Every morning, as the Saratoga summer of 1967 drifted by, Kathy Kusner kept waiting, waiting for one of the talented young women she watched on horseback to step up and apply for a license to ride racehorses in the afternoon.
Kusner, 27 at the time, was one of those young women, their numbers increasing as trainers discovered that the female of the species could handle a Thoroughbred with as much finesse as their male counterparts. However, conventional wisdom, such as it was, drew the line at women as jockeys. It was a man’s game, went the same wisdom, and there were plenty of men in high places determined to keep it that way.
Men like the members of the Maryland Racing Commission, who sat in judgment when it was Kusner who finally put herself on the line and applied for a jockey license in the fall of 1967. Four times they considered her application and four times it was denied, while challenging her strength, her emotional stability, and her amateur status as a member of the U.S. Equestrian Team.
At that point, Kusner already had competed in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and was preparing for the Mexico City games of 1968. Her amateur status, she maintained, was her business, dealt with by her assurances that any purse winnings on the racetrack would be turned over to the USET.
As for her ability to handle a horse in high-pressure competition, the commission needed only to refer to Kusner’s contribution to the U.S. silver medal at the 1967 Pan American Games, or, for a visual aid, the classic picture of Kusner and the gray horse Aberali clearing a seven-foot, two-inch wall at prestigious Aachen that same year.
Kusner, quietly determined, found hope for aspiring women jockeys in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. She was convinced that it could be applied to an equal opportunity of employment in a profession that stipulated no physical limitations other than weight.
“I looked around the racetrack and saw one guy who had worked in a laundromat, another who’d been a plumber, and they were urged to become jockeys just because they were small,” Kusner recalled recently from her home in suburban Los Angeles.
“And I’d already ridden in two Olympic Games.”
With attorney Audrey Melbourne by her side – working pro bono for what she called “a landmark case” – Kusner exhausted the commission process then took her case to a Maryland circuit court. On Sept. 27, 1968, Judge Ernest Loveless ruled in favor of Kusner and ordered the Maryland commission to issue a license.
“It took him all of about five minutes to bring that verdict,” Kusner said.
As a result of Kusner’s legal pioneering, some anniversaries of purest gold are rolling by
this year, half a century since those watersheds when women asserted their right to ride
alongside men in officially sanctioned parimutuel Thoroughbred events.
Feb. 7, 1969 – Diane Crump becomes the first woman to ride in such a race, at Hialeah
Feb. 22, 1969 – Barbara Jo Rubin becomes the first woman to win an official race, at
Charles Town Race Course in West Virginia.
March 1, 1969 – Tuesdee Testa becomes the first woman to win a race at one of North
America’s major tracks, Santa Anita Park.
Kathy Kusner had to watch all the history unfold from the sidelines. In early November 1968, while competing with the U.S. Equestrian Team in the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, she suffered a broken right tibia when her horse – a mare named Fru – fell during a jumping round.
“She was a wonderful horse,” Kusner said. “That’s just the way it goes – she wins her class the night before and then the next day goes end over end.”
In reporting her Madison Square Garden success, before she was injured, The New York Times referred to Kusner as “distinguished particularly because she now is America’s first licensed woman jockey for big-time flat racing.”
She might as well have been described as an elephant with wings. In 1968, the idea that a woman would be allowed to compete against men in a mainstream professional sport was unthinkable.
But the dam of legal obstruction had burst. The moment Kusner received her ruling in Maryland, women began applying for licenses. Right on cue, the sporting media rose to the occasion, deploying its most condescending prose in an attempt to explain why these “jockettes” who wore their silks “with a panache no man can match” would want to
encroach upon turf reserved for men.
In its Dec. 13, 1968, issue, Life magazine allowed champion jockey Bill Hartack weigh in on the issue of riding against women.
“I think women should get a chance to ride,” Hartack wrote. “It’s a matter of principle. Women have legal rights, probably too many, but they’ve got them, and that’s all there is to it.”
Hartack proceeded to embellish his theme with warnings like, “As a group, I don’t think their brains are as capable of making fast decisions. Women are also more likely to panic. It’s their nature.
“Hell, women would make racing easier for me,” Hartack added. “I’d like 11 of them in each race.”
It bears reminding that Hartack, a card-carrying contrarian, was a wellspring of universal scorn who would say anything to anybody. As cringe-worthy as his attitude seems today, he was then giving voice to a widely held view of the growing movement for women’s rights, and not just in sports.
Penny Ann Early received a provisional license to ride in Kentucky in late ’68 but was thwarted by male jockey boycotts at Churchill Downs, forcing cancellation of two chances to be the first. That winter, Barbara Jo Rubin’s dressing trailer at Hialeah was pelted with rocks, and her passage to and from the paddock required a police escort.
Meanwhile, Kusner was in Connecticut, recuperating at the home of Olympic teammate
and gold medal winner Bill Steinkraus. Her broken leg would take months to heal, and considerable conditioning was required to recover the muscles needed to ride Thoroughbreds. She finally was able to ride in her first official race during August of
1969 at Pocono Downs.
“It didn’t bother me at all that the other girls rode before I did,” Kusner said. “In fact, I was glad I didn’t have to go through all the attention they received. I got enough of that trying to get my license. And when I did, they were able to go ahead and get theirs.”
Of course, the ability to get a license was no guarantee of success. Ingrained prejudice
toward women jockeys was a rock that required years of erosion before the likes of P.J. Cooksey, Patti and Donna Barton, Julie Krone, Maryann Alligood, Tammi Piermarini, Rosemary Homeister, Vicky Aragon, Emma-Jayne Wilson, Chantal Sutherland, and Rosie Napravnik could make their wider impact.
Crump managed 249 mounts in 1969 and won with 24, Rubin won 22 of 89, while Mary Bacon led the sisterhood, with 55 wins from 396 mounts.
After her late start and her USET commitments, Kusner had only 13 mounts and one winner that year, on Sept. 7, 1969, at Pocono.
“You can’t call my numbers very impressive,” Kusner said. “I ended up with 528 mounts and 34 winners by the time I finished that part of my life, nothing like the women who came after.”
That would be in addition to the silver medal Kusner and her teammates won in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Kusner went on to become a commercial pilot and founder of the Los Angeles-based Horses in the Hood, an organization that gives inner-city youth a summer camp chance to interact with horses. Asked if her fight to get a
license long ago was worth the trouble, Kusner challenged the premise.
“What trouble?” she replied. “There’s no thrill like riding a Thoroughbred racehorse. I loved every minute, and treasured every one of those opportunities.”
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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