Female jockeys making their name in the sport of kings


The fight for gender quality and empowerment for women has been an on-going battle since the beginning of time.

Even in the world of sports, women have tried to punch, run and ride their way to the tops of their careers. It was only 50 years ago that America’s first female jockey fought for the right to race.

“Kathy Kusner was the first woman to ever apply for a jockey’s license,” said Jessica Whitehead, Museum Collections Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum.

Churchill Downs
Women jockeys are enjoying more success than ever these days in the sport of kings.

Kusner was an American equestrian, an Olympic medalist and a fighter. After the Maryland Racing Commission denied her request for a jockey license, she went to court.

“The Attorney General of Maryland said that’s not constitutional,” Whitehead said.

After litigation, she eventually won the right to professionally ride.

“She became the first woman who was ever granted a jockey’s license,” Whitehead said.

More female jockeys followed, but just because they had the right to ride, didn’t mean they got the chance to ride.

“Often times, male jockeys would boycott the races they were racing in,” Whitehead said. “The first woman that was boycotted, her name was Penny Ann Early, and she was boycotted at Churchill Downs. She would have been the first woman to ever race in a professional race with thoroughbreds, but she ended up not getting that opportunity because male jockeys boycotted her races.”

When jockey Diane Crump rode in Hialeah Park, the atmosphere in the park was so volatile that she required a full police escort through the crowds.

“She had to be escorted by security everywhere she went at the track because there were people vehemently angry, yelling at her because she wanted to be part of the races,” Whitehead said.

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Despite everything she had to overcome, Crump went on to become the first female jockey to ever ride in the Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Crump’s ride next year.

“She rode in the 1970 Kentucky Derby on a horse called Fathom,” Whitehead said. “Fathom came in 10th, but it was still a monumental feat for female jockeys.”

It wasn’t just the spectators of the sport that gave female jockeys a tough time. Even the media gave female jockeys a bad rep.

“The media used to call them jockettes instead of jocks or jockeys,” Whitehead said.

Racing pioneer and jockey Patti Barton spoke up.

“Her famous quote is, ‘Don’t call me a jockette. That sounds like a kitchenette. That’s half of something. I’m a full jockey,'” Whitehead said.

Whitehead added that the Kentucky Derby Museum was proud to share and to document the history of women in the racing industry.

“We’ve had many female jockeys through the years prove them wrong,” she said.

Kusner, Barton, Crump, Julie Krone, Patricia Cooksey, and Donna Barton Brothers are just a few of the female jockeys who successfully made horse racing a career.

“Rosie Napravnik has had a remarkable career and is the only woman to have ridden in all three of the Triple Crown races during the same season,” Whitehead said.

“I think we’re all waiting for the inevitable, which is the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Derby,” said Tonya Abeln, Director of Community Relations and the President of the Churchill Downs Foundation.

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