We’re fortunate to present the latest in a series of posts from Hall of Fame writer Billy Reed. This time, Billy helps you figure out if gender should be a factor in your Derby bet. Thanks to LouisvilleCatholicSports.
By Billy Reed
Horse racing has never embraced minorities, women included. Even today, almost all the major track executives are white men. The same goes for the breeders, owners, and trainers. The only place where you find diversity is the jockeys’ room, where most of today’s leading riders are Hispanic.
If you study the list of the 136 Kentucky Derby winners, you’ll see 15 women listed as owners or co-owners. But that’s mainly because, generally speaking, they married wealthy men who patronized them by running horses in their names. In the case of Penny Chenery, who won the Derby back-to-back with Riva Ridge in 1972 and Secretariat in ’73, she took over her father’s Virginia breeding operation after his death.
You’ll also see that no female trainer or jockey has ever won the roses.
Going into Saturday’s 137th Derby, a total of 13 women have saddled Derby contenders. Three of them have hit the board – Patti Johnson (fourth with Fast Account in 1985), Shelley Riley (second with Casual Lies in 1992), and Kristin Mulhall (third with Imperialism in 2004).
Of the five female jockeys who have ridden in the Derby prior to this year, none have finished better than 11th (Patti Cooksey on So Vague in 1984 and Julie Krone on Suave Prospect in 1995).
The absence of female trainers and riders isn’t due to lack of talent. Many females work on the backstretch as assistant trainers or exercise riders because horses seem to like their softer, gentler ways. But when women decide to try the next level, they bump their heads against the glass ceiling.
The leading owners, almost exclusively white men, rarely give women the opportunity to handle or ride the best horses. They tend to believe the females aren’t as tough or strong as men, despite evidence to the contrary. Every female on the racetrack has more than a couple of stories about discrimination based on their gender.
The first woman trainer to start a horse in the Derby was Mary Hirsch, daughter of the Hall-of-Fame conditioner Max Hirsch. In 1932, when she first applied for a training license in New York, she was politely refused because of her gender. But when she was granted a license in Illinois and Michigan, New York relented in 1935. Three years later, she won the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga with Thanksgiving.
After Ms. Hirsch’s No Sir finished 13th in the 1937 Derby won by War Admiral, no female trainer tried the Derby again until 1949, when Mrs. Albert Roth entered Senecas Coin, a colt she bred, owned and trained. He did not finish the race won by Calumet Farm’s Ponder.
In 1965, Mary Keim made a big splash in Louisville by winning the Kentucky Oaks with Amerivan, making her the first (and still the only) female trainer to win the race known as the “Derby for fillies.” The next day she saddled Mr. Pak in the Derby and he finished a respectable sixth to the victorious Lucky Debonair.
The first female to ride in the Derby was Diane Crump, who guided Fathom to a 15th place finish in 1970. Her benefactor was W.L.L. Brown, one of the chief executives at Brown-Forman. In 1969 at Hialeah Park, Brown enabled Crump to become the first woman to ride in a thoroughbred race in North America. She acquitted herself well enough to earn the right to ride in the Derby.
Over the next 22 years, female trainers and riders made cameo appearances on the Derby scene, but it took Shelley Riley and a horse named Casual Lies to make the white male establishment more seriously than ever before.
After finishing second to Lil E. Tee in the 1992 Derby, Riley kept Casual Lies on the Triple Crown trail. He finished third in the Preakness and fifth in the Belmont, making her the first (and still the only) female trainer to make every race in the Triple Crown series.
But this year, more than ever, females have an extraordinary chance to write Derby history.
The sixth female to ride in the Derby, Rosie Napravnik is the first with a mount that has a legitimate chance to win. This spring, on the way to becoming the first female to win the riding title at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Rosie also became the first to win the Louisiana Derby when she guided the longshot Pants On Fire to victory.
Rosie has gotten high marks even from horsemen who ordinarily have little use for women. Here’s what she had to say when the Thoroughbred Times asked her about gender discrimination.
“I think that being a woman at the racetrack has probably worked to my advantage more than to my disadvantage. As a jockey, it’s something that I have that the guys don’t have. Being female, it’s just different. I think it has brought me more attention. It’s brought more attention to my riding and to my career.”
The field also will include two female trainers with solid contenders – Kathy Ritvo, whose Mucho Macho Man was third in the final Courier-Journal Derby ratings, and Kathleen O’Connell, whose Watch Me Go won the Tampa Bay Derby. A win by Ritvo, a 42-year-old mother of two who also is a heart-transplant recipient, would be one of the most heart-warming in Derby history.
So if you are a feminist – or even if you just like a good story – you should bet a $2 Exacta box (total of $12) on Pants on Fire, Mucho Macho Man, and Watch Me Go. A female trainer and jockey are going to win the Derby sooner or later, so why not now?