I just saw this story in the New York Times about Rosie Napravnik, the 25-year-old jockey who will be riding in the Kentucky Derby next month.
Did any of you see that Animal Planet show a few years ago, Jockeys, that covered two meets at Santa Anita? It included Chantal Sutherland, one of the best jockeys in North America, whose story lines were at least as much about her personal life and relationship struggles with fellow jockey Mike Smith as they were about her phenomenal skill with horses. Even while pushing that angle ("will she retire from racing to have babies?!") the show made clear that she was viewed differently because she was female, and some of the male jockeys - perhaps even Smith - did not think she was worthy of being where they were. Kayla Stra, another jockey on the show, had more direct conflicts with the male jockeys when they did not want her in their jocks' room despite the fact that hers did not have a television in it, so she could not watch races. That is a serious breech of equal access.
I am disheartened but not surprised to hear that Napravnik is getting similarly bad treatment from the men in the industry, which is still very much male dominated. One anonymous jockey, identified only as a 53-year-old veteran of the track, commented that she was getting more rides because she's pretty and friendly. This is appalling, and I am very disappointed that the Times would print a quote like this without insisting he identify himself. Now Napravnik has to wonder who said that, if she doesn't already know. Or maybe it's such a drop in the bucket that she doesn't notice, which would be worse.
The article talks about how good a rider she is, describing in detail how she applies her skills. Some of the language is gendered: she has soft hands, she can quiet a hot young horse. These are attributes that, in my experience, are often given to female riders but not men, many of whom are just as nurturing. However, the article also quotes trainers who note that she has an excellent eye for where she is on the track, a good feed for pace, and fearlessness. Trainer Larry Jones said he had seen other riders bump into her on purpose (risking the health of the horses and their own necks): “Trust me. Don’t do Rosie that way, because she will run over you. The girl has no fear.”
Just as it would be great if gay marriage could just be called marriage, it would be ideal if female jockeys can just be called jockeys. Gender has nothing to do with this. Some people have the physicality, strength, and mental stamina to handle the extremely dangerous situation that is horse racing, and others do not. Some men are small and strong, some are small and weak, some are big, etc. Right? Same with women. If you can do this, you can do it. Your sex and gender don't matter a-tall.
One of the things I like most about equestrian sports is that they are not gender-segregated. Women are, for the most part, not treated as lesser riders in any of the disciplines I've participated in, in my experience (they may be treated badly as humans, but that is a different issue - find me anyone who says women can't ride a dressage horse or a show jumper as well as a man and I will show you an outlier). I hope horse racing can catch up, because it will benefit the sport to have the best riders riding, regardless of their gender.