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Thursday, October 14, 2010

All for One, and One for All

The following is a recently published article I wrote for Women in Racing magazine (Australia). The subject of this story is Donna Hillman-Walsh, who was also featured in There's No Crying in Baseball (Blog post May 25, 2010)
In 1974, twenty-five year old American jockey Donna Hillman was invited to participate in the first-ever International Female Jockey Race in Brisbane, Australia. A field of twelve rode; representing Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand, and the USA. Hillman energetically remembers, “The crowd cheered loudly as we entered the track. The air was thick with excitement.” She pauses a few moments, then guns a conclusion home. “What it all boiled down to was … we not only brought in the crowds … they loved to bet on us! It doesn’t get any better than that!” After the race, headlines around the world proclaimed “Lady Jockeys Have Their Day” announcing that Pam O’Neill placed first for Australia. Undoubtedly, that Australian run wrote another significant page in the exciting history of horse racing.

Donna (Hillman) Walsh newspaper clippings about her
riding in Australia.

Racing Down Under was “a fantastic experience” for the young athlete and she remembers as though it were yesterday. By that time in her career, Hillman had ridden many top eastern US tracks, including Belmont and Aqueduct, and was the leading female rider at Calder. As thrilling as racing was, in 1976, Donna turned in her silks for canvas, retiring from horse-racing and forging a solid career as Donna Walsh, fine artist.

Racing was not part of Donna’s life again until 2008, when Jason Neff asked her for interviews for his upcoming feature length documentary, JOCK, which tells the stories of pioneer female jockeys. Through Jason, Donna was asked to once again touch an extraordinary moment of ‘first’ in the world. Pimlico Race Course (home of the Preakness Stakes, 2nd leg of the Triple Crown) in Baltimore, Maryland, would host the first ever parimutuel race consisting of retired female jockeys, The Lady Legends Race for the Cure.

Jason Neff grew up in the horse-racing world hearing stories about pioneering female jockeys and admiring them for all the challenges they overcame to follow their passion. His feature length documentary, JOCK, tells how they fought for the right to ride as professional jockeys

On May 14, 2010, eight ladies saddled up for one last hurrah and a chance to thunder across the finish line. They would come from around the US, setting aside jobs and family for training, and to compete in this historic allowance race. Donna would not ride that day, but knew the names and talents of those that did:

PJ Cooksey, 52, the third all-time leading female jockey with over 2000 wins and breast cancer survivor. Gwen Jocson, 43, record holder for the most wins in a single year by a woman. Andrea Seefeldt, 46, Kentucky Derby and Preakness jockey. Barbara Jo Rubin, 60, first woman to win against a man at a recognized racetrack. Jennifer Rowland57, top pioneer female rider on the Maryland Circuit. Mary Russ Tortora, 56, first woman to win a Grade 1 stakes race. Mary Wiley Wagner, 46, top five apprentice jockey in the nation in 1987 and breast cancer survivor. Cheryl White, 56, the first African-American female jockey.

Lady Legends Jockeys – (from left) Mary Russ Tortora, Andrea Seefeldt Knight, Barbara Jo Rubin, Jennifer Rowland, Mary Wiley Wagner, Cheryl White, Gwen Jocson, Patti Cooksey.

The Lady Legends Race served a three-fold purpose. First, it was for a good cause that raised money for Breast Cancer Awareness. Second, it was filmed as the climactic ending
for Neff’s movie, JOCK. And third, it gave the women one last opportunity to officially reunite with lost friends.

Neff asked Donna to go to Baltimore for the reunion, for not only riders were celebrated that day, so were many others who were veterans of the sport but couldn’t return to the saddle. This once-in-a-life-time event gathered such notable names as Kathy Kusner, Diane Crump, Patti Barton, and more. Donna was touched, yet nervous, about going. It had been many years since she lived the racing world and she couldn’t grasp what to expect.

Donna, like other non-riding jockeys, had very good reason for not climbing on a horse at Pimlico. She looks wistful as she states matter-of-factly why she can’t ride, “Plates, screws, and pins would never allow my legs to hold. I would be a danger on the track.” Diane Crump expresses a similar fate. “My joints were too worn out to take any more stress. I just didn’t think they would hold up to the work it would take to get fit again.” Listening to the voices of these gallant ladies, it’s safe to say their heart’s desire to ride was strong, but intellect said racing was impossible. One has to admire their sense of safety and honest evaluation.

The public had great opportunity to meet these retired legends at the autograph-signing the morning of the race. At first, only the star eight riders were sitting at tables with men jockeys, scribbling their name for fans. Donna and the others stood along the ropes with the fans, observing, waiting for their turn in line.

One of the eight at the tables hollered loudly, “Hey, Donna, get in here. You’re a legend too!” Donna and the rest joined in the signing, and a long line of people stood waiting to briefly chat with them and have their prized posters autographed. It was overwhelming for Donna, “We must have signed, smiled, chatted, and posed for photos for at least two hours. I had no idea there would be so many adoring fans willing to stand in line so long just to meet us.” When asked about her unexpected time at the tables, Donna humbly said, “That’s why I felt so accepted there. They are the best group of women you’d ever want to know.” They all sound this way when they speak of each other: All for one, and one for all. That may be a little corny for some people, but I think it gives a clue as to what these women went through together, and how bonded they actually are.

By race day, all the ladies were having a great time getting reacquainted and comparing stories. Some had never met and they were curious about what they would find.  "I always wondered if they were remarkably strong women, or just crazy to ride when they did,” Andrea explains about the earliest riders. “After meeting them, I found we were all like-minded. They are remarkable women who, like me, just
wanted to ride races.” Others, like Cooksey found satisfaction in comparisons. “I was honoured to be in the presence of such accomplished horsewomen, and to share our stories of the trials of competing in a male-dominated sport.” Their time together before the race most likely helped them mentally find their zone. The eight riders went to the jockey room to prepare. The others found their places in the VIP area and waited for the pre-race parade.

Donna could hardly hold still as she anxiously paced by her seat. She knew many things could go wrong that day. The pilot must be an ace when reading her mount, with many decisions snapped in nano seconds. The wrong move would spell disaster; injury or death could happen in the blink of an eye. There’s a fine art to horse racing and the idea that a 100-125 pound human could control a speeding, 1200 pound, high-strung thoroughbred is amazing in itself. Add to that, the truth is all risks were amplified that day. Those ladies had been away from the game for many years and their strength and reflexes could come into question because of that. How could they be as sharp as they were 10, 20, even 40 years ago?

The crowd roared as the jockeys emerged from the saddling paddock, making their way to the track. Aboard their ride, each lady paired with their pony-horse and all eyes watched as they began warming-up their mount. The crowd went wild and hollered individual names; Barbara Jo, PJ, and so on. And every early rider there noticed how the yells from the audience had changed from their racing days. What used to be, “Go back to the dishes where you belong!” turned into “Go girl … we’re with you!” Ambivalence had changed to support and fans and jockeys were loving this!

Feeding off energy, the jocks smiled and responded, encouraging the excitement that was building stronger by the moment. Jocson played it up with particular flair. She knew why she was  there, “I love the crowd. If it wasn’t for them there would never have been an us.” It wasn’t until they made their way to the starting gate that grins faded and serious concentration took hold. The horses, girls, and crowd were ready.

Donna stood at ramrod attention and stretched for a better view. For a fleeting instant she was back on a horse and part of this momentous occasion. Yearning pulled at her heart with that ever persistent desire to ride and compete again. She was beyond proud of those that were racing, and she could still hear the voice from earlier that day. “Hey, Donna, get in here. You’re a legend too!” Her friends were making history while she watched from a distance. It was highly emotional for her as they started loading at the gate; the announcer saying each jockey’s name in turn … all for one … and one for all.

Donna had been welcomed as one of the Legends by these ladies, even though she couldn’t ride that day. Aggressive competition had mellowed and now the girls were comrades in a tough sport that had been hard on them all. A uniform desire to perform well and support each other was being fulfilled, and Donna wiped a small tear from the corner of her eye as the drama of it all was at crest. She prayed no one would be hurt. The gates where about to open and everyone would soon know if the ol’ girls could be as sharp as they needed to be.

“And they’re off!” the announcer boomed. She stood with the cheering crowd as the horses rocketed out the gate. The audience was pounding louder as a good clean break led to a race along the backside, where riders jockied for position. As they approached the Club House turn Gwen Jocson took the lead from Mary Wagner, and was in great order when Andrea came flying up from way off the pace, closing fast. She couldn’t quite catch Jocson, though, and a very electric rider in white/red silks took home the final win of her career. The crowd erupted in response, cameras flashed from every angle, news crews and interviewers descended. The race was everything people hoped it would be. Andrea expressed it well when she spoke of her part, “Before we loaded into the gate, I was still apprehensive. Not sure if I was fit enough.” Once in the race she quickly found her truth. “The doors opened and it all came back to me. I felt strong riding, came from behind and passed horses to finish second. It was thrilling.”

Down the Stretch – Mary Russ Tortora (green and white silks), Gwen Jocson (red and white silks, blue helmet), Patti Cooksey (green and yellow silks), and Barbara Jo Rubin (turqouise and white silks).
Credit: Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire

The end of this event was a heart-felt moment for the girls. They gathered at a local restaurant that is famous for it’s Maryland blue crab cakes and steak, and spent the evening bonding and
securing lifetime friendships. At one telling point, they all looked at their picture on the cover of America’s turf authority, and Cooksey made a notable observation, “In the 25 years that I rode, I was never on the front page of The Daily Racing Form, until today!” It was as though, finally, the Lady Legends gained a little respect from the Racing community, which is something they were always fighting for.

Pioneer reunion – Diane Crump (first woman to ride against men on a recognized race track in the US). Mary Russ Tortora (first woman to win a Grade 1 race in the US), Barbara Jo Rubin (1st woman to win against a man on a recognized race track in the US), Kathy Kusner (was part of the US equestrienne team that participated in the ’64, ’68, and ’72 Olympics – silver medalist. She spent over a year in the court system fighting the Maryland Racing Commission for the right to ride. Shortly after winning, she broke her leg at a horse show at Madison Square Garden.), Patti Cooksey (3rd all-time leading female jockey with over 2,100 wins).

These women have proven they have the courage and strength of champions. Diane Crump sums up their significance when she spoke of her own career, “It’s quite awesome when you look back and know that you were a true part of American history and possibly women’s history around the world.”

Donna came home to her studio with a renewed understanding of her racing past. Her time with memories and friends gave her a gift of appreciation and pride in something that had lived in her closet for years. As she studied her newest piece on the easel, one representing Barbara Jo in her blue riding silks and pigtails, she thoughtfully considered the purpose of her art, “This painting will forever be a fond reminder of that great experience at Pimlico, that exciting race and the best of times!”

This article was published in Women in Racing, Spring/Summer 2010 ISSUE 7