Female jockeys making up ground

Chantal Sutherland at Turfway Park on Jan. 25, 2009. 

Inez Karlsson is sitting on a win. Her mount is perfectly placed, winging over the tight dirt oval of Chicago's Hawthorne Race Course, picking up speed for the run toward home. I'm gonna get this. She can feel it.

More than 2,000 miles to the West, Chantal Sutherland is tracking along the backside of California's Santa Anita Race Track with fellow rider Dee Dee Williams in hot pursuit. Sutherland's horse is beginning to tire, but she knows Williams might have a shot. They hit the final turn. "You go, girl!" she screams. "You go, go, go!"

All the way over on the East coast, Maylan Studart is powering down to the finish line at New York's Aqueduct Race Course. The stretch drive sparks an adrenaline rush, the competitive instinct kicks in. She hurtles under the wire, victorious, to claim her 40th career victory.

You've come a long way, baby.

These female jockeys are holding their own at tracks across the country, riding with a talent and consistency that hasn't been seen since the days of that plucky little Julie Krone. Karlsson, 25, became the first woman since 2001 to win a title at Hawthorne and was the leading apprentice at Arlington Park in Illinois last summer, finishing the season as the runner-up for the 2008 Eclipse Award for Outstandling Apprentice. Sutherland, 32, won Canada's Sovereign Award for Outstanding Apprentice. Studart, 19, was one of four female riders in her entire native country of Brazil before moving her tack to Aqueduct's tough circuit this past winter. And they're not alone.

Anna Rosie Napravnik. Emma Jayne Wilson. Jackie Davis. They're the new blood, taking the reins from legends such as Patricia Cooksey and Donna Barton Brothers, riding a path blazed by racing's first recognized girl jocks (like Barbara Jo Rubin, who, in 1969, became the first female to ever win at a recognized racetrack). And one thing's for sure: they may be outnumbered in a sport where the guy-girl ratio hovers around 90-10, but it's a heckuva lot easier for a woman to ride races today than it was forty years ago.

Agent Penny Ffitch-Heyes ought to know. A former steeplechase jockey, she's the manager of Karlsson's book. Her rider has talent, no question. Surviving the Chicago circuit without an apprentice allowance, the Swedish native could confidently take her tack to tougher locals: Kentucky, New York, California. So what if she's in the minority? She knows what she wants and she's going after it with an athlete's determination.

"Being a girl is definitely not the disadvantage it was 10 or 20 years ago," says Ffitch-Heyes. "But even back then, I never played the 'girl card.' To survive the test of time, you have to prove yourself, male or female."

Karlsson has done just that, dominating the standings at Arlington and Hawthorne with incredible gumption. A former boxer in her native land, she has everything it takes to move to the next level.

"People said, 'are you sure you want to be in Chicago? That's not a girl's place,'" Karlsson recalls. "That made me even more determined. I went into it 100%, training four to five hours per day, doing like I would do if I was going to be in a boxing fight, preparing myself just like that. I told myself, if I'm gonna do it, I'd better make it."

That attitude was typical of the hard-knocking female athletes who competed in the saddle in the past.

"Since when did we become a bunch of girl riders?" asks Donna Barton Brothers, who retired in 1998 after piloting more than 1,000 winners. "It never was like that when I was riding. My goal was always to be the best rider I could be, to ride has hard and strong and well as any other rider on the racetrack."

Film producer Jason Neff has been researching this very topic, collecting information for the documentary JOCK about the first generation of women who won the right to compete as professional jockeys. Those pioneering riders faced discrimination and harassment due to their gender, but they persevered to win a major women's rights battle in a sport known for its' somewhat archaic society.

"Some of the opinions were unreal," he says. "Women 'weren't emotionally capable of riding in a race,' or women's reflexes 'weren't as quick as a man's.' I think that women bring a certain quality to riding that wasn't really acknowledged back then. Connecting with the horse, working with finesse, I don't read anything about that. Back then it was all about strength."

That's a challenge female riders still face — as recently as this season, Sutherland had an owner choose to take her off a horse because he "didn't want a girl" riding his runners.

"I would love to ask him why," she says. "A gentleman like that, who doesn't really want people to know, that's good, because it means his attitude is pretty much taboo."

For the most part, however, polished technique and proven success is all that owners and trainers are looking for in a rider.

"When I first started it was people telling me they couldn't let me ride for them because I was a girl," Karlsson says. "But when you start beating them they're going to put you on sooner or later, just because they get aggravated when you keep beating them. By the end of the Arlington season, I had trainers cheering me on in the paddock because they saw how hard I was working for the title."

And how do today's male jockeys feel about their female counterparts?

"The boys in the jocks' room treat me so well," Sutherland says. "They look after me, they're nice to me, and if we have an argument it's like having one with your brother. We're competitive out of respect for each other."

"(Longtime leading Chicago rider) Chris Emigh came up to me one day and said, 'You know, we used to make fun of you,'" Karlsson recalled. "Then he smiled and said, 'We're not making fun of you any more.'"

Taking on the boys. It sounds like such a challenge. Not so long ago, it was. But today?

"It's something," Studart says, "That every woman does in this world."

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union, and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.