Pioneers of women's racing return to Pimlico

Female jockeys don't ride off into the sunset. Ask Barbara Jo Rubin, 60, a grandmother who'll saddle up at Pimlico on Friday to try to do what she last did there 41 years ago – win a horse race.

She won't be the only oldtimer there. Eight former women riders, including pioneers of the sport, will square off in a historic turn around the track, which benefits breast cancer research. The Lady Legends For The Cure Race is the first pari-mutuel race featuring all retired female jockeys, who range in age from 43 to 60.

Easy riders, they aren't. All eight have struggled for months, against long odds, to shape up for the two-minute, six-furlong charge.

"Competitiveness doesn't wane with age," said Rubin.

She's as driven as she was that night in February1969 when Rubin, 19, made racing history as the first female jockey to win at a recognized track (Charles Town, W.Va.). Two weeks later, she won at Pimlico on Opening Day.

En route, the trailblazing teenager survived boycotts by male jockeys, bricks hurled through her dressing room window and bitter banter from railbirds trying to chase her away. Racing injuries forced Rubin to retire after one year, but she jumped at the chance to mount up tomorrow.

At her age, training wasn't easy, she said.

"Last winter, when I decided to do this, I squatted down in my living room to practice some riding moves. But then — uh-oh — I couldn't get up," Rubin said.

And now? She galloped eight horses a day last week at Fairmont Raceway, near her Illinois home, to prep for the race.

Never mind her swollen left arm, still a nasty shade of purple after Rubin reined in a fractious colt two weeks ago.

"The muscle ripped away from the bone," she said, matter-of-factly. "All jockeys put themselves through pain. Why? Go out in the morning, on a fresh track, with the sun coming up and the breeze on your face, and gallop as you talk to your horse with your hands. It's a natural high.

"I know I'm not 19 again. But it feels awfully good."

Incentives abound for two of the jockeys. Both Patti Cooksey and Mary Wiley Wagner are breast cancer survivors.

"Hopefully, we'll be an inspiration for women who are sitting home and thinking, 'Woe is me, I've got cancer and I'll never amount to anything,' " said Cooksey, 52, the first woman to ride in the Preakness (1985, sixth).

"You don't quit living. Four months ago, I tried to do a push-up and couldn't lift myself a quarter of an inch off the floor. This morning, I did 15 of them. When I started (working out), my muscles screamed 'Advil' and my legs hurt so bad that I couldn't sit on the toilet. Now I've gone from a size 8 to a size 5 in Wranglers, I've got my joy back, and I'm fit to go."

Her racing blood is boiling again, said Cooksey, whose 2,137 victories rank third among women jockeys.

"People say, 'Aren't you afraid?' " the Kentucky resident said. "Why would I be afraid? [Friday] will be like Christmas morning all over."

Wagner, 46, finished the last of 35 chemotherapy treatments in late November, then set her sights on the Pimlico event, which was the idea of Pimlico racing secretary Georgeanne Hale.

Wagner's mount in the race is a 3-year-old gelding named Mass Destruction.

"That (name) is quite apropos, given that I just beat cancer," said Wagner, a graduate of Annapolis High who now lives in Stevensville.

"I hadn't thrown a leg over a horse in 12 years when I galloped the first one 1-1/2 miles in March, and after the first one-eighth of a mile I thought, 'My heaven, I'll never make it.' At the end, I was blowin' like a freight train. I was so dry, I couldn't spit."

But she thought: I feel 10 years younger than I did six months ago.

"It had been a long time since I'd gone 35 miles an hour on a horse," said Wagner, who retired from racing in 1997. "I'd forgotten how exhilarating it was."

Other riders in Friday's fourth race have been battling their own demons. Cheryl White has shed nearly 40 pounds since January and said she'd be starving herself right up to the weigh-in to reach the suggested weight of 130.

"I'm the fatty in this group," said White, 56, the first African-American female jockey to compete, in 1971. "If not for this race, I probably wouldn't have gotten off my lazy butt."

Training went smoothly, said White, a racing official in California, where she serves as clerk of scales.

"I only hit the ground twice, working the horses," said White, who has already had one hip replacement.

"These are women of true grit, and this race will validate them," said Jason Neff, an independent filmmaker who'll shoot the event as part of a documentary he's doing on the history of female jockeys. "A lot of them didn't get acknowledged in their day, and this is their chance to come back and be recognized for what they had to fight for."

The race will provide closure to some. Gwen Jocson set a one-year record for victories for a woman jockey (376 in 1991), but she also racked up a long list of injuries (four fractured backs, broken ribs, broken neck).

"Stick a needle in my left arm today, clear up to my shoulder, and I can't feel it," said Jocson, 43, of Bensalem, Pa. "I didn't retire because I wanted to, but because I couldn't stand the pain."

Friday's race, she said, "is a chance for me to say goodbye the way it should have been, with a smile on my face."

The women know the risks, and that most injuries heal slower in middle age, if at all.

"I'm afraid to test God too much," said Mary Russ Tortora, 56, the first woman to win a Grade I stakes race. In her day, the Florida grandmother suffered broken collarbones, hands and legs and numerous concussions.

"God might be telling me to stay retired," she said. "But there's part of me that wants to do it one more time, and that's making my ears a little hard of hearing."

For weeks, Andrea Seefeldt Knight, of Sparks, has awakened each morning at 4:30 and driven 45 miles to gallop horses at Laurel Park. All for the sake of the Lady Legends Race.

"I'd like to get around [the track] safely, and look as good as I did in my prime," said Knight, 46, one of two women who've ridden in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Last week, a horse she was working balked at the starting gate and tried to flip onto his back. Knight escaped injury when an assistant starter whisked her off the colt before she fell to the ground.

For Knight, the past came rushing back.

"The last time that happened, in 1988, I broke my pelvis," the Davidsonville native said. "I just don't want to fall off in this race."

Jennifer Rowland Small, 57, makes her comeback nearly 33 years to the day on the same track where she retired on May 12, 1977.

"That's when I dislocated my left shoulder, hitting my horse [down the stretch]," she said. "Crossed the finish line with my arm dangling out of its socket."

Small, who attended Franklin High and lives in Upperco, will compete despite a struggle with rheumatoid arthritis. She knows how Friday's race should end.

"If I had my way, all eight of us would be on the wire in a dead heat, because we're all winners," she said. "Every one is a champion in her soul."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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