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Battling Sexism On The Racing Track

Feb 4, 2008
Being the first woman in a male-dominated field is no picnic. You may face public incomprehension, professional hostility, even legal challenges or death threats. In one study of female firefighters, 88% of respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment (and 70% reported ongoing harassment).

But just as the unimaginable hard work required by the life of a Thoroughbred horse racer is no deterrent to those who love and enjoy the sport - not merely as spectators but as participants - so the added discomforts of mastering a difficult sport while reversing a history of sexism didn't stop these women from being female pioneers on the racetrack.

As is often the case, women had always been involved in horse racing, though they were kept out of the most glory-prone positions. Women had owned horses; trained horses; and, of course, paid for the privilege of watching horse races. (Among the most famous female trainers were Mary Hirsch, daughter of the legendary Max Hirsch; Diana Carpenter; and Jenine Sahadi.)
But it was left to Diane Crump, in 1969, to do for pari-mutuel horse racing what women are still having to do on golf courses - break the gender barrier. It was a heady time. Only two years earlier, 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer had registered for the Boston Marathon (using only her initials) and, despite attempts by race officials to haul her off the track, she had finished the race. Title IX, the legislation that allowed girls and women to compete in college and high school athletics without hindrance or double standards, was three years away.

Crump made her world-changing appearance at the Hialeah Racetrack that day in February, 1969, without quite the fanfare that greeted Switzer's run. Attracting both boos and cheers, she did not win that day, but she scored another kind of victory a year later when she became, in turn, the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby.

Also in 1969, there was Barbara Jo Rubin's historic win (the first by a woman in the US); victories by Tuesdee Testa and, much later, Patricia Cooksey, Donna Barton, and Andrea Seefeldt. But sexism against women in Thoroughbred racing was still rampant. Consider the career of Julie Krone.

Krone, the first woman winner of a Triple Crown race in US history after her 1993 Belmont Stakes victory (aback Colonial Affair), has set a standard of excellence hard for anyone to match. She won over 17% of her races, netted more than $90 million in returns, and left her name in the record books a number of times. She also executed a Michael Jordan-style dominate-then-retire-then-return-and-dominate-again maneuver, winning a Breeder's Cup race (again, the only woman to do so) after she returned from an abortive retirement in 2002. But numbers don't capture the extent of the achievement of a woman who, after all, faced not only the hurdles blocking any would-be jockey from achievement, but also the hostility that so often comes with being a strong woman where no woman would be appreciated. For example, she once had to pose for a victory photo while blood dripped from her ear - a fellow jockey (who wanted to keep the field restricted to, literally, "fellows") had lashed her during the race. (She bloodied his nose.) She nearly died after an accident at Saratoga in 1993 (the same year as her storied Belmont victory), then broke both hands in a 1995 spill. But she fought on - all the way to another first: the Hall of Fame inducted her in 2000.

Interestingly enough, the slow acceptance of women in horse racing mirrors the way women have entered other arenas in yet one more way - it starts a lot farther back than you'd think. (For every Kathrine Switzer there's an Atalanta; for every Adrienne Rich, the noted feminist poet, there's a Sappho, who showed that women could outwrite men hundreds of years before Christ.)

Though she's rarely remembered today, Anna Lee Aldred (1921-2006) actually obtained a jockey's license in 1939, going on to race in state and country fairs. However, her license was issued in Mexico, because officials had failed (through oversight) to stipulate that women were not allowed to race at the Agua Caliente Racetrack. So her non-American license, thirty years before Crump's appearance at Hialeah, still takes nothing from Crump's accomplishment.
About the Author
TRP Services offers Thoroughbred horse racing and horse racing tips online for horse racing handicapping and those who love thoroughbred horses for the horse racing tracks.
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