Evening the Odds
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.
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?"
In late spring, she cites that luck after riding Brother Julius to a win at 12-1 odds at Lone Star Park. As Deirdre steps into the jockeys' room, the battle for equality remains a long way from the finish line.
Around racetracks, not many will say flat out that women riders are inferior -- especially to a reporter. But outside the curtain separating the women from the men in the room, jockey Alex Jimenez is cursing up a storm. "They can't ride at all," he fumes when asked about his female colleagues. "They're dangerous out there. One day somebody is really gonna get hurt."
Jimenez has just finished way out of the money on Swamp Rat. He claims that Deirdre cut her horse right in front of him, forcing him to back off in order to avoid a collision. As Jimenez mutters to himself, jockey David Nuesch chalks up Jimenez's misogyny to sour grapes. The odds on Swamp Rat were 20-1, and it showed.
"The horses make the game," says Nuesch. "Given the right opportunity, women can make it, even though this is a very male-biased game. It's like if you put me in a Formula One car and Mario Andretti is driving a Civic. I'm gonna outrun him. A good horse is dangerous in anyone's hands."
Modesty aside, Deirdre has had to follow the typical path to success for a woman jockey: Do more with less. Win on the type of dog food women are often forced to ride, and pretty soon trainers offer up faster horses.
"The first time I ever saw her ride, she was bringing home some long shots out of this world," says veteran trainer Charles Eanes, who regularly chooses Deirdre to ride at Sam Houston. "I mean 50, 60, 70-to-1. She didn't have a chance, but she was bringing these horses in. Hustling, using her hands, not hitting the horse but waving the stick -- more races are lost with the stick than are won."
The stick shows one of the most obvious differences. Men like to use it, some of them an awful lot. Most women prefer to use methods other than raw force.
Racehorses operate off memory and fear, so a horse's upbringing has everything to do with its tendencies. Some are calm, cool, professional. Some are nervous and jumpy. A horse communicates feelings with the eyes, ears, nostrils and body language. It's the jockey's job to decipher those feelings and communicate back with the horse, by twitching the reins or by movements in the saddle.
Some horses need a forceful presence in the saddle, a jockey who will practically drag them around the track by the reins and the whip. Others require a gentler touch, someone who understands when to push and when to leave them be. Regardless, the jockey has to convince the horse just who is running the show -- no man or woman can control a half-ton horse if it decides to cut loose.
"It's extremely difficult for a girl to make it in this sport," says trainer Richard Budge. "It's a very male sport. Not to say macho, but just a very male-oriented business. It's hard for women to get mounts. A lot of girl jocks just pick up whatever [horse] is left in the race, and they have no chance of winning. That just makes them look bad."
Women display more finesse and patience, which can get better responses from nervous horses, Budge says. "If you have a strong, tough horse, you need strength to control and race this horse. At the finish, that's when you want strength to push with your shoulders and arms on the horse's neck to get it to the finish quicker. A lot of trainers and owners don't feel women are strong enough in the finish."
Don't say that to Deirdre. When someone in the jocks' room mentions that she looks frail, Deirdre yanks up her shirt to reveal a six-pack stomach. "I am 99 pounds of solid muscle," she says proudly.
"Eighty-five percent [of trainers] won't ride girls," she says. "They think we're weak and can't finish." Deirdre says success is technique as much as strength. "We have softer hands, we're kinder, we act more girl-type with the horses than a manhandling type of rider. And still, we put these horses through hell." The result is extra effort from the horse, she says. "Even if they're hurt, or tired, they'll try to pull a little bit more out because you're on top."
By the time the bugle calls the horses to post, the women of Sam Houston Race Park have already been at work for more than 12 hours. Their day starts at sunup, when jocks head out to the stalls to "hustle horses," or schmooze with trainers in hopes of getting some mounts.
A lot of female jocks, especially beginners, have to settle for "galloping" horses, providing thoroughbreds with daily exercise. A step up is "working" the horse, riding it in actual preparation for the race. This may mean pushing it to top speed, "blowing it out," expanding its lungs to get it in racing shape. These types of menial tasks may pay a rider only $10 a horse.
The exercise period ends at noon, and the weigh-in is at 5 p.m. After the races end, jocks don't hit the bed until midnight, a few short hours before they're due back in the barn.
A jockey selected to ride gets a "mount fee" of about $45 a race as soon as she weighs in. But a jock who doesn't win doesn't eat. The prize money for races at Sam Houston ranges from a few thousand bucks to stakes races that pay in the hundreds of thousands. Sixty percent of the purse goes to the winning team, 30 percent to second place and 10 percent to third. The jockey gets 10 percent of that, and has to pay her agent 25 percent of everything she makes.
So a jockey who wins a major $100,000 Sam Houston race winds up with $4,500.
On the Texas circuit, top jocks like Steve Bourque and Roman Chapa -- they ride a half-dozen mounts every night without having to hustle horses in the morning -- earn several hundred thousand dollars per year. The top women might take in $60,000 before expenses.
Money isn't the object for Cathleen Garner. Not that she's struggling, mind you. Last season at Sam Houston, she won 31 races to finish tenth in jockey standings. Cathleen's horses earned a total of $241,823. Coupled with her work at Lone Star and San Antonio's Retama Park, she'll probably clear $50,000 this year in prize money. But Cathleen races for that special moment that comes in mid-race.
Hooves are pounding, whips are popping, lungs are bellowing -- and Cathleen is wrapped in a silent cocoon of concentration. "Around you, everything is going on. But you're thinking, focused. Trying to outthink the other riders," she says. "Thinking strategy. Keeping your horse relaxed. Checking everyone out. Trying to figure out what the best thing is for you and your horse to do."
The studs are easy -- just let 'em loose. But it takes a real race rider to put a less talented horse in a position to win. That's what Cathleen has been doing for 12 years. It helps that her husband, Tim, is a trainer, and that the Garners own several racehorses.
"If a horse has any legs, Cathy will get it into the money," says trainer Delmer West. "She gets 'em out the gate real good, and she's real good coming from behind. She's just got a lot of natural talent. If you try to take the horse through a hole, but by the time you get to the hole it's closed up, then you have to pull up and go around. That [loses] your race right there. Cathy knows when to go and when not to go."
The pressure is never greater than when Cathleen is riding for a new owner. "Everything had better go good for you. Boy, I sure hope everything goes good. 'Cause that's the last chance you're gonna get," she says. "With a guy rider, if it works it works, and if it don't it don't. They'll get another shot. We're limited on the mounts we get, so we have to work as best we can with what we got."
At 35 years old, with two children, Cathleen spends her fair share of time in the weight room, strengthening her arms, shoulders and hands. She doesn't have to sit in the hot box to shed pounds before the weigh-in, like the men do. When Cathleen is in the starting gate, she's at full strength. That probably makes her as strong, if not stronger, than men who are weakened by dieting and rapid weight loss. "I've held tougher horses than a lot of guys," she says.
Cathleen keeps a picture of her husband from his champion bodybuilding days in her locker at Sam Houston. They met back when he was shoeing horses. It's a good thing Tim Garner is no pushover, considering the extras that some trainers have been known to ask of girl jocks who are desperate for mounts. "Ride me for what I can do on the track," Cathleen says. "I don't want to ride for what I can do in bed. I want to be chosen for my talent."
In January 1969, Penny Ann Early had tried to race at Churchill Downs in Kentucky, but the male jockeys refused to ride. Barbara Jo Rubin tried a few weeks later at Tropical Park in Miami, but the men boycotted again -- then someone threw a brick through the window of Barbara's training room. "If you let a woman ride, we're all dead," said jockey John Choquette. Finally, on February 7, 1969, Diane Crump became the first woman to ride in a pari-mutuel race, at Hialeah Park near Miami. She finished tenth on Bridle 'n Bit.
In 1993 Julie Krone became the first woman to win a Triple Crown race when she took the Belmont Stakes on Colonial Affair. Today, an estimated 20 percent of all jockeys are women. And women are making gains both at Sam Houston Race Park and across Texas.
"Texas and Oklahoma have changed, it's become better for women," says Charlotte Bronstad, 38, who has been racing since 1988. "I wish I was 19 now, just getting started. New trainers have been more open. They say, 'Okay, girls can compete,' and they give us an opportunity to ride for them."
Charlotte graduated with a degree in petroleum engineering from Oklahoma University. She worked for an oil company for two years before giving in to her horse fetish, which was a result of her father training roping horses. After knocking around Texas tracks for a long while, Charlotte is finally doing well. She earned $50,000 last year, and would have done better this year if she weren't home pregnant with her second child.
Charlotte's agent, Jim Schultz, is the son of the prominent trainer Bob Schultz. "Bob only used to ride girls when there weren't any boys left," Charlotte says. "Now I've ridden five or six winners for him at Houston. I like him a lot now that I know him."
Like many female jocks, Charlotte tempers her comments about how hard it is to get mounts because she doesn't want to anger the people who hold the key to her livelihood. Still, it's hard for her to swallow some of the comments.
"I've heard, 'That gal can't finish.' Well, I'm on a 50-1 shot and finishing a close third. Guys would say, 'The heck with it,' and quit. I think girls try a little harder on the long shots. I got 60 thirds last year at Houston, mostly on long shots. It's not that I don't think [these horses] can win, it's just easier if " Charlotte lets out a long sigh. "I used to think that I wasn't riding well. When I finally got on the track with some good horses, I realized it's not me, it's the horse."
It's not often that C.J. McMann gets a good horse in her hands. "You gotta have stock underneath you," she says. "Half the time you don't have the stock. My first winner paid $55.20." Inferior horses mean you have to "ride twice as smart," she says. "And when you do get a good horse, it's the easiest thing to win. They overcome everything."
Her given name is Cynthia Jean, but she goes by C.J. for a reason. "Cynthia Jean sounds like a little prima donna sitting up in the grandstand with a dress on. It don't sound like no race rider," she says. "With the initials, I can really get by on some owners. They won't say, 'Oh, that's a girl.' 'Cause a lot of owners won't give girl riders a shot."
"It used to be you never had a girls' room. They put us in the corner, treated us like outcasts, like redheaded stepchildren," C.J. says. "We got to work the horses but not race them. If we did get to race, the horse was Looney Tunes. Women have to prove themselves twice as hard as a guy jock. And I'm thankful for the many women who have paved the way for us girls."
Jan Rogers was born 49 years ago in Sulfur Springs, Texas. Her folks put her on a horse before she could walk. They would come to regret it.
In high school, Jan broke horses just for fun. She was messing around on a ranch that had a bunch of two-year-old horses headed to a big brush track in Kaufman. Brush tracks defined Texas horse racing before the sport turned pari-mutuel in 1994. You drove up to a brush track, took a look around, and placed bets with whoever would take them.
The fellas who ran horses in those parts had more mounts than jockeys. They heard Jan could break a horse. They got a gander at her tiny frame and told her to get on out there and race. She loved it. The speed was intoxicating. For a moment.
Jan hadn't started a half-dozen races before her mount went up and over the inside rail midway through a Kaufman race in 1983. Cars and trucks were parked on the other side of the solid, heavy pipe rail. When Jan's horse went over it, she broke her nose, collarbone, wrist and finger. Her knee filled with fluid. Her parents forbade her to race again, ever. Jan waited four years.
With the gender bias she encountered, Jan had to wait a lot longer to ride good stock. "It's getting a little better. Other states, especially up north, it's a lot better. But it's real tough in this state especially. They've got some real chauvinist pigs, that's the only way I can put it to you."
The more resistance Jan faced, though, the more determined she got. There's a reason they call her Miss Firecracker. And the struggle continues, even today. Her people have a lot of injured horses, so they're not sending her much work at Sam Houston.
She's not making enough money to relocate for the season from her home in San Antonio, so she commutes each week. The drive doesn't matter. "I love it It's all I really wanna do," she says. "Winning is a big part, but just being out there on the horse is a great feeling. I don't feel old. As long as I stay healthy, I'll be out here."
As she tells of winning a stakes race atop Frosty Hitter, her sun-weathered face creases into a smile and she clutches her bathrobe tighter in the Sam Houston dressing room. "When he went in the winner's circle, he held his head up," she says. "It made a beautiful picture, and he knew it. He had been there before. He was calm, looking into the distance, posing for the cameras. It was beautiful."
Janell Lehman is a "bug" rider -- jock slang for a rookie. She's had 17 winners, but the bug label will remain until she wins another 23. Janell is 28 and was raised in Victoria. She loves her job, loves getting paid to play in the mud and dirt. If she had any spare time, she would use it to race mountain bikes, dance country-and-western and sing karaoke. "Goodbye Earl" is her favorite. Between her shoulder blades is a new tattoo of a black stallion surrounded by red roses and a horseshoe.
However, Janell would not encourage other young women to follow her. "It's a tough life. I broke my leg, I've separated my shoulder," she says, proudly contorting that shoulder into an unnatural position. "It's not a nine-to-five job. It's seven days a week, all weather. If someone came to me for advice, I'd say don't do it."
She would have the same advice for a man. Janell, one of the new breed of female jocks, shrugs at the question of whether it's tougher for women. "I don't think of myself as a girl," she says. "When I go out there, I'm a rider."
Jan Rogers, standing nearby, cocks her head. "But you gotta admit there's discrimination," the veteran says.
"I leave the skirt and heels in a bag," Janell replies. "I'm going out there to win just like everybody else."
Deirdre has just popped herself in the eye with a stirrup while unsaddling her mount at Sam Houston. She'll have a shiner tomorrow. Tonight, though, her only thoughts are on female riders past and future.
Pioneering woman jockey Tomey Swan, the new president of the national Jockey's Guild, named Deirdre to chair a "women jockey concerns committee." The first thing Deirdre asked the union for was a count of licensed women jockeys. They're still working on it.
Deirdre wants to get more women into the union, and to get union women more active. She wants better marketing for women riders. She wants a listing of the pros and cons of all racetrack facilities. As recently as two years ago, Deirdre was worried about getting a decent horse to ride. Now she's demanding better amenities for the women of Sam Houston Race Park -- and getting them.
"I've had so much success recently, it gave me a confidence that I wasn't used to," she says. "Texas has changed my career, my life. I got the track to buy us new blankets and sheets." After last season's chill, she's demanded a heater for the women's room. "They have heat in the guys' rooms. When I mentioned it and they tried to fix the heat back here, they found out that it didn't exist."
Tomey has agreed to put Deirdre's issues on the agenda at the Jockey's Guild convention next month in Austin. "I know I'll have all the guys rolling their eyes," Deirdre says. "I guess I'll just wear something tight and low-cut."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.