No matter how good the horse is, it takes a good rider to pilot him to the winner's circle. The jockey has to weigh circumstances at split-second speed -- getting the horse out of the gate with a good start, and positioning him in the right spot so he can do whatever he's best at, whether it's front-running or coming from behind. Whatever the circumstances, the rider has to know the right moment to ask the horse for that final turn of speed. Ask too soon, or too late, and you lose.
As hall-of-famer jockey Mike Smith said in the APL series, "You can mess it up in a minute."
Going by casualty statistics, horse racing is more dangerous than any other sport. Even though riders wear protective helmets and vests, there is no way you're not going to get hurt -- maybe crippled or killed -- when a 1000-pound horse goes down with you at 40 mph and rolls on you, or accidently kicks you as he scrambles up, or smashes you into the rail, or drags you with one of your feet caught in a stirrup. Former jockeys in wheelchairs are among of the saddest images of the sport.
So it's not hard to understand why, for centuries, the racetrack was thought of as "no place for women." Females were viewed as "too weak" to handle a high-powered racehorse, hence a potential safety hazard on the track.
Worse, any win by a woman would threaten the macho mystique of every male involved in the sport -- owners, trainers, and especially riders.
Barbara Jo Rubin
As a little kid recovering from polio, Rubin fell in love with horses when she started riding for therapy. But when she started her career at east-coast tracks in the 1960s, first as an exercise rider, then as an apprentice, she ran into a wall of negative attitude from owners, trainers and racing authorities.
But the biggest barrier was the clannish atmosphere of the jockey's room, where a bunch of muscled-up hard-bitten little men would be changing in and out of racing silks and trying to psych each other out. Jockeys stand around five-feet-plus-tall, and must keep their weight at around 110-115 pounds, to make regulation limits. Most Americans equate athletes with "big," like football and basketball players, so they don't think of jockeys as superb athletes. Yet jockeys train relentlessly to maintain the strength and quick reflexes for maneuvering a hurtling horse through all the physical jostling and intricate strategies. They also have a huge spirit and courage, and a huge drive to win, no different than champions in any other sport.
Male jockeys actually had their own historical battle for equality. For centuries, they were abused by many owners and racing authorities, because of what upper-class horse owners perceived as a rider's low social standing -- in England, they were often servants or non-gentry who were tapped for the job. The old English term "jock" meant "boy" in the derogative sense. So the road from peon to proud professional has been long and hard.
Forming their own Jockeys Guild during the World War II period, , U.S. jockeys have fought their own battles around social equality, fair terms in contracts, decent conditions in the jockey's room, the right to have agents and seek endorsements. The biggest issue, which still festers today, is insurance that would cover catastrophic injuries. So, despite their all-out competition on the track, jockeys learned to be protective of one another. Established riders were often willing to mentor promising male apprentices. These allyships strengthened the bonds of the silken clan.
Paradoxically, despite their own battle against prejudice, most male jockeys were fiercely prejudiced against women riders. So in the 1960s, when Barbara Jo Rubin and a few other pioneering girl jocks came along, they were shut out of this professional group that controlled the gateway to successful race riding. When Rubin got her first mount at a big Florida track, the other jockeys collectively refused to ride against her. The horse's owner was compelled to hire a male jockey.
So Rubin had to ride mostly at the smaller tracks. During races, she would often find herself being cut off or slashed with whips by the other jockeys. Unsympathetic stewards looked the other way at these flagrant violations of the rules.
In a New York Times interview, Rubin said, "I think they felt there would be a stigma if a woman rode...that if a woman could ride, how hard could it possibly be?"
So she kept her chin up, convinced that her day would come. Wearing her hair in pigtails, Rubin got that historic first win at the Charles Town racetrack in West Virginia, aboard a horse named Cohesion. Her brief career was studded with other wins, but injuries forced her retirement a year later, in 1970. Eventually Rubin launched a second career as a dressage instructor, and teaches in Illinois today.
Tiny (4' 10") Julie Krone led the next generation of women jockeys. In the 1980s and 1990s, she became the first woman to ride winners at the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup, and finally, the first woman rider to be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.
But even at that recent date, Krone was still running into unbridled hostility from some male riders. During a race at Monmouth Park, another jockey cut her ear with his whip. With blood dripping down her silks, she booted on to win. Afterwards, before heading for the winner's circle, she jumped off the horse and went looking for the jockey who had hit her...and decked him with a boxer's punch. Krone's feisty personality, and her fist fights with male riders who messed with her, became part of her legend.
After several ghastly spills and recoveries, and several comebacks, Krone finally semi-retired into sports broadcasting in 1999. But she still rides now and then because she loves the sport so passionately.
In a USAToday interview, Krone said, ""You risk life and limb to share a relationship with a Thoroughbred. You go down the stretch and push on his neck and feel his desire to win is the same as yours. When you nail somebody at the wire, you say, 'This is the coolest thing in the world.'"
In 2008 Krone came out of retirement briefly for a historic "Living Legends" race at Santa Anita. She was to ride against seven other retired hall-of-famers, all men. Krone came in 5th, ahead of Jacinto Vasquez, Chris McCarron and the great Angel Cordero Jr.
A native of Winnipeg, Sutherland picked up the reins where Julie Krone left off, carrying women jockeys to celebrity status and routine daily achievement. While there are still hold-out owners and trainers who won't hire a girl to ride, the blonde Canadian has established herself as consistent -- a good rider to hire. She was leading apprentice in North America, has won over $6 million in purses in both Canada and the U.S., and has a lengthening list of stakes wins.
As a teen girl, Chantal started out in field hockey and show jumping. But after college, over strenuous objections from her family, she shifted to race riding.
By then, most male jockeys were thawing into heartfelt respect for women riders. When Sutherland first started riding in the U.S., hall-of-famer Angel Cordero -- one of the all-time towering figures in the sport -- saw her promise and took her under his wing, helping her to hone the needed skills, including that unstoppable will to get your horse in front.
On the way up, Chantal had her share of spills, which she described matter-of-factly in the Fox 11 interview. "One horse rolled over the top of me," she said. "Another horse hit me in the eye with the top of his head and split my eye open down to here," indicating her nose. The scar is barely visible.
Tall for a woman jockey (5' 2"), Chantal makes the weights by being fashion-model skinny, and towers over some of her male colleagues. Her good looks, big blue eyes and chiseled face got her a Vogue spread, a cosmetics endorsement contract, and a niche among People's "100 Most Beautiful People." But despite her red-carpet status, Sutherland keeps a calm, grounded focus on riding well. She trains hard, and has powerful arms. It's a sport where you're only as good as your last couple of wins. She knows she could mess it up in a minute.
In a recent ESPN interview, Chantal commented on the changed atmosphere in the jockey's room. "The guys are like brothers and they treat me so well. They joke with me like I was a sister. I feel like, if there was ever a time when I needed them, they would stick up for me, any one of them. They're all really cool guys and we have a really interesting family dynamic. It's professional and it's respectful and they make me enjoy going to work."
Today, she is often high in the Canadian jockey standings, and flies handily back and forth between Canada and the U.S., keeping a full schedule in both countries. Like other jockeys, she gets paid a fee per mount, plus 10 percent of the winning owner's share of the purse. Now 33, Sutherland is concerned about the future, looking to transition into acting or sports broadcasting. Meanwhile, she's not a hall-of-famer yet, and is still looking for that first Triple Crown win.
On the side, Chantal has a long-time romance with Mike Smith. In the APL series, which chronicled the efforts of several jockeys to get rides in the 2008 Breeders Cup, their relationship was one of the story threads. Now and then, the two wind up in the same race. Known to be good-natured off the track, Mike is a competitive demon when the starting bell rings. So race fans often get treated to the spectacle of the two lovebirds going stirrup to stirrup in a fierce duel for the win. While Mike has beaten his girlfriend most of the time, Chantal has beaten him at least once.
During one race, Chantal's horse bumped Mike's horse. After the race, he lit into her about it. But she fired back, saying, "You don't own the track."
Looking to the Future
The fact that women jockeys are still uncommon, after 40 years of breaking into the sport, shows what a challenge they still face. Though U.S. male jockeys have finally accepted women, many male horse-owners and trainers have not. The deep-seated prejudices are a lot like the ones that women face as drivers in auto racing. Perhaps that's why there are no out lesbian race riders that I know of, though lesbian riders can be found in show jumping, dressage, even polo. The fact is, even the straight women have a harder time getting rides in horse racing.
Nevertheless a new generation of younger women jockeys are slowly but surely staking out their ownership of the racetrack. As I finished this piece today, I spent the afternoon checking out TVG racing and saw half a dozen females getting several rides a day at tracks across the country. At the Tampa Bay meet, veteran rider Rosemary Homeister is one of the leading riders.
Joining them is a talented newcomer, 20-year-old Brazilian apprentice Maylan Studart. At Aqueduct in New York, aboard a filly named Spa Princess, this girl got her 40th win and became a full-fledged jockey. Studart is so talented that she found prominent U.S. sponsors and mentoring while still a teen, and has been riding at east-coast tracks.
The owner of Spa Princess paid tribute to Studart's talent by saying simply, ""The horses run for her."