When Diane Nelson passed away on July 5 at age 54, her days riding regularly on the tough New York circuit were long forgotten by many. But those who followed racing in the Big Apple on a daily basis remember her as a top rider, who like so many females before her, was never given the opportunity to ride world class horses and compete in championship races on a regular basis.
Nelson is remembered as being stunningly attractive and very affable who had signed a contract with the Ford Modeling Agency. But on the racetrack she was talented enough to win almost 1,100 races, while bankrolling over $19 million in earnings and winning eight graded stakes, including the the grade 1 Prioress Stakes and grade 2 Comely Stakes aboard Acey Deucy in 2005.
But like so many talented female jockeys over the last half century, one has to wonder to what degree being a female prevented her from getting top mounts and becoming a leading rider.
We have seen several female riders crack the gender barrier, most notably the great Julie Krone and more recently Rosie Napravnik, considered one of the top riders in the country before retiring to start a family, Chantal Sutherland, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap, and Emma Jayne Wilson, champion apprentice in the U.S. and Canada and winner of most every major race in Canada, including the Queen's Plate.
Krone's amazing rise to stardom began when she rode in her first race at Tampa Bay Downs on February 1, 1981, finishing second in a $3,500 maiden claiming race. She rode her first winner 11 days later in another $3,500 maiden claimer. By August, 1987, Krone had ridden 1,000 winners and was all the rage in New Jersey, dominating the jockey standings at Monmouth and Meadowlands. The following March, she became the winningest female rider of all time, winning the 1,205th race of her career aboard a filly named Squawter at Aqueduct, and later that year, she became the first female rider to compete in the Breeders' Cup when she rode Darby Shuffle to a second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies for Wayne Lukas. She would win the race in 2003 aboard Halfbridled.
In 1993, Krone became the first female rider to win a classic, capturing the Belmont Stakes on Colonial Affair for trainer Scotty Schulhofer. To most young girls who grew up aspiring to become jockeys, Krone was their hero, along with Patti Barton and Patricia Cooksey, the first female to ride in the Preakness, finishing a respectable sixth. Both had also made a name for themselves, especially on the Kentucky circuit, by setting records for wins. But it was Krone who truly broke the gender barrier by being regarded a great jockey and not just a great female jockey.
Patti Barton's daughter, Donna, would follow in her mother's and her sister Leah's footsteps by also becoming a jockey, winning a number of major stakes from Kentucky to Louisiana to New York and New Jersey. In fact, in 1982, Patti and Leah rode against other at Latonia, becoming the first mother and daughter to compete against each other.
And of course, before Krone's rise to success, there was Mary Russ, who in 1983 became the first female rider to win a grade 1 stakes, capturing the Widener Handicap aboard Lord Darnley while still an apprentice. And there was Abigail Fuller, who swept the NYRA Filly Triple Crown aboard future Hall of Famer Mom's Command in 1985, and later on Jill Jellison who, in 2005, became the third winningest female jockey behind Krone and Cooksey. She gave up that spot to Tammi Piermarini, who has amassed over 2,300 wins and has been a mainstay at Suffolk Downs for years.
But there still have been a number of talented female riders, such as Diane Nelson, who aimed high, yet were never able to get live mounts in major stakes and have an opportunity to make their mark on a national scale.
And what of the pioneers, those courageous young women back in the 1960s who had to fight for the right just to get licensed and compete at racetracks, while suffering constant abuse and prejudice wherever they went?
The first breakthrough came when Kathy Kusner went to court to get her jockey's license after it had been denied. The court ruled no one could prevent her from getting a license. But because she had won her case in Maryland, other aspiring female jockeys still had to fight for their license in other states.
On February 7, 1969, Diane Crump became the first woman to ride in a pari-mutuel race in America, finishing 10th aboard Bridle ‘n Bit at Hialeah.
With the door now open, it took only 15 days for Barbara Jo Rubin to become the first female jockey to win a race, scoring at Charles Town, and then became the first to ride in New York, holding her own against the boys.
On March 1 of that year, Tuesdee Testa also made history by becoming the first female jockey to win a race at a major North American racetrack when she guided Buz On to victory at Santa Anita.
Two months later, Crump rode her first winner at Gulfstream, and the following year she rode Fathom in the Kentucky Derby. Although she finished 15th in a field of 17, her mere presence in America's biggest horse race received a great deal of publicity and brought female jockeys into the national spotlight.
It would take another three years for a female jockey to finally win a stakes. That milestone came when Robyn Smith captured the Paumonok Handicap aboard the classy North Sea for Alfred Vanderbilt, who had faith in the young rider and gave her a number of prime mounts.
Female jockeys were now here to stay, but it did not come without heartache, frustration, and a grim determination to follow their passion.
Crump recalled getting only mounts no other rider wanted and Rubin remembers the looks they would get, and how the vast majority of trainers felt they simply were not strong enough to compete with men. But they were fully aware that it was horsemanship, good judgment, and good hands that were the important factors in becoming a good jockey.
Crump lived in Oldsmar, Florida and worked on a Thoroughbred farm at the age of 13. Eventually she began getting on horses in the morning at Tampa Bay Downs. By the time she was in high school, she said to herself, "If those babies from the farm are going to the racetrack, I'm going with them." So she went to the track while attending night school. There was only one other girl there who was galloping horses and that was Mary Bacon, who would one day also become a jockey.
Rubin, who contracted polio at age 6, had been around horses since she was stricken as a form of sports and exercise. It was the movie National Velvet that inspired her love of riding and horses, and by age 10 she was riding in match races. As soon as she graduated high school she headed to Tropical Park, where she also was only one of two girls galloping horses. The only other females at the track were older women who were ponying horses.
Both girls felt it was inevitable that one day they would be allowed to ride if they could stick it out. That day came when Kathy Kusner won her court case.
Crump recalled that Florida gave her the roughest time and she had to go before the racing commission and wait three to four months before finally taking the fight to the Civil Liberties Union, who put her through more tests. The stewards wanted to see her break from the gate and work horses to make sure she wouldn't endanger the other jockeys. The state that accepted them most readily was Kentucky, and Crump remembers galloping horses at Churchill Downs when Kusner won her case. The other aspiring female jockey there at the time was Penny Ann Early. Although they had no battles with the track management, when Early finally got a mount near the end of the meet the jockeys boycotted her.
When Rubin attempted to apply for her license in Florida, she was told she was crazy. They wouldn't accept her application, so she had to go before the board. When she finally was allowed to ride, wherever she went, she was forced to change in the men's room or the stewards' closet. And she had no conveniences at all. Like Penny Ann Early, Rubin also was boycotted by the jockeys at Tropical Park.
Rubin said if the jockeys boycotted the race she would ride anyway as if it was a walkover. But when they went ahead and boycotted two races earlier, she was taken off the horse. Finally, Tropical Park gave her a trailer in which to dress and she had a rock thrown through her window.
While Rubin was having all her troubles at Tropical Park, Crump was at Gulfstream and was fortunate to have the backing of trainer Mary Cotter, who was having her own troubles trying to get licensed. She went to bat for Crump and pleaded her case to the stewards at Hialeah. They welcomed Crump, but first wanted to see her work a horse three-quarters in company out of the gate. Cotter shipped one of her horses over there and Crump worked the horse and got her license. Cotter tried to get the horse in a race three times, but three times it didn't get in. Then one morning, Crump looked at the entries and saw she was named on somebody else's horse. Crump had no idea whose horse it was, but it seems one trainer took notice of her plight and felt sorry for her and named her on the horse. That's how Crump became the first female jockey to ride in a race.
Although everyone at Tampa Bay knew her since she was 13, having lived and grown up nearby, she was saddened by the way she was treated and how rude all the riders were.
While Rubin loved riding in Maryland because of how friendly and accommodating they were at Pimlico, where she was given an office to change, she wasn't quite ready for the rowdiness of New York. She recalled Tuesdee Testa eventually quitting riding because she couldn't take the abuse. Rubin never paid attention to the things she heard, such as "Get married!" and "Go home and cook spaghetti," and just smiled and went about her business. What helped a great deal was how friendly leading jockey Angel Cordero was and how he helped get her accepted in the jockey colony. They eventually became close friends.
When asked how they felt about being pioneers and paving the way for all female riders both said they never thought about it. They felt they deserved the right to compete and prove their ability just like any male would.
Crump eventually retired in 1984 to be close to her daughter, who was in the first grade. She felt fulfilled that she had accomplished everything she set out to do. Rubin hurt her knees very badly, as well as her back, and was forced to retire in 1970 when she tried to come back only to suffer phlebitis in her leg. Every time she tried to return to riding she would get hurt and wind up in the hospital for six months.
As for what major changes she noticed in regard to female riders, Crump said, "Acceptance...from everybody."
While Crump and Rubin had to struggle for everything, Robyn Smith admitted she was treated much better, and she attained fame on a totally different level, coming straight to New York as a model, having her picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated, teaming up with Turf legend Alfred Vanderbilt, becoming the first female to win a stakes and the first to ride at Saratoga, and eventually marrying entertainment icon Fred Astaire.
Smith came to New York with $50 in her pocket and shared an apartment with an airline stewardess. Her belief was that she was going to do everything first class or not do it at all. Every morning, she was up at 3 a.m. and out at the track by 4, well before anyone arrived. Unable to get an agent, it was difficult at first lining up mounts.
The one thing she had in common with Crump and Rubin were the inconveniences, such as bathing out of a bucket and having to dress in the infirmary. It was Allen Jerkens who helped her the most, putting her on horses who had a good chance to win. Then one day while standing the paddock she was approached by the New York Racing Association chairman Alfred Vanderbilt. They struck up a conversation and he asked her to ride one of his horses. That began a close relationship, in which Smith rode a number of major stakes horses for Vanderbilt, including North Sea in the Paumonok Handicap, defeating Onion, and Westchester Handicap.
These were the pioneers -- Kathy Kusner, Diane Crump, Barbara Jo Rubin, Robyn Smith, Penny Ann Early, Tuesdee Testa, Mary Bacon and Cheryl White, who broke the racial barrier for African Americans.
So when you think of Diane Nelson at this sad time and the memories of her you may have, and her success on and off the racetrack, remember those who paved the way before her and the sacrifices they made. They all were true pathfinders.