Evening the Odds

In three decades, women jockeys have made tremendous strides. But in the male-dominated world of horse racing, equality remains elusive.

Racehorses, like many great athletes, are magnificently simple beasts. Lean and muscular, compressed with energy and top-heavy power ebbing into delicate legs, a fine horse is a beautiful sight. Especially when running flat out, a notch above a gallop, the disparate parts of its body uniting in an awesome display of speed and strength.

When a horse thunders by at 40, 50 miles per hour, the head is hardly noticed. There's not much inside, actually. The teeth take up more space than the brain. It's the jockey's job to get inside that head, to make his horse exert itself to the utmost down every backstretch.

Her horse, his horse. No small distinction. Not for the male- dominated circle of racehorse owners. These men stand to win or lose tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on each race. Most of the time, they want another man as rider. Someone who can whip that horse across the wire, who by the very force of his grip on the reins and his thrust in the saddle can urge that horse to its greatest possible speed.

Deron Neblett
Deirdre Panas got some improvements for the women's jockey quarters at Sam Houston.
Deron Neblett
Deirdre Panas got some improvements for the women's jockey quarters at Sam Houston.

Some of the time, these owners and their trainers will allow a woman into the saddle. Someone with a softer touch, who understands that horses are like people, with unique personalities that may not respond best to brute force. Someone with the technique and patience to float amid a 20-ton pack of roiling hooves, then find a way to the front.

Mostly, though, these women jockeys are placed atop second-class stock. The head cases, the long shots. Some have to fight even for that opportunity. They must combat some stereotypes and cater to others. Thirty years after the first women jockeys took to the racetrack, they're still battling for respect. And they're winning, one race at a time.

The battle begins four nights a week, Wednesday through Saturday, in the jockeys' room at Sam Houston Race Park. Before each race, jockeys strap on about $500 worth of gear: leggings, helmet, pads, goggles, whip, boots. Kevlar flak jacket to prevent the chest from caving in by a kick or a trample. The colorful silk jerseys, provided by the horse owners, are by the front door to the paddock. A bell summons the jockey to the paddock. The trainer and jockey share their final words, then the jockey mounts the horse and is led to the starting gate.

After each race, the jockeys return to their room to rehash the proceedings and prepare for the next battle. At the back of Sam Houston's main locker room, tucked behind the kitchen, is the small dressing area for girl jocks. It's nicer than most. Some tracks just give the girls a corner to change in, and they have to walk past naked men to reach the shower or the kitchen or the sauna. At Sam Houston the girls have their own sauna, called the hot box. They have a small room with a bed. It has sheets and blankets, for the first time ever. There is heat in the girl jocks' room this winter, also for the first time. Deirdre Panas demanded these things.

Not so long ago, Deirdre couldn't demand anything. After she fell in love with horses at age eight in Massachusetts, Deirdre's parents bought her one. The family often visited relatives in Ireland, where horse racing rivals the status of football in Texas. About ten years ago, Deirdre decided to become a jockey. She spent nine years scuffling around racetracks in New England, New York and New Jersey, winning few races and barely making ends meet. She finally caught on with a top owner at the Boston-area Suffolk Downs. But the owner lost some heavy bets on Deirdre's horses, and he cut her off. Then came even leaner years, so lean that she couldn't pay her rent.

Jockeys are like modern-day gypsies, moving from track to track as the seasons recycle themselves. Deirdre arrived at Sam Houston about a year ago. At the beginning, she got stuck on all the slow horses usually reserved for women. Then Deirdre brought home a few long shots. Trainers started to recognize her patience, her ability to wait for an opening and charge to the front. She started getting better stock to ride. And she started winning. She finished first 36 times last season and was the meet's eighth-leading rider, even though she came to Sam Houston a month into the season.

After Houston, Deirdre went to Lone Star Park in Dallas. Lone Star means much tougher competition, with trainers bringing in horses from California, Kentucky and New York to compete for stakes as high as $1 million. Deirdre did great, becoming the first woman at Lone Star to capture a stakes race, winning the $50,000 JEH Stallion Stakes on Little Angel.

In the Sam Houston season that started this month, Deirdre has continued her successful run, finishing in the money more often than any other jockey at the racetrack.

"It's all luck, and my agent," Deirdre, 33, says after one recent race, her face spattered with mud from the dirt track. "I've been getting good horses to ride. And luck. And good timing. And did I mention luck?"

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