Fifty years after Diane Crump first rode in the Kentucky Derby, women jockeys continue the fight

Courier Journal
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More than half a century later, Diane Crump remembers the small rituals that defined her day, the moments spent on racing’s grandest stage, history made not in broad strokes on a sprawling canvas (although the canvas was plenty sprawling), but rather in small splashes on a young athlete’s soul. Late on the afternoon of May 2, 1970, Crump became the first woman to ride a horse in the Kentucky Derby, a longshot three-year-old named Fathom who was really just a miler and didn’t belong in the  1 1/4-mile Derby, but whose owner, whiskey baron and philanthropist Lyons Brown, was getting on in years—he died three years later—and wanted to dance just once. This sort of thing has happened often in Derby history, men with money running just to run. Sometimes they have won, almost by accident.

Every act from that day lives on for Crump. Walking into the cramped saddling paddock, chockablock with tradition and wealth. “At that point, you know you’re part of it,” says Crump, now 72 and living in rural northwestern Virginia. “You’re part of one of the biggest sporting events in the world.” She talked to the owner and to Divine, who gave her a leg up. She walked Fathom onto the track to My Old Kentucky Home. “Such an incredible feeling,” says Crump. “Warming up, going to that gate. I can still feel all of it.” Her father, a builder—”He could build a boat or build a house,” says Crump. “He could build anything”—from their home in Oldsmar, Florida, was at Churchill Downs. (Crump’s Derby was also the Derby that served as the backdrop to Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary story, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved for the magazine Scanlan’s Monthly. Crump gets a—very clearly winking—reference just a few hundred words in:

At the airport newsstand I picked up a Courier-Journal and scanned the front page headlines: “Nixon Sends GI’s into Cambodia to Hit Reds”… “B-52’s Raid, then 20,000 GI’s Advance 20 Miles”…”4,000 U.S. Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension Grows Over Panther Protest.” At the bottom of the page was a photo of Diane Crump, soon to become the first woman jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby. The photographer had snapped her “stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount, Fathom.” The rest of the paper was spotted with ugly war news and stories of “student unrest.” There was no mention of any trouble brewing at a university in Ohio called Kent State.” [The killing of four students at Kent State occurred two days after the Derby, and 346 miles to the northeast.]

Fifteen months earlier, on Feb. 7, 1969, Crump had become the first women to ride a horse in a pari-mutuel race in the United States, when she walked through the crowd at Hialeah Race Track in Miami with a police escort—”…. Greeted with a mixed chorus of boos and cheers,” wrote Dave Hopper of The Miami Herald—and climbed up on 48-1 shot Bridle n’ Bit. Crump was the first, almost by happenstance. Olympic Equestrian Kathy Kusner was licensed as a jockey in 1968, but suffered a broken right leg in November of that year when she was thrown from a horse during a show jumping competition in New York. In the weeks before Crump’s debut, Penny Ann Early and Barbara Jo Rubin were both entered in races at Hialeah, but male jockeys threatened to boycott their mounts rather than ride against Early or Rubin. Officials quelled the insurrection by fining the male jockeys $100 each. Rubin and Early temporarily backed off.

Tensions eased, opening the door for Crump. She finished 10th in a 12-horse field on Bridle n’Bit, and said afterward, “I felt like a real jock out there. I wasn’t nervous. He handled real good for me.” A barrier was broken. Of sorts. (More on this later). Crump rode the first of her 228 winners 41 days later at Gulfstream Park.

It’s important to understand the times in which this happened. Title IX was three years away. Janet Guthrie’s Indy 500 debut wasn’t until 1977, although she was competing against men on a regular basis in lesser races. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer team wouldn’t play its first game for 15 more years. Many high schools did not field teams for young women. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, a foundational moment in what came to be called the women’s liberation movement, but sports, as ever, would be slower to join. Coverage of Crump’s debut reflected this. Crump was quoted as saying, “Wasn’t that wonderful? Everyone was so nice to me I could almost cry.” Columnist Bill Braucher of The Miami Herald related that quote and added, Just like a girl, as the last line of his column. This was common across the media spectrum, possibly typed without malice, but dismissive in the extreme.

Crump did most of her riding for trainer Don Divine, for whom she worked as an exercise rider, and married in late 1969. She stayed active and other women, including Rubin, joined her. The novelty faded ever so slightly as women won races, often on overmatched horses (a recurring theme). The first generation of riders expanded: Tuesdee Testa was the first to win a race at a major track (Santa Anita). Robyn Smith was the first to win a stakes race. Patti Barton (mother of NBC’s Donna Barton Brothers) was the first to amass 1,000 victories. But Crump’s Derby was a towering moment, still in a time of national unrest and stubborn resistance to gender equality.

Crump won the first race of the Derby Day card, a career highlight. Fathom, meanwhile, had no real chance in the big race. He started from the No. 10 post position in the 17-horse field, was 12th into the first turn and then ran with a little urgency on the backside before slowing and finishing 15th. “He actually put in a little bit of a run,” recalls Crump. “I mean, he faded, and I knew that was probably going to happen, but it was such an amazing feeling to pass a few horses and feel like we were competitive.” Famed columnist Red Smith was skeptical. He set up the finish to his column by noting that while 17 horses had started the race, only 16 had finished, because Holy Land clipped heels with another horse and fell. Smith wrote: “Said Diane Crump, the first lady of the Kentucky Derby, ‘I beat two horses.’ Smith, a legend in the business, then laid down his  kicker: “One of them fell.”

There’s little doubt Crump was a pioneer. Likewise all the others, and the women who rode in county fairs and at bush tracks for years, before Crump made it all official. This is not in dispute. But after that, the issue becomes murky. It’s difficult to measure how much ground has been gained in one of the rare sports where women and men compete on even terms (excepting the reality that horses are not all equally fast). After Crump’s Derby ride, 14 years passed before P.J. Cooksey rode So Vague to an 11th-place Derby finish in 1984, and then seven more years before Andrea Seefeldt ran 16th on Forty Something in 1991. Six Derby horses have been ridden by women since, with Julie Krone (1992 and ’95) and Rosie Napravnik (2001, ’13, and ’15), by far the two most successful women jockeys in history, accounting for five of them, and Rosemary Homeister, 13th on Supah Blitz in 2003, the sixth. There will be no women jockeys in Saturday’s 146th Derby.

So, the totals: In the 50 years since Crump broke the Derby gender barrier, women have ridden eight times in the most important thoroughbred race in the United States. None have finished higher than fifth. But okay: The Derby is not like any other race. It is a touchstone, and far more Americans watch than watch any other horse race, but its demographic jockey composition can be funky. Good riders—male or female—can be left on the outside by the quirks of a given season and uneven development of three-year-old animals.

Take a broader view: According to The Jockey Guild, the union that represents more than 95 percent of all North American jockeys, of its 994 current members, 81 are women, or just over 8 percent. According to a Jockey Guild official, that percentage has been relatively steady for more than a decade. Just three women are ranked among the top 250 jockeys by wins, including 31-year-old Carol Cedeno, who has been a fixture at Delaware Park for nearly a decade and ranks 48th in wins. Four women are ranked among the top 250 riders in purse earnings, with Cedeno in 64th. Neither of these numbers approaches 8 percent. The two most prestigious race meets in America are currently running at Saratoga in upstate New York and at Del Mar in Southern California. No races at either track has been won by a woman in the current season.

Krone, who won 3,704 races in a 23-year career that ended in 2004, is the winningest female rider in history, the only woman to win a Triple Crown race, the 1993 Belmont Stakes on Colonial Affair, and the first woman to win a Breeders’ Cup race, the 2003 Juvenile Fillies on Halfbridled. Krone ranks 101st in career victories. Napravnik won 1,877 races in a 10-year career that ended suddenly with her retirement in 2014, when she announced on NBC that she was pregnant with her first child, after riding Untapable to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Napravnik won two Breeders’ Cup races and twice won the Kentucky Oaks. The winningest active rider is Emma-Jayne Wilson, 39, who has won 1,588 races and once ranked as high as 11th in North America in earnings; she has ridden almost exclusively at Woodbine in Canada, where competition is excellent but a cut below the very top U.S. tracks.

In all of this, there are two concurrent realities: Women continue to ride in significant – if not overwhelming – numbers at many race tracks in the U.S. and North America, but none since Krone and Napravnik have competed consistently in the best race meets aboard the top horses for the best trainers, or in Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races. (There are plenty of exceptions—Chantal Sutherland, who has 1,081 career wins, rode Game On Dude for trainer Bob Baffert in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and $10 million Dubai World Cup. But the numbers are small). This can’t be considered evidence that the barrier Crump breached still stands, but it’s a significant reality.

Krone and Napravnik watch from their respective retirements. Krone, 57 and the mother of teenaged daughter, has stepped back into the racing world this summer as agent for Ferrin Peterson, a 28-year-old licensed veterinarian who turned to riding full time less than two years ago. Their collaboration has been enormously successful—Peterson was second in the Monmouth riding standings with 28 wins (Paco Lopez led with 45 wins). Napravnik, 32, worked as an assistant to her husband, trainer Joe Sharp, for several years after retirement, but moved away from that role two years ago. She has two sons, ages four and five. Neither has a simple answer for re-creating themselves.

Krone says, “I guess we’re not there, yet, in terms of women doing what [she and Napravnik] did. Maybe we’ll get there again. I wish I could say there was a magic potion. I could just give you a knee-jerk answer and say oh, it’s all misogynism and prejudice, and there is that, but I think, there is a recipe. To start with, you just have be really good at being a jockey. You have to understand horsemanship, like Ferrin does. And then there will be opportunities. There are a lot of factors. You need to be lucky, too. You need the right trainer to believe in you. And you know, like I said, be a good jockey.” It’s worth saying that Krone was a fierce competitor, less prone to accepting rejection than most.

Napravnik, who studied Krone’s career intensely, gives an answer that hews closely to Krone’s. “When I went to New York for the first time, in 2012, I had won the [Kentucky] Oaks and I was just on fire. And I totally fizzled. And I thought, well, it’s because I’m a girl and nobody is riding me. But then I came to realize, no, those other riders are just better than me right now. That’s all it is.”

And this: “But yes, of course, it’s true that very few of us got to that highest level, not just for a few races, but for a career. There were times when I didn’t get an opportunity I deserved, probably because I was a woman. But I’ll say this, once I was good—really, good, at my very best—I got all the opportunities I could handle.”

Oct 31, 2014; Santa Anita , CA, USA; Rosie Napravnik aboard Untapable celebrates victory of race nine of the 2014 Breeders Cup Championships at Santa Anita Park. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Jackie Davis, 32, has lived a struggle that is more representative of women riders in the 21st century. The daughter of jockey Robbie Davis, Davis joined the first class of former jockey Chris McCarron’s North American Riding Academy in 2006. In a 13-year career, Davis has won a solid 678 races, the majority at tracks like Suffolk Downs, near Boston, and Parx Racing outside Philadelphia. (Again these are functioning racetracks where riders can earn a living; they are not the major leagues of the sport; a distinction that might not be critical to rider with bills to pay, or a family to help support. It’s possible to be successful without being famous).

Davis tells a story: “I think I’ve had a successful career. I was lucky in that my father was a jockey and I got my start working for [Hall of Fame trainer] Alan Jerkens. But sure, I’ve experienced a lot of sexism. In 2014, I went to Parx to ride and three agents told me, ‘Don’t show up here, nobody will ride you, because you’re a girl.’ Stuff like that.” Davis won 68 races in 2014, most at Parx. She says one of the agents apologized to her afterward. “You just need opportunities,” says Davis. “It’s a male-dominated sport, and we’re always going to have to outwork everybody else to get a chance.”

NBC’s Brothers, who won 1,130 races and multiple graded stakes in a 12-year career that ended in 1998, sees a broader story beyond the battle that started with Crump. “It’s more complicated than discrimination or gender bias. Looking back on the history of horse racing, you would have thought we’d see more female jockeys now than we do. But you know what else we don’t see: American-born male jockeys coming up through the system.”

Ranked by wins, only four of the current top 25 riders are American-born; but purse winnings (a stronger indicator of level of play), five are American-born, including Tyler Gaffalione at No. 3. Most others are Latino, which is hardly a new development in U.S. racing. But Brothers sees a trend. “We don’t have an agrarian society in the United States like we once did. The American-born jockeys from the ’60s to the ’90s grew up riding horses, and not in fancy prep school because their folks were well-heeled. They just plain grew up riding, as did my brother and sister and I. Like riding every day after school, racing in fields, jumping creeks and fallen trees.”

One topic, multiple factors. No clear answers. Like handicapping a race, it’s possible to study every line in the past performances and come away without a winner.

Diane Crump raced on for 18 years after her debut, accumulating all but eight of her 228 career wins and nearly all of her 1,682 starts. She rarely had an agent, and rode almost exclusively for her husband, who was 20 years older. Rarely was she given a live horse by another trainer. “It was almost impossible to get good mounts,” she says. “It just was.” Nothing in her career would move ’69 and ’70 from the first paragraph of her biography.

She lives now on a stack of memories, some warm and some painful. The former: A 1981 victory aboard the filly sprinter Subdeb in the My Dear Stakes at Woodbine in Canada, in which she won a stretch drive between horses and survived a double claim of foul by both male riders. “The coolest race,” she says. “We had shipped to Canada, the other riders were both men. It felt like everything was against us. When that ‘official’ light went on, we all just started screaming. That was such a wonderful day.”

The latter: Crump retired in 1986 and was hired as a farm trainer at storied Calumet Farm in Kentucky; this was another milestone of sorts, as Calumet had rarely hired women for non-office roles. She worked at Calumet for nearly four years and then took freelance jobs breaking young horses. On Feb. 1 in 1989, a two-year-old named Proof Positive reared up on a hillside at the Middleburg Training Center in Virginia, fell backward and landed on Crump—1,200 pounds on top of 110. Crump suffered a broken hip, leg and ribs. Crump was 38 years old and broken, yet the injury compelled her to ride again. She spent years recovering, including two-hour sessions on an Equicizer in her home, and from 1992 through 1998 rode 174 more races before retiring at the age of 50.

Now she runs an equine sales business, matching retired or injured horses with willing buyers, and provides her four miniature dachshunds as comfort for ill, homeless or other disadvantaged individuals. “I call it my mini-missionary,” says Crump. “I make a living financially with my horses, and emotionally, with my dogs.”

Crump has not been on a horse in two decades, better to rest her accumulated injuries. Yet she retains an acute awareness of her place in history and the timeline that has unspooled since. It’s instructive that in 1989, when she was injured, Bill Christine of the Los Angeles Times asked her to evaluate the progress of women as jockeys. This was Crump’s response: “It’s been 20 years and we really haven’t broken that barrier, have we? It might take 50 to break the barrier.”

Now it’s been 50. Her answer has scarcely changed. “We haven’t totally broken it, yet, have we?” she says. “Not totally.” And so the struggle continues—shifting, rising and falling, ever worthy.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.