"Women's history" is still such a new concept that many of us, as kids, knew a woman who dared to make female footprints across some new planet. For me, in the sports world, trainer Janet Thomson was one of those. In my memory, I can still see her during the works at the local track, looming out of the mist on a big Thoroughbred as he galloped steadily forward across the long shadows of dawn. His flared nostrils blasted rhythmic jets of steam into the cold air. She was standing high in the irons, talking to him quietly, keeping him in hand at a careful pace.
As she galloped past the old railbirds who always watched the works, she got unfriendly stares from those geezers. Their eyes said, "What in sam hill is a wummin doin' on that horse?"
In the late 1940s and 1950s, horse racing was still a man's game. Women were not welcome around the barns, even as grooms. They were relegated to being the occasional wealthy owner like Elizabeth Arden.
In my corner of Montana, a two-day race meet came to Deer Lodge once a year as a feature of the Powell County Fair. Montana was part of a Western circuit of bush tracks that had sprung up in frontier times. In fact, my greatgrandparents were among the first to import Thoroughbreds into the Northwest in the 1870s, and had bred and raced as a sideline to their range-cattle operation. Montana had two or three mile tracks in cities like Helena and Great Falls, plus a few of the half-mile tracks called "bullrings" scattered through smaller towns.
In Deer Lodge, our bullring was located just north of town, right across the state highway from our ranch headquarters. The half-mile track, and its grandstand and barns shaded by stately cottonwood trees, had been built in the 1890s, relics of more elegant Victorian days. My own family's horses had crossed that highway for their works and races, under the watchful eye of my greatgranduncle Johnny Bielenberg, the patriarch sporting man of our clan.
In the late 1940s my best school chum and I were crazy about racing. While other girls pored over Modern Screen magazine and wrote to Hollywood for head shots of movie stars, Shirley and I devoured The Blood Horse, and wrote to Kentucky for 8 x 10's of turf stars. In our bursting scrapbooks, the pics were autographed by male owners or trainers. We oh'ed and ah'ed over Elizabeth Taylor as the girl jockey in National Velvet, but girls got to be race riders only in the movies.
The class of racing that rolled into our town every August was minor-league. Some owner-trainers were known as gypsies, "gyps" for short. Few were ethnic gypsies. They were just men who owned one horse and spent spring, summer and fall roving from meet to meet around the West, sleeping with their horses and trying for 3rd place winnings at small meets. The bigger nomadic stables rolled back to California for the winter, where the climate allowed them to go on racing and training at southland tracks like Del Mar and Santa Anita.
Every August, a couple of days before the meet, dusty vans and gooseneck trailers started pulling into our fairgrounds. The empty "backside" area with its weathered barns would suddenly bustle with life. Horses were unloaded and walked around to stretch their legs. Stalls were bedded with straw, tack and other equipment set up in a spare stall. While the better-heeled owners and trainers, and their wives, had trailers to sleep in, the workers had cots or sleeping bags in the stalls. There was no track kitchen, so people cooked over campfires or ate at cafes in town.
Most horses on the bush circuit were battered claimers with undistinguished pedigrees, that couldn't get near a stakes race at the big tracks. But here and there, you saw a horse that was well-bred and sound -- like the ones owned by our local present-day sporting patriarch, Tony Sneberger. A rodeo producer and owner of a popular bar, Tony owned one of those itinerant stables based in California. He had enough money, and enough of an eye for good horses, that he usually monopolized the winner's circle.
The minute Tony's horses unloaded, Shirley and I showed up at the track. Because Tony was chairman of the fair board, he always got the best stalls for himself. Plus he had the best horses and best tack, so he was the class act at the meet.
We were eager to make ourselves useful -- anything to be near a race horse! Tony was respectful of our aim to be groupies, because we were good around horses, plus we were children of prominent local families that he didn't want to offend. So he hired us to muck stalls or walk hots or clean tack. Pay: a dollar an hour, in the clinking silver cartwheels that still circulated in the West.
In August 1949, Shirley and I got to the track and learned that Tony had hired a woman trainer. From the horse magazines, we knew about trainers. They were cranky cigar-smoking men from Kentucky who wore paddy hats. At our own meet, they were often Hispanic men from California who wore straw cowboy hats. A woman trainer was unheard of.
We were beside ourselves with excitement. Oh, the glamour of it!
Janet Thomson was in her early 20s, short and slight, with curly brown hair under her straw cowboy hat, along with a freckled nose and a shy grin. Born and raised near Winnipeg, Canada, she had first come to the U.S. with a Canadian stable that raced on both sides of the border, and she had stayed. She lived in jeans and lumberjack shirts and jockey boots. We learned that she had started out as that equally-unheard-of thing, an exercise girl. Janet had thought about trying for apprentice jockey. However, hell was going to freeze over before she'd be allowed to do that. But Tony Sneberger happened to be forward-looking on women's suffrage -- his rodeo already included that new sport, women's barrel racing. He had spotted her horse-training gifts. So he put her in charge of his "bang tails."
Janet spent every waking hour with those horses, was careful and protective of them, and often didn't trust a hired exercise boy to do the job right, so she did the works herself. Sleep was on a cot in the tack stall, with the door locked from the inside at night. The night watchman kept a special eye on her safety. She had a pitchfork handy to deal with anybody who bothered her at night, or tried to steal Tony's tack.
The dirt track, which had grown a crop of tumbleweeds since last year, was cleaned up and freshly harrowed. The rail was newly repaired. Shirley and I were two of the railbirds now, watching with starry eyes and open mouths as Janet breezed Sunny One, or Major Hardtack, or Tony's new star, Montana Count. He was a son of 1940 Kentucky Derby winner Count Fleet, a big red-sorrel gelding with a blazed face, four or five years old. The Count was glossy and perfect, not a blemish on him. Helping out around such a horse made us feel like we were close to the Holy Grail.
Janet adopted Shirley and me as her track workers. For the four or five days that Tony's stable was at the track, we could hardly be dragged away, except during school hours. Shirley, who was 5'2" and weighed maybe 100 pounds, was granted the mind-blowing privilege of working the Count a couple of times.
On Sunday afternoon the Count went to the post for our local classic -- the Powell County Derby. Purse: $500. I marched to the betting window and plunked two of my hard-earned silver dollars on the Count to win. He went off at 7 to 1. Since breeding tells in horses, the Count destroyed his competition without hardly breaking a sweat. He won going away, while Shirley and I screamed our heads off.
I collected my $14 winnings and we headed over to the backside to help with hot-walking our Derby winner. Later we blew my winnings on hamburgers and milkshakes. On Monday or Tuesday, everybody loaded up, and the "gyps" moved on.
For the next few summers, as Shirley and I went through high school, our notions of turf glamour faded. Janet's rare position came at a cost. Behind that grin of hers lived a daily grind of effort and fatigue. Racehorses demand backbreaking work, seven days a week. She had already spent many years farther down the employment ladder, so her legs were knotted with varicose veins from stress. Plus the usual muscle strains, which she treated with the same Absorbine that she rubbed on the horses. Racing is marked by routine breakdown, and occasional catastrophe, for both horses and humans. Every year, more people are killed or injured in horse racing than any other sport -- including motorsports. Unlike race cars, race horses don't come equipped with roll bars. When a horse goes down with you at top gear, your unprotected body takes the full force of the crash. Janet had had her share of wrecks.
On top of that, Janet allowed that she wasn't paid much. After all, underpaying women was what everybody did in those days. But she was happy to have the job.
In August 1953, we helped Janet for the last time. Tony was expanding into Quarter Horse racing, and Janet was working a well-bred colt from the King Ranch. After the fair, I left town for college.
The day came when bush tracks vanished into the mist -- victims of inflation and waning rural interest in racing. Today they're a lost chapter of American sport and social history, briefly glimpsed in the book and movie Seabiscuit.
Many years later, around 1992, Janet's path crossed mine again.. Through Shirley, who now lived in Oklahoma and had stayed in touch with both of us, Janet had learned I was living in southern California. She looked me up, and we got together for a first visit.
Janet and her husband were living in West Covina, not far from Santa Anita Racetrack. She had trained for another stable for a while, run by the well-known Northwest racing magnate E. A. "Sleepy" Armstrong in Portland. Sleepy was a colorful character and knew how to spot talent -- he had taken on a young jockey named Johnny Longden. "Sleepy put me in charge of the barn when he was away," Janet told me. "He used to call me Daughter, and I called him Pappy. He treated me very well...paid me well too."
Eventually Janet retired from the racing game to raise a family. "Racing was too hard," she told me. To my surprise, her partner was a childhood buddy of mine, Buck Fisk, who had grown up on a neighboring ranch and gone off to work in logging and drive trucks. He and Janet had met when he drove the big racehorse rig for Sneberger. Both Janet and Buck were walking on canes now. Her curly hair was grey now, and her legs gave her more trouble than ever.
As I studied the quiet steady look of enduring in her eyes, it occurred to me that Janet had been one of the first women racehorse trainers in American history. Not the first, for sure, but definitely in the first wave. But she had come along too early to think of her rugged independence as "feminist," and too far out at the bush meets to be noticed by historians for what she did. Which is why I'm writing about her now.
Today there are hundreds of girl grooms and exercise girls around the tracks. There are a few dozen women jockeys, even a few women veterinarians. But many owners remain hostile to the idea of giving females that kind of responsibility for their multi-million-dollar horses. The good news is -- women trainers can now be found in some of the big stables, saddling horses for the Triple Crown. They get their moment on TV at the Breeders Cup. British trainer Gay Kellaway said recently, "Racing is still a sexist industry, but it's getting better." As in every sport, the trickle of females into the Hall of Fame, has been slow and painful.
Often the truest champions can be found not at the top of the pyramid, but farther down in the broader, vaster, more grassroots levels of change -- which is where change has to leave its hoofprints in the dirt if it's really going to count.