I wonder if author Lynn Haney, when she wrote “The Lady is a Jock” four decades ago, knew that the women featured in her book would once again make history.
In 1970, Haney was a young University of Pittsburgh graduate and freelance writer. She purchased a Greyhound AmeriPass bus ticket for $149.50, then traveled across the country from racetrack to racetrack, helping out as she went, walking hots, or mucking stalls between taking pictures and doing interviews for her book.
In “The Lady is a Jock”, Haney documented the stories of the first female jockeys and their constant struggles to be accepted. It is the story of true pioneers of horse racing, female jockeys in a sport of kings.
In the book, the women jocks are pictured with smiling faces, often times covered in mud. One of them is Barbara Jo Rubin, whose passion and love of horses started at age six, when she was diagnosed with polio. Her doctor recommended horseback riding as part of Barbara’s therapy, and from there her passion for horses and talent blossomed.
Receiving a jockey’s license in January 1969, Rubin contracted to trainer Brian Webb, who provided all the necessary documentation and the signature to become licensed. Rubin went on to become the first woman jockey to hit the big time, and the first female athlete to beat a man in a major sporting event.
Back in those days, all jockeys rode under contract, and most contracts had clauses that stated that jocks had more duties around the barn than just riding horses. In a sense it was slave labor, but if you wanted to ride you signed the contract. It didn’t matter to Rubin. “I just wanted to ride” she said.
Webb was a smart business man, who took full advantage of Rubin’s success. There were clauses in Rubin’s contract stating that Webb had control over what interviews she did, which tracks she rode, and what mounts she would take. When Haney interviewed Webb for the book, he said of Rubin, “She’s an exceptional rider. I think she talks to horses”. They must have been listening because Rubin went on to win 7 of her first 10 races.
Rubin was to ride her first race at Tropical Park just two days after receiving her license on a horse named Stoneland. However, Rubin’s debut would have to wait as 11 of her fellow jockeys, all males, boycotted refusing to “ride with a girl”. It went so far that one jock threw a rock through Rubin’s dressing room window. All of the boycotting riders were fined $100 for their actions. The male jocks were told that, if they continued their actions, their fines would increase. The boycott stopped.
Despite the challenges, she wouldn’t give up, so Rubin chose a new direction, and went to Charles Town in West Virginia. As Geraldine Ferraro once said “We’ve chosen the path to equality, don’t let them turn us around.” It was a good decision because Rubin won her first race, on her first mount, a gelding named Cohesian trained by Webb, and owned by Frank Lawson.
On May 14, 2010, forty years after Barbara Rubin and others started racing horses, eight female jockeys including Rubin, now 60 years old, took to the track for a great cause at Pimlico the day before the Preakness Stakes. The “Lady Legends for the Cure” was a special race staged in partnership between Pimlico and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world’s largest breast cancer organization. The Legends race was held to help raise awareness and funds to aid breast cancer research.
Among the pioneer jockeys in the race was Jennifer Rowland Small, who rode the Maryland circuit in the 1970’s. Riders included Cheryl White, the first African American women jockey, and Patti (P J) Cooksey, a nine-year cancer survivor, who rode in the 1984 Kentucky Derby, and retired with over 2,100 wins; Mary Russ-Tortora, the first woman to win a Grade I stakes. Andrea Seefeldt-Knight, who had mounts in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and two others, Gwen Jocson and Jennifer Small, also competed.
When these lovely ladies rode out of the paddock and onto the sandy oval of Pilmlico, the crowd of almost 28,000 (up 16 percent from 2009) went wild. Rubin the oldest of the bunch, looked great, as she looked relaxed and fit with a smile from ear to ear (as usual) drawing a horse named Brogue. With all jocks carrying 124 pounds, Rubin said “I couldn’t believe it. They had to add more weight to my saddle, because I was too light.”
(On a personal note, I am honored because Barbara used my saddle on Brogue for the race.)
The race went off without a hitch with all horses breaking straight, Brogue among them, as he got his nose in front for a bit before getting tired and finishing sixth. The winner was Honor in Peace with Gwen Jocson aboard with Chapel of Love (Seefeldt-Knight aboard) finishing second, and Rasher, ridden by Russ-Tortura, third. An inspiring footnote, jockey Mary Wiley Wagner, a breast cancer survivor, who completed her 35th chemotherapy treatment last November, finished fourth on Mass Destruction.
Rubin said “We all had such a good time. It was great seeing the lady’s again.” Back home with her wonderful and supportive husband, Gordy, and their herd of Jack Russell’s on their Classic Acres Farm, in Troy, Ill., Rubin has decided to continue to exercise horses for trainer Eddie Essenpries at Fairmount Park. She also gets to work training her upper level Dressage horses and giving riding lessons. “I feel so much stronger now that I am racing fit, I don’t want to lose it” Rubin said.
The “Lady Legends for the Cure” race will be featured in an upcoming documentary, “Jock”, directed by Jason Neff, and scheduled to debut in spring of 2011. The documentary will pick up on the story of women jocks where Haney left off with more about their lives, their love of horses and the sport of racing.
These amazing women truly earned their places on the racetrack. They just wanted to ride, and to be part of “The Sport of Kings”. Now, there is no doubt that the Lady Legends, including Barbara Jo Rubin, will be forever immortalized in the history of horse racing.