(WOMENSENEWS)–Movie director Katherine Brooks ("Loving Annabelle," 2006, and "Waking Madison," 2009) is making a film about the life of legendary female jockey Julie Krone.
"She doesn’t think of herself as a woman, she identifies herself as a jockey," Brooks said in a recent interview. "This, despite the fact that at the beginning of her career she was heckled by crowds….They used to shout at her to ‘go home and make babies’."
In May 1989, Krone became the first female jockey to stare out from the cover of Sports Illustrated, wearing no makeup, her silks covered in dirt.
"She wanted to be seen as the jockey that she is, not as a sex symbol," Brooks said.
Dubbed "the winningest female jockey in history," she’s the only woman to be inducted into thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame, which occurred in 2000. Krone won 3,704 professional races, totaling over $90 million in prize money, known as purses.
Krone is still the only woman to have won a Triple Crown race, flying across the finish line atop Colonial Affair in the 125th running of the Belmont Stakes in 1993. She’s the only woman to ever compete at Belmont, where she raced on five occasions.
Brooks’ movie is called "Freak," which in the racing world is a term for horses who win over and over, even when they shouldn’t.
It’s a fitting name for the entire history of women in a sport that to this day still barely admits them.
In horse racing the male-female jockey ratio is still daunting at 9-to-1 and women continue to have a hard time hanging on to their saddles even when they start winning.
Female Jockey Passed Over
After Mine That Bird won a historic Derby upset in 2009, jockey Chantal Sutherland, who had just ridden the horse to four straight victories, was passed over for Mike Smith for the Preakness Stakes–the middle jewel in the Triple Crown.
Smith had never mounted Mine That Bird and they didn’t win the Preakness, leaving many in the sport wondering what would have happened had Sutherland been in the saddle.
Only two women have mounted in the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland–Patricia Cooksey in 1985 and Andrea Seefeldt in 1994.
While purses are equal–both male and female jockeys’ winnings are a percentage of the purse that goes to the owner, usually negotiated by their agent–facilities are worse for women.
Diane Crump, 60, a trailblazer in the sport, said that when she first started racing in 1969, "I would have to use an office or a first-aid room as my jock room because they didn’t have any facilities for women, and we weren’t allowed to share the men’s rooms. I remember having to pee in a cup when I didn’t have time to run all the way to the public ladies room."
After recently touring U.S. racetracks for her film, Brooks called the female jock rooms disgraceful. "The men have steam rooms, whirlpools, saunas, exercise equipment, restrooms, showers, even beds. The women have nothing by comparison," she said.
Crump says that though racing is still extremely male dominated, things have changed. "There are actual opportunities for women today, there were none at all 40 years ago," she said. "Even mounting the small tracks wasn’t possible. Today, anything is possible for women in this sport. If you’re really good, you get the chance to show it off."
Crump continued: "Is it equal? No. It probably never will be. Is it impossible? No. Because it’s legal now."
Breaking Derby Barriers
Forty years ago, on May 2, 1970, Crump made women’s sports history by mounting in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, a Triple Crown event and one of the most prestigious horse races in the world.
Before 1968, women couldn’t legally mount in pari-mutuel races, professional racetracks categorized by betting method. But that year, after a prolonged legal battle with The Maryland Racing Commission over her denial of a license, Kathy Kusner–an Olympic equestrian team member–won a huge victory for women in the "Sport of Kings."
The state court of Maryland in Prince George’s County sided with Kusner, declaring that the Maryland Racing Commission had denied her license solely on the basis of her sex.
That decision cleared the way for all women aspiring to be jockeys, making it legal for them to acquire licenses. That year several women joined Kusner in gaining entry into this male-only sport.
Unfortunately for Kusner, after breaking the legal barrier she also broke her leg riding for the U.S. Olympic Team at Madison Square Garden and missed the chance to be the first woman to mount a pari-mutuel.
Penny Ann Early and Barbara Jo Rubin were next in line to race legally, along with Crump.
When Early and Rubin mounted their first races at Churchill Downs and Tropical Park, respectively, male jockeys threatened to boycott both races, preventing them from racing.
That left Crump.
Another Legal Battle
Crump had to fight and win another legal battle against Florida, which refused to recognize the Maryland court’s decision.
But she won her case and on February 7, 1969, at Florida’s Hialeah Park racetrack, she became the first woman ever to race professionally.
Crump recalled that her first race at Hialeah, "drew huge crowds and got a lot of media attention, I had to have a police escort."
It seemed novel to watch a woman mount and head out of the starting gate surrounded by men. "This was before they realized women were here to stay," Crump said.
That first year of professional racing brought Crump more invitations to ride than she could have ever dreamed.
"It was a whirlwind of excitement and challenges! For a 19-year-old kid who had only been riding for one year, I couldn’t believe I was flying all over the country and to Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Mexico to race against the boys."
In 1970 Crump was approached by the owner of a horse named Phantom and asked to mount in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Finishing 15th, Crump didn’t win the big Derby race, but she won another historic victory for female jockeys. The starting gates barring women from big time racing were officially opened.
Since 1970, hundreds of women have followed in the strides of Crump, but only four other women have mounted on "Derby Day"–Patricia Cooksey in 1984, Andrea Seefeldt in 1991, Julie Krone in 1992 and 1995 and Rosemary Homeister Jr. in 2003.
Regina Varolli is a freelance writer and editor based in Manhattan, and the owner of Words by Regina Varolli and Co. She blogs at Culinary Sagacity and Political Sagacity.
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