An Uphill Battle for First Female Jockey Diane Crump

Diane Crump with trainer Tom Calumet at Hialeah before her first race in 1969. (Jim Raftery/Turfotos)

Any day, at any racetrack across the country, you’ll most likely find a female jockey in one of the races.

They’ve won Triple Crown races, Breeders’ Cup races and classic races such as the Kentucky Oaks and Pacific Classic. Julie Krone, who won 3,704 races, is enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Yet go back in time 50 years, to the 1960s when the United States was coming to grips with equal rights, and you’ll find that jockeys’ rooms were filled with men and men alone. It wasn’t until 1968 that a small group of determined and courageous females – riders such as Diane Crump, Barbara Jo Rubin, Penny Ann Early and Kathy Kusner – stood tall in the face of the prejudice against them and fought victorious battles in the court system to gain the right to become licensed jockeys.

Rosie Napravnik aboard Untapable after winning the Kentucky Oaks. (Eclipse Sportswire)

“Those pioneer women jockeys are my idols,” said Jacqueline Davis, who has been a jockey since 2008 and has won more than 520 races. “They had to have a lot of courage. I don’t know if I could have gone through what they did and made it as a jockey back then.”

While there were several important firsts as female riders gained equality with men, it was Crump who is recognized as the first woman to compete as a licensed jockey at a U.S. racetrack.

Crump paved the way for a legion of women in future years when, undaunted by the widespread hostility against her for tearing down the walls of a males-only bastion, she rode Bridle ’n Bit in a race at Hialeah Park on Feb. 7, 1969.

“It always impacted me, being the first female jockey,” said the 68-year-old Crump during a recent interview with America’s Best Racing. “I have one little footprint in history that turned a corner not just for women’s rights, but equal rights. Maybe that opened it up for equal rights, and that’s important to me. Where ever you go now, women have the opportunity to ride and that’s awesome. It gave all of us a chance to do what was in our hearts and that to me was important.”

Crump’s passion for riding began as a child when she lived in Milford, Conn., and she first rode a pony. It blossomed when she was 12 and her family moved to Oldsmar, Fla., not far from Florida Downs (now Tampa Bay Downs). It wasn’t long before she began working at nearby Lake Magdalene Farm, first caring for foals and later helping to break yearlings for owner Nelson Zambito.

When she turned 16 in 1964, she began to gallop horses at Florida Downs, and in a few years also started working in the stable area at Gulfstream Park.

“I always wanted to ride horses, but I wasn’t necessarily concerned with being a jockey when I was young,” said Crump, who now lives in Virginia and operates Diane Crump Equine Sales. “I went to Gulfstream and groomed and exercised horses. I was working horses alongside the best riders of that era, so I knew I could ride with them. I started to think about becoming a jockey but I didn’t know how to go about it and at that time I didn’t care about it. I was still young and learning.”

The situation changed in 1968 when Kusner, a former member of the U.S. Equestrian Team, sued the Maryland Racing Commission under provisions of the U.S. Civil Rights Act and was granted a license to become a jockey and compete in pari-mutuel races.

Crump before her first career race. (Jim Raftery/Turfotos)

Kusner, unfortunately, suffered an injury from a fall shortly after winning the court case that put her career on hold, yet for Crump it created a grand opportunity. In the fall of 1968, she was working at Churchill Downs and Kusner’s legal victory inspired her to pursue a license.

While courts were sympathetic to her and granted her request to apply for a license, Crump faced stiff opposition from within the sport as jockeys, horsemen and track officials tried to block her and other females from riding in a race. At the time, Crump was galloping horses for W.L. Lyons Brown, who according to Crump was a part owner of Churchill Downs, and she said while Brown was supportive of her cause, he asked her not to ride at Churchill Downs.

“He didn’t want to create a commotion at Churchill Downs,” Crump said. “He was happy to let me ride in other states.”

Instead Early, who was also granted a license, was named on a horse on three occasions for a race at Churchill Downs, but each time the male jockeys boycotted the race, forcing its cancellation. The final one came in the last race of the meet in November and a story in the Chicago Tribune reported that boos and cries of “chicken” and “yellowbellies” were directed at the male jockeys for their actions from the unhappy crowd.

With the closing of the Kentucky racing season, Crump returned to Florida, where she initially found the same climate. The Florida racing commission refused to honor the Maryland ruling but it lost that argument in court.

Rubin also gained her license in Florida and was named on a horse in a Jan. 15, 1969 race at Tropical Park, but again the male jockeys threatened to boycott. This time, after rocks were thrown at the trailer used for her dressing room, Rubin was replaced in favor of a male rider.

But when racing shifted to Hialeah there was a different climate.

“Hialeah was getting ready to start and I worked a horse out to get my license,” Crump said. “After that, the stewards came out with a statement that any jockey who boycotts a race would be fined and suspended for the entire meet. They were not going to put up with that boycott stuff. It was crazy. We had the right to ride and they were going to make sure we did.”

While Brown was willing to put Crump on his horses at Hialeah, Crump’s historic ride came as a surprise to her.

“It was a frustrating time because I knew the day was coming for me to ride in a race, I just didn’t know when it would happen. Then one day I was galloping a horse and one of the riders told me, ‘Diane, you’re listed on a horse.’ I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I didn’t know trainer Tom Calumet but it turned out that his wife told him that poor girl that’s been trying to ride, she needs to ride and I want her to ride my horse. So he named me on their horse.”

While there was immense pressure on the then 20-year-old Crump as that initial race drew near, she said she was unfazed by the controversy surrounding her.

“I didn’t care how the male jockeys felt. I figured they had to get it over it,” said Crump, who added she was not subjected to the same threats or acts of violence that Rubin endured in her faiIed attempt to ride. “I knew it was going to happen, and I knew if I bided my time it was going to work out. I didn’t feel any pressure leading up to the race because I knew I could do it. I was ready. I had been on horses no one else wanted to ride. I galloped horses alongside all of those jockeys. I knew I was capable of riding in a race and had no anxiety about it. I was just so thrilled to get a chance to ride and to give it my best shot.”

A large crowd was on hand for Crump’s race, but she paid little attention to the words from the crowd that either praised or mocked her.

Crump (center) rides in her first career race. (Jim Raftery/Turfotos)

“The crowd couldn’t believe it was happening. It was crazy but I was oblivious to it,” Crump said. “I just looked straight ahead and didn’t listen. I didn’t care what anybody had to say or thought. It was what I wanted to do; I knew I could do it and I loved riding as much as anything else in life.”

Bridle ’n Bit finished ninth that day, but it really didn’t matter where he finished in a field of 12. What made that race so important in racing history is that after more than a century of resistance, a woman was finally able to perform a job restricted to men for so long. Yet for Crump, the meaning of that did immediately resonate with her.

“I was oblivious to being a national figure,” said Crump, who won 228 races according to Equibase statistics in a career that ended in 1998. “I didn’t care about that. To me, I have a one track mind. When I want to do something, I’ll do it.”

While Crump blazed a new path for women, her ground-breaking ride did little to change the industry’s attitudes about female riders. Aside from Brown and his trainer, Don Divine, few horsemen were willing to name Crump – or other female riders for that matter – on their horses.

“To get people to put me on their horses was crazy,” she said. “I’d work horses for people in hopes they’d use me in a race, but it took several years to get people to use me. I could gallop 30 horses a morning, but I was lucky if I got one extra horse to ride in the afternoon. It was so frustrating. I’d win race after race and yet it didn’t matter. I couldn’t get a mount and it went on for much of my career. There was a time when I won the featured race for about 14 days in a row at Turfway Park, but I couldn’t pick up another mount. That’s how crazy it was.

“There was so much bias against me and that made it difficult. I got some other mounts but I never got as many rides as I should have. I thought when I rode with the limited opportunities I had, I rode a good race. But I couldn’t capitalize on that. I could beat the leading rider at the meet in a stretch duel and that didn’t matter. That was the hard part.”

Crump said the way she was shunned by horsemen and the male riders at Florida Downs was particularly painful because of her roots there.

“I grew up around Florida Downs. The first time I sneaked into a racetrack it was there when I was 13 or 14,” Crump said. “I learned to gallop there. I helped people there. I lived there. Yet when I rode there, the riders there were meaner to me than the riders at Hialeah. They were the worst and that hurt my feelings the most. They were ones I was closest to. We worked horses together, we broke horses together and they were the hardest on me. Obviously, they got over it in due time. The press was nice there, but the riders were the hardest, probably because I won, but that hurt and bothered me.”

Aside from being recognized as the first woman to ride in a U.S. race, Crump achieved another first when in 1970 she became the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby. Brown and Divine put her on Fathom, who finished 15th in a field of 17 as part of the mutuel field, yet that lone experience in the run for the roses was a moment that will never leave Crump.

Diane Crump (Dan Johnson/BloodHorse Library)

“It wasn’t that big of a deal in the Derby because he was a longshot. There were some things written about it, but I had been riding for a year and people knew I was capable so there wasn’t a big deal made of it. Yet to me it was a dream you always have if you’re a jockey. Just to go through that experience gave me one of the greatest feelings you could ever imagine. Just the fact that I was there meant so much to me,” she said.

Crump was the first of just six females to ride in the Kentucky Derby, illustrating the huge difference between opportunity and equality in the minds of many involved in the sport. Yet for Crump, some of the changes she has witnessed since her struggles in the 1960s and 1970s have been remarkable and quite satisfying.

“For my first ride in 1969, I had to dress in the HBPA office at Hialeah. By the 1970s at Florida Downs we had a trailer in the parking lot. Then, when I rode my last race, the jockeys room had been expanded and it was 50-50 women and men. Equal. I thought that was cool and I was happy to go out knowing that was the situation,” Crump said. “It started with one girl and then to see a day there where a jockey colony includes so many women, I loved that. I thought that was awesome.”

Jockeys like Davis also understand and appreciate the change that Crump and others generated.

“I think there are still some misconceptions about male jockeys being stronger than female riders but the situation is nothing like it was decades ago. I can’t imagine what they went through. We still have a ways to go as female riders, but we’ve come a long way and have made some major strides thanks to the women who fought for us decades ago,” Davis said. “I know I’m here working as a jockey only because of all of those women in the 1960s and 1970s.”

And in one way, Diane Crump will be remembered as the first of them.

Fun Facts About Diane Crump

  • Crump married Divine, who trained Fathom, though they were later divorced.
  • Crump said she was so nervous when she entered the starting gate for Bridle ’n Bit’s first race that she did not have her goggles on and had to reminded by jockey Craig Perret to put them on.
  • Crump’s first victory came at Florida Downs with Bridle ‘n Bit, though it was vacated shortly thereafter when it was determined that racing laws had been violated since the horse raced at a different track while Hialeah was still open.
  • One of Crump’s most famous rides came in a match race early in the 1970s in Puerto Rico. During the race, Crump realized the other jockey was holding on to her horse which turned the race into a true battle of the sexes among the two riders. “It was crazy,” she said. “When I saw what he was doing I hit him. He knocked my foot out of the stirrup. I held his reins. It was a fight to the wire between us. I lost the race but the fans were behind me. I don’t know where they got them, but they bombarded that guy with tomatoes and eggs when we got back.”
  • Equibase lists Crump’s statistics as 228 wins from 1,682 starts with earnings of $1,292,003.
  • Crump took an extended break from riding for much of 1985-1992. During part of that time she ran the training barn at Calumet Farm.
  • She also worked as a trainer from 1991-98, winning 14 races from 247 starts and often riding her horses.
  • Besides Crump, the other females who have ridden in the Kentucky Derby are Patricia Cooksey, Andrea Seefeldt, Krone, Rosemary Homeister Jr., and Rosie Napravnik.

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