By Regina Varolli
Friday, February 19, 2010
Legendary female jockey Julie Krone is the subject of a movie now in the making called "Freak." That spurs Regina Varolli to look back over the 40 years since jockey Diane Crump became the first woman to race professionally in the "Sport of Kings."
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.
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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