Behind a door just off the paddock area of Pimlico Race Course, several jockeys are prepping for the day's races. They're handicapping the competition, comparing notes on horses and, in at least one case, going through a yoga sequence: reaching back to pull one leg high overhead in the Dancer's Pose, touching nose to knee for the Pyramid.
Perhaps this is also happening in the men's locker room, but there's decidedly more stretching space here where the female jockeys suit up, shower and await their calls to the track. But maybe not for much longer: With the success of female jockeys such as Rosie Napravnik, who will ride in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, more women are rising through the ranks of the male-dominated sport of kings.
"For a long time, there weren't a lot of girls around here," said Forest Boyce, 28, a female rider and one of the leading jockeys of either gender in Maryland. "This is the most girls I've been around."
On a recent day at Pimlico, the yoga-practicing Boyce is one of four women competing in the day's 10 races, compared with about 30 male riders. That's roughly in line with the estimated gender breakdown of the nation's jockey corps, although no group keeps statistics on it.
Napravnik, who started her career in Maryland, finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby, the highest ever for a woman in the first jewel of the Triple Crown. On Saturday, the 25-year-old is set to become just the third woman to race in the middle jewel, the Preakness, arriving here under a spotlight from "60 Minutes" and People magazine.
"It's very exciting," said Napravnik, who is now based in New Orleans. "It's going to be special."
Napravnik said Maryland's racing community "felt like such a secure environment.
"There were plenty of opportunities for a woman rider, and an apprentice rider," she said. "Maryland is known for great apprentice riders."
Indeed, both Napravnik and Boyce, who graduated from Garrison Forest and the Maryland Institute College of Art, were runners-up for the national Eclipse Award for outstanding apprentice jockey, given annually by thoroughbred racing to new riders.
Maryland's role in the history of woman jockeys actually goes back to the start: it was the first state to license a female rider, though it had to be forced to do so by a judge.
Kathy Kusner, an Olympic equestrian whose application the Maryland Racing Commission repeatedly denied, sued successfully and was awarded a jockey's license in 1968.
It would take decades, though, for a woman to break through to the top ranks of the sport. Julie Krone is still the only female jockey to win a Triple Crown race, the Belmont Stakes, aboard Colonial Affair in 1993.
Given how many girls grow up loving and riding horses, and how racing favors lightweight jockeys, it's something of a mystery why there aren't more women in the sport. Some have posited that racing's tradition-bound culture, or women's supposed lack of upper body strength, or their need to take time off from the sport if they want to have children have limited their numbers.
But change appears to be afoot. Chris McCarron, who runs the nation's first professional jockey school, said eight of the nine students he is training are female. McCarron, a legendary jockey with six Triple Crown wins over the course of his career — including the 1987 Preakness aboard Alysheba — saw one of his graduates, Kristina McManigell, 24, race at Pimlico last week.
"She's got a bright future," he said after giving McManigell a big hug after she dismounted. "I keep telling her she has to wear shades, her future is so bright."
McCarron, whose North American Racing Academy is located in Lexington, Ky., said it's a "tremendous misconception" that jockeys need brute strength. It's more important to have stamina, on and off the track, he said.
"You have to fight through the frustrations. You have to have a lot of determination and perseverance," he said, something particularly needed for women in a men's sport.
"The girls really need to have a thick skin for this," he said. "There's a lot of teasing in the jock room. It's the nature of the locker room."
Sometimes, though, there's more than teasing to deal with: McManigell sued a male jockey last year, alleging that he entered the women's locker room at another track while she was in the shower and made sexual advances.
The track banned the man indefinitely from racing there, according to news reports at the time, and McManigell said her lawsuit was resolved. She declined to give specifics.
McManigell said the experience was "traumatic," but she refused to let it scare her away.
"You go on with your job and be professional," she said. "This is what I want to do."
McManigell is part of the women's team, along with Napravnik, Boyce and Canadian jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson, that will face off against four male counterparts Friday at Pimlico in a "Battle of the Sexes." The teams will be competing for the most points and a total of $34,000 in four races.
In partnership with Susan G. Komen For the Cure, Preakness eve has become something of a women's day at the track, with the $500,000 Black-Eyed Susan stakes for fillies, a Lady Legends race featuring retired female jockeys and an overall focus on breast cancer awareness.
That, McManigell said, will make her races even more meaningful. Her mother, Jennifer, was diagnosed with the disease last year. McManigell said her mother is doing well and will be at Pimlico for the occasion.
McManigell, who grew up in Southern Illinois and now lives in Laurel, said she feels "Maryland is very receptive" to female riders.
"I think because Rosie was here," she said. "I've been to other places where women aren't as accepted. It's harder to break in. It's getting better, but it's still not where it should be."
Female jockeys credit Maryland trainers — and Dickie Small in particular — with giving them opportunities to ride, and to shine. The longtime trainer gave Napravnik and Krone their starts.
"He's done more for women in the sport than some women," Boyce said.
To the spectators in the grandstand at Pimlico — or any track, for that matter — women are indistinguishable from their male counterparts as they flash by atop their galloping horses.
The jockeys are uniformly slender, looking downright tiny aboard the 1,000-plus pound animals, and helmets and goggles mask long hair or, in the case of Chelsey Keiser, 21, the bright blue eye shadow she happens to be wearing on this day.
Keiser, an Ohio native, is a relative newcomer, having recorded her first win ever at Laurel Park in March. Also racing on this particular day is Samantha Colvin, 26, an Army veteran originally from Williamsport, Pa., who posted her first victory, at Pimlico, two weeks ago.
Because they share a locker room, the women say they help one another, offering advice if they notice something another jockey has done wrong in a race.
"We stick together; we're girls in a man's sport," McManigell said. "We cheer each other on — if we're not in the same race."
According to Equibase, which compiles statistics for the thoroughbred racing industry, it's difficult to know how many female jockeys are riding. Its list of 1,250 jockeys who have made at least one start this year isn't separated by gender, a spokesman said.
Terry Meyocks, national manager of the Jockeys' Guild, a group that advocates for its members' health and safety, estimates that 10 percent to 15 percent of jockeys are women, a percentage he expects to grow, particularly as Napravnik becomes more widely known.
"Julie Krone led the bandwagon, and Rosie is taking it to the next level," he said.
John Faltynski, who manages the jockeys room and weigh-in at Pimlico and previously was Napravnik's agent, agreed.
"There's no end to what she can do," he marveled. "She set a standard for racing that got a lot of girls in the game."
As for Napravnik and the other female jockeys, they seem ready to drop the qualifying labels and just be viewed as racers. One of the things they enjoy about their sport is that it's truly coed — they're competing not just against women, they note, but men.
"I never really let myself be intimidated by men," Napravnik said. "Or, I just don't let them see that. That's a big part of it. These days, there's not much a man can do that a woman can't."
While she lauds the pioneers of the sport — "the first and second generations of female riders really opened the door" — she views her career less as a social cause than a personal purpose.
"I do this," Napravnik said, "because it's what I love to do."
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