. I think you’re an easier target on social media. For example, if you look at the Kentucky Derby and the disqualification after the Derby, there was a lot of outright gender hostility there, from people who probably didn’t even know the name of the person they were being hateful toward.”

What’s less clear to the trio is the reason why there aren’t more female stewards in this country. Higgins’ appointment in 2015 marked the first time a woman had served as a steward in New York, and she wonders if the trend of all-male steward’s stands isn’t more a holdover than a sign officials have any doubt about a woman’s ability to do the job.

“At a lot of racetracks, the stewards have been doing the job for a long time,” said Higgins. “Once you get into that job you tend to say. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing and there just hasn’t been the turnover. The next generation there will hopefully be just as many women as there are men.”

For Randazzo, the question is as much about diversity in racing generally as it is about gender. Randazzo has volunteered at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, where she learned about the history of black jockeys and trainers in racing’s early days. For her, the takeaway seemed clear – once those became positions of money and power, the sport pushed back about letting minorities have them.

“I grew up at a small track, and back then women, the wives of trainers, were not allowed on the backside without their husbands. And this wasn’t that long ago,” said Randazzo. “Where you have money, you have men, usually white men. Not that being a steward is a money position, but it does have power.”

Randazzo and her colleagues say they take heat from licensees and the public over decisions made in the steward’s stand, but that’s just part of the job. Regardless of gender, racing officials have to be impervious to criticism of their job performance, because they’re sure to face it.

“It doesn’t matter what the call is, you’re going to upset some people. I’m not the one who caused the problem but I did take on the job of resolving the situation,” Randazzo said. “If you were ever an assistant trainer, you got used to the fact that somebody was going to be unhappy with you.”

Higgins pointed out that the benefit of having three stewards is making decisions as a team, rather than an individual.

“We have a rulebook, and we’re making decisions based on a book of rules,” she said. “You’re also bouncing all of your decisions off two other stewards so you’re never alone. the noise is just noise and you can’t take it personally.”

A frontside job like stewarding can often make for full days and long hours just like a job on the backstretch can. For this group of stewards, backstretch and frontside racing professionals don’t seem too different.

“There’s so many people involved in making sure these equine athletes can go out there and do what they do, and go out and put on performances that literally leave people breathless, or that leave them talking for years afterward,” said Durenberger. “Getting to be a part of that, no matter how small that part is, is what makes you wake up every day and come to work. And I think that’s true of anyone in any role.”

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