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Rediscovering Kathy Kusner: The country's first licensed female jockey

Kathy Kusner doing a morning working out at Pimlico in 1968.
Kathy Kusner doing a morning working out at Pimlico in 1968. (Courtesy photo / Richard Stacks)

Although Judy Johnson received a steeplechase jockey’s license during World War II, no female had ever been granted a standard flat track jockey’s license from a major racing jurisdiction.

After a yearlong fight, however, Kathy Kusner was granted a jockey’s license in October 1968. To become the first female licensed jockey, she had to endure months of sexist criticism from officials at the Maryland Racing Commission, the press and some fellow jockeys. Through it all, she displayed remarkable dignity, poise and, with the help of her Laurel-based lawyer, the tenacity to endure.

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Not your typical applicant

Kusner’s lifetime of riding led to her recognition as the country’s premier equestrienne.

From the time she was a teenager, Kusner won numerous unrecognized flat track and timber (steeplechase) races. In 1960, the 20-year-old Kusner had been named Horsewoman of the Year by the American Horse Shows Association. By 1967, she had been a member of the U.S. Equestrian Team for five years and had competed for the U.S. at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

But she wanted to compete against the best on flat tracks, and that meant getting her jockey’s license. Even though she understood the significance, it was much more basic to her. As she told The Baltimore Sun, “This is no great crusade. I just want a license.”

In a phone interview, Kusner, 79, explained that achieving her goal was a civil rights issue to her.

“This issue was bigger than me,” she said. She felt the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark civil rights and labor law that outlawed discrimination based on, among other things, a person’s gender, meant she was free to pursue her dream of becoming a licensed jockey. The horse racing establishment, however, didn’t see it that way.

Before applying to the Maryland Racing Commission, Kusner asked her then-boyfriend, Joe Aitcheson Jr., for advice. Aitcheson, a lifelong member of Laurel’s Iron Bridge Hunt Club, was also a champion steeplechase jockey, and eventually inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. He told Kusner she would need a lawyer to see her through the process and he had a recommendation — his ex-wife Audrey Melbourne, who was also active in the Iron Bridge Hunt Club.

Attorneys Melbourne and Howard Goldman had set up shop in Laurel for barely a year when Kusner came calling for help. After Melbourne’s death in 2000, Goldman described Melbourne to The Sun: “She was a very strong advocate for women’s rights, yet she functioned very effectively in what was then a very male-dominated profession.”

She was precisely what Kusner needed.

“She was so wonderful and great,” Kusner told me. Recognizing this as a landmark case, Melbourne took on Kusner as a client and never charged her a cent. Kusner initially asked Melbourne if they could do it quietly with no press, but the attorney said no. She told Kusner that publicity was crucial for them to “have a fighting chance.”

Tidal wave of publicity

Publicity was never a problem. It started on Nov. 22, 1967, when Kusner and Melbourne showed up at a meeting of the stewards at Laurel Race Course and “dropped a bomb in their laps,” according to the News Leader. The “bomb” was her application for a jockey’s license, which caught the stewards by surprise.

In a preview of what was in store for Kusner, J. Fred Colwill, the steward who represented the Maryland Racing Commission, “was obviously shaken by the show of Woman Power and attempted to fend it off with a number of technicalities which were promptly batted down by Attorney Melbourne,” according to the News Leader.

Right after Colwill told Melbourne the application had to be submitted to James Callahan, the secretary of the racing commission, Callahan walked into the meeting room, unaware of what was going on. When Melbourne tried to hand the application to Callahan, “Colwill shouted, ‘Don’t touch it! It is an application by a girl for a jockey’s license!’”

Backing away from Melbourne, Callahan said the application must be submitted to the chairman of the commission, D. Eldred Rhinehart. At that moment, who should walk in, but Chairman Rhinehart. He initially refused to accept the application but relented when Melbourne cited the Civil Rights Act. Rhinehart accepted the application and promised to take up the matter at the next commission meeting in December.

Kathy Kusner, right, with her lawyer Audrey Melbourne.
Kathy Kusner, right, with her lawyer Audrey Melbourne. (Laurel Leader File)

Submitting the application started a tidal wave of publicity, almost all of it tinged with overt sexism. Newspapers across the country reported on the “petite,” “attractive,” “pretty,” “lissome,” “slender, brown-eyed” “frail lass” or “girl jockey” with her “short brown hair trimmed in a boyish bob.” Morris Siegel, of the Washington Star referred to Melbourne as “her lady lawyer, naturally.”

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In numerous newspaper interviews, Kusner downplayed the hoopla.

“I’m not doing it just to take a token ride,” and “I expect no special treatment,” she told The Sun.

At the time of her application, Kusner was in training for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. She declared that as long as she was still competing as an Olympian, she would not accept payment for riding. The U.S. Olympic Committee assured her that would maintain her amateur standing.

The problem of where she would change into jockeys’ silks before races came up frequently. Kusner had her own solution.

“Give me a broom closet. No one has to build women’s facilities. I don’t need a shower room. Give me a washcloth between races. Sure if it’s muddy, it’ll be messy, but that doesn’t bother me,” she told The Sun.

While the application was being considered, jockeys weighed in through the media. Kusner told me she personally never experienced any criticism or abuse from other jockeys. The News Leader reported, “Several of the Laurel jockeys said it would be a great idea.”

‘It would add some color to racing,’ said jockey Bill Passmore.

Another rider, Phil Grimm, told the Star, “I’ve seen a lot of girl exercise riders. They are good and I don’t see why Kathy wouldn’t be a good jock.”

Test, then denial

The day before the racing commission was to meet, Kusner had to submit to a test of strength by demonstrating her ability to break from the starting gate. The commission issued an exercise girl’s license to her at Laurel Race Course for the demonstration.

Riding 2-year-old Beau Tudor, Kusner passed with flying colors.

Eddie Blind, Laurel’s starter, told the Star, “I’ve seen all of ‘em in my forty years — Acaro, Atkinson, Longden, Shoemaker, Culmone — and none of ‘em, at her stage, got out of there any better.”

When I asked Kusner if she remembered being nervous at the test, she replied, “No. I’d broken a million horses out of the gate before.”

Kathy Kusner,
Kathy Kusner, (Laurel Leader file)

With news cameras recording the proceedings at Laurel Race Course, the Maryland Racing Commission’s meeting the next day was brief. Chairman Rhinehart began with a statement that “this is not an official meeting. We are simply here to get information,” as reported by the News Leader.

After a statement read by Melbourne reaffirming their case, Rhinehart then asked Kusner “if she intended to ride for pay.”

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When Kusner said no, a formal motion was made to deny her the license “on the grounds that it would deprive a male jockey of a means of livelihood.” The motion was approved unanimously, and the 10-minute meeting was over.

However, at the next month’s meeting in January 1968, the commission reversed itself when Kusner told them she would accept money for riding but sign any checks over to the U.S. Equestrian Team. Satisfied with that, the commission then required her to exercise horses at Pimlico with stewards observing. Rhinehart told reporters that “if she shows proficiency, then we will go a step further and let her ride in one or two” regular races as an unlicensed apprentice, a regular routine for male apprentices.

After working out in front of the stewards, Kusner’s application was once again denied. According to Colwill, one of the attending stewards, Kusner “did not display the ability to ride with professionals in races.”

Reversal

Months later, in September 1968, Melbourne argued in Prince Georges Circuit Court that the commission’s “arbitrary and capricious” decision should be set aside. She argued that Kusner’s denial of a license was based solely on her sex and not on any lack of ability. She charged the commission with ignoring the parade of witnesses who testified on Kusner’s ability before the various commission meetings. Kusner was not present at the hearing because she was training in New Jersey with the Olympic team.

Nine days later, Circuit Judge Ernest A. Loveless reversed the commission’s denial and ordered them to grant Kusner her license.

“The commission could never push aside the fact that she was a female entering into the jockey profession,” Loveless said. “The evidence before the commission and the acts of the commissioners themselves show that the petitioner has been substantially prejudiced.”

Kathy Kusner announcing she just wants to ride.
Kathy Kusner announcing she just wants to ride. (Laurel Leader File)

He also found, according to the News Leader, that “the Stewards had disregarded normal procedures and had set up a special set of standards as to her riding ability.”

When the racing commission finally presented Kusner with her license on Oct. 29, it released this statement: “Upon the order of the Circuit Court of Prince Georges County, which substituted its judgement for that of the commission and stewards who are familiar with the qualifications of jockeys, the racing commission this date will issue a jockey’s license to Kathryn H. Kusner.”

An unidentified rider told the Star, “It is a man’s game and that’s the way it should stay.”

Kusner’s reaction to the victory was typically muted.

“I just want to ride horses.”

A cruel twist of fate

With her commitment to both the Olympics and subsequent horse shows in Washington and New York, Kusner announced that she wouldn’t be available to ride in a flat race until the end of November. She seemed to be relieved that the turmoil was coming to a close, telling the Star, “The pressure of all this questioning is just too much. I’ll never talk to the press again, if it goes on like this.”

In a cruel twist of fate, while riding in the show in New York after the Olympics, Kusner was thrown from her mount after crashing through a gate and the horse rolled over her. She suffered a broken leg and required nine months to recuperate. She wasn’t able to ride her first professional mount until August 1969.

But Kusner’s victory in court opened the floodgates for women applying for jockey licenses. Nick Jemas, the national manager of the Jockeys’ Guild, in reaction to the flurry of female applications, told The Sun, “It is no place for a woman.”

After a series of boycotts by jockeys across the country whenever one of the new women jockeys was entered in a race, jockey Diane Crump finished 10th as the first female jockey to race against men, which took place at Hialeah Park in Florida. Kusner’s first professional victory came on Sept. 7, 1969 at Pocono Downs.

Kusner is proud of her place in history even at the personal price on her privacy. At a news conference after gaining her license, she was asked what she likes about horses.

“They don’t have to give interviews,” she replied.

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