When was a girl, I wanted to be the very FIRST female jockey. I was horse-mad. If you ever have been, you know what I am talking about. It consumed me. My imagination, my time and my reading list. Whenever I could, the horse-madness consumed my weekends at “the barn”. I ran the scholastic book club mail orders in my class; I would spend all of my allowance to max out the minimum order of five books if there weren’t enough orders, just to get the one I really wanted about a horse. I could rattle off every winner of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes and the few Triple Crown winners.
Secretariat was my hero. Really. I don’t remember having human heroes (male or female) as a girl. I wanted to be in it. I wanted to fly with Secretariat, to be the lucky person who could fly that fast attached to his back like – well like a fly. His primary jockey, Ron Turcotte, was Canadian. I was Canadian too, and small enough, so I just KNEW. Knew with the unwavering clarity and belief that a child can have. Knew that I could do it. That WE could do it. The horse and I.
I think I was 7 or 8 when my “dream” of being the first female jockey was dashed. Diane Crump took the reins in her first professional race in 1969, then 1970 as first female jockey in the Kentucky Derby. (It would be another 23 years before a woman jockey won a Triple Crown race, when Julie Krone won the Belmont Stakes.
That was a barn-burner. Three short years later Bille Jean King famously challenged Bobby Riggs to a tennis match – and WON!!
Belief barriers were falling everywhere, just like when Roger Banister blasted through the barrier to the four-minute mile. No one thought it could be done, would ever be done. Or SHOULD be done, in many cases for women.
Turns out, it was just a thought. A thought in Roger Banisters case, that it was humanly, physically impossible. A thought in Billie Jean King’s case, that it was womanly, physically impossible. A thought, in Diane Crump’s case, that allowing a woman jockey would ruin the “sport of Kings”.
As a girl, somehow I just knew it WAS possible for a female jockey to make it in a sport dominated by men. Women are smaller right? Many race horse exercisers are women for that reason. Isn’t this the one sport where it made sense for women to compete against men?
There was something even then in my attraction to FIRSTs.
I used to think all this focus on FIRST when I was a girl was part of my inner competitiveness, a desire to push myself. What I see now, is that my excitement to want to be the first female jockey, then the first female race car driver – that was about my wanting to be all that I COULD be, and wanting to prove that I could, that a woman COULD do those things.
The notion of being First, was really about my needing to see someone in the saddle that looked like me. I wanted someone in the race that looked like I did in my imagination. It wasn’t fair that these jockeys and race car drivers didn’t look like anyone like me. A girl. How would it be possible for me to cure horses’ diseases (my bigger WHY in my grade eight science project examining the heartbeat of horses) if I didn’t see the world as possible for me?
When Diane Crump took the pole as the first female jockey, I turned my sights to another sport most similar in my mind – race car driving! That looked like fun! Remember, I was twelve. I didn’t have a drivers licence, or even a motorcycle, yet. Until a woman stepped into that pole position, I figured it could be me, or it had to be me. So someone else would know it was possible, damn it, to be what I wanted to be.
These FIRSTs, these women who did it First – they are critical to all of those girls and women who are hungry to be ALL that they can be. It’s not “irrelevant” to name and honour these FIRSTs.
And now we actually see women who could be on that famous U.S Army commercial (circa 1981): Be all that you can be…
Side note: I almost went to the RMC – Royal Military College, partly as a result of that commercial. I WANTED to be all that I could be! Plus, I might have thought I would please my father, who fought in WWII as part of the 1st Special Services Force. But I doubt it would have; he hardly ever talked about those years, he’d seen too much.
These FIRSTs are HEROES. To get to the starting pole, they must endure more than any other competitor, or leader. Diane Crump needed a police escort to push through the mayhem at her first professional race, past shouts of “Go back to the kitchen and cook dinner!”
As Michelle Payne, first female jockey winner of the 2015 Melbourne Cup said:
“I want to say to everyone else, ‘get stuffed’, because women can do anything and we can beat the world.”