JC / Railbird

Women in Racing


Off-Track and Online

Holly Kruse’s new book, “Off-Track and Online: The Networked Spaces of Horse Racing” (MIT Press, May 2016), covers the intersections of technology, gender, class, and public spaces in horse racing. I asked Kruse about her work, the history of women in racing, and Twitter (of course) for the first issue of the Distaffer (subscribe to the newsletter).

The Distaffer: Can you talk about the genesis of “Off-Track and Online”?

Holly Kruse: I had already written about the intersection of media/technology, gender, class, and space in my previous work, including in my first book, which was about the indie music scenes. I’d also written about popular discourses of the early phonograph, and how early 20th-century discourses concerning gender and domestic space allowed the phonograph to be accepted into middle class homes. When I began looking at what was happening with horse racing and technology at the turn of this century, I was at first most interested in racing’s use of technology in public and private space. I spent much of the 1990s living in Philadelphia, where I watched the Philadelphia Park cable channel (which led to the short-lived Racing Channel), and then I moved back to Louisville just as TVG was being launched, and it was only available in Louisville. In addition, I’d spent lots of time at racetracks and was interested in how they deployed screens in public space, as well as who was in these spaces and how they were relating to each other and to the screens.

TD: You mention in the introduction that you’re puzzled more researchers don’t use horse racing as a lens for media or technology research — what’s the response you get when you discuss your work with scholarly peers?

HK: They think it’s an interesting case study. My media studies colleagues seem to think that I’ve got this covered. I hear that in the past few years there’s more media studies work being done on interactive media and gambling, and I sometimes get manuscripts to review on gambling and digital technologies. When you search databases for scholarly research on gambling, most of it seems to be on problem gambling. I think it’s good to look at how and why forms of entertainment – including gambling – are meaningful and important to people.

TD: Related, what areas of study are overlooked in horse racing and tech/media that you’re either excited about and/or would like to see explored right now?

HK: I’d like to look at online information and prediction markets, and I’m scheduled to present a paper on the topic later this year at the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Berlin. Parimutuel markets are information/prediction markets, and Betfair is the biggest company in the online prediction market game right now. Outside the U.S. Betfair allows people to bet on all kinds of questions, like whether the U.K will leave the EU. In the U.S., these kinds of prediction markets are legal if they’re educational. The oldest prediction markets are operated out of the University of Iowa: the Iowa Electronic Markets. You can invest in markets that predict the outcomes of elections, or whether the Fed will raise interest rates through the IEM.

TD: You discuss how tech affects the tribe — the way simulcasting, and more recently, ADWs, reduced cues bettors might have relied on being physically at the track and altered social information sharing in public spaces. Does social media mimic or replace the interactions bettors would have had at the track or at OTBs?

HK: I think that Twitter does this. It doesn’t replace face-to-face cues or interaction, but it may mimic it. I wouldn’t say that face-to-face or online is better or worse. Just different.

TD: I’m on Twitter way too much, and what I love about it is what you describe as “coordinated actions across space in real-time.” It gives horseplayers and fans a forum to instantly react, together, to something happening on track. But Twitter has taken a step toward being more algorithm-driven, and it seems likely that the chronological, real-time feed will go away. Just as we’ve (the racing public) reconfigured ourselves in this online space, it seems as though greater algorithmic control and more bots acting on social media and in markets means there’s another reconfiguration on the horizon.

HK: I agree, although the algorithms have always been there, just not as obvious to us. The pressure on Twitter now is to increase its number of users in order to make investors happy, and it’s been seen as a difficult platform for newbies. That’s the reason for changing Twitter so that photos and links will no longer count toward the character limit. But yeah, I disabled the “While You Where Away” feature on my Twitter feed, because I wanted to see real-time postings and chats.

TD: You trace the history of women in racing’s public spaces, from the working class spaces and “genteel” lunchrooms of 18th racetracks to the “loser” housewives at OTBs and Thoroughbred rescue activism online. I was struck by your argument with Kate Fox, whose work [“The Racing Tribe,” Transaction Publishers, May 2005] puts forward a picture of feminity at the track that’s belied by observing a typical crowd, even at tracks such as Keeneland where the dressed-up/upscale element is visible. What does this split, still a part of current industry marketing initiatives with their focus on lifestyle and fashion, mean for understanding racing’s public spaces? Are women who don’t partake in this dominant feminine/upscale narrative rendering themselves invisible as participants?

HK: That’s a good question. I think if the industry is interested in sustaining itself on the current level without solely depending on big event days or elite meets, it has to look at women and girls as multi-dimensional. But it’s also true that part of the appeal to casual fans is the idea that anyone with a pretty dress and a big hat can experience a fantasy of affluence on Derby Day, and that shouldn’t be ignored or disparaged. Racing’s appeal to women shouldn’t be only that, however.

I was thinking about how all of the humans competing in and working at the dressage schooling show that I was at last weekend were female. (With the exception of the judge and the manager of the venue.) The same would be true at a local hunter-jumper show, or in barrel racing. Reining would be the opposite, and roping. At the upper competition levels of English disciplines, where there’s serious money to be made, there are plenty of men. There’s no necessary correspondence between one’s biological sex and one’s ability to ride a horse fast around barrels: but it has been defined as a feminine sport. I don’t have a specific point to make here (or maybe I do, but it’s been a long day), except for the fact that the reasons for these distinctions are historical, social, cultural, and institutional. I point out to students in my Gender and Technology class that there’s no biological affinity between women and washing machines, or between men and lawn mowers. (Or between women and high heels.)

TD: Your mention of the dressage show and the money split between male/female participants reminded me that we see something similar among jockeys in racing — there are more female riders at the lower level, and there are tracks, such as Suffolk Downs, where female riders compete and succeed against male riders without gender appearing to be much of a factor. But the highest level of Thoroughbred racing is almost exclusively dominated by male jockeys. In her study “Gender, Work, and Harness Racing,” the sociologist Elizabeth Anne Larsen discusses this pattern in harness drivers, and how it becomes reinforcing — men are linked to good horses and success, women are not. There’s a perception issue to overcome.

HK: That’s really interesting. It’s also true in dog showing, something I’ve been doing since I was 12. At the top level, in the Group and Best in Show ring, you see a lot of professional handlers who are men. The amateurs showing dogs, however, are mostly women.

TD: In the chapter, “Social Media and Affective Networks,” you discuss how social networks have increased consciousness around the issue of Thoroughbred rescue, and “have underscored how a North American racing industry that to some degree sees racehorses as expendable has grown increasingly untenable in the twenty-first century.” This happened because of affective, uncompensated, and gendered labor — it’s the activism of women challenging an existing order. I read this, and my first thought — connecting to what you’d previously written about women in racing — was that, even though racing is largely coded as masculine, what future form racing takes is to a great extent dependent on women. What does this mean for creating space for women within environments as diverse as racetracks, OTBs, and online communities, and within the industry?

HK: I think that you’re right about the future. I think that racing has to address the lack of diversity in its positions of power, and in its offices. It doesn’t only have to do with the demographic features of the people in these spaces: it has to do with outmoded ways of thinking. When I was finishing my post-graduate certificate in the Equine Industry program at the University of Louisville, I met with several of the top executives in North American racing, thinking that I might find a job in the industry. One of them reported back to my mentor in the program that I really knew a lot about racing, but he didn’t know what he’d do with someone with a doctorate in media studies at the track. Racing has to stop replicating itself in the ways in which it’s comfortable.

TD: More generally, has social media been an effective channel for activism within racing, for instance, on issues that affect horseplayers, such as takeout?

HK: I think that you’d have to ask someone who’s been involved in organizing horseplayers to agitate for tracks to lower takeout to find out how successful social media has been. I’ve seen the discussions but don’t know if they’ve had any effect.

An underlying conflict in racing is whether it’s a sport or whether it’s gambling. If it’s the latter, then its main constituency is the horseplayers, and that’s a fairly small, but lucrative, niche. If it’s the former, then it has different issues with which it needs to engage, because members of the general public have little to no idea of what takeout is, how it varies from track to track, how it differs on exotic bets … but they do see NBC report that two horses died at Pimlico on Preakness Day, and then that shows up all over social media, and is salient to people who aren’t racing fans. Racing may be able to stay a limited, niche form of gambling, but it’s hard to see, with the increased visibility of, and concern for, animal welfare issues in general, how it can remain both.

TD: You also discuss the history of racing on TV, and it occurred to me while reading that racing and TV in the 1960s-70s was a problem of asynchronous technological development — racing couldn’t capture the success of television in handle because the network available then was so rudimentary, especially compared to the personal, mobile, connected devices we’re all carrying around now. Creating OTBs and bet-by-phone lines, as you write, were interstitial solutions. So, speculative question — what’s the tech gap now?

HK: I try to avoid these questions about tech, because who knows? It’s a problem, I think, that you can’t easily or legally stream live horse races in the U.S. unless you have an ADW account, and thus if you live in a state where ADW is legal. This is an obvious way for racing to reach a wider audience, but unless it’s tied to betting, it’s not happening. Such gaps are common in media history: the film industry suffered in the 1950s because it didn’t want to provide content to the upstart television industry; and we know what’s happened to the music industry because of its resistance to streaming.

Rachel’s Valentina, Ann’s Legacy

We’re just a few hours away from the Kentucky Oaks, when all eyes will be on likely post-time favorite Rachel’s Valentina, trying to emulate her dam, 2009 Oaks winner and Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, with a win. I’m a fangirl, she’s my pick. For the more considered and better-priced opinions of other handicappers, check the Kentucky Oaks day picks grid on Hello Race Fans.

Earlier this week, Golden Gate Fields announced that it hired Angela Hermann as its new race caller, replacing Michael Wrona, who moved to Santa Anita. Hermann comes to her new gig as the former racing analyst and substitute announcer at Canterbury Park, and she’s now the only full-time female race caller working in the U.S. She’s not the first, though — that would be Jefferson Downs’ Ann Elliott, who began calling at the defunct New Orleans track in 1962. Her almost forgotten story emerged with a tweet from Ron Flatter, who shared an episode of What’s My Line that Elliott appeared on that same year. Let T.D. Thornton pick up the story:

[Elliott] was comfortable in front of a mike, already had a decent local following, and the small track could reap the benefits of the novelty of having a lady announcer. What could go wrong?

Well, for starters, Elliott got booed lustily the first time she called a race. Shortly thereafter, an inebriated owner barged into the booth and started rooting for his horse in the middle of a call. Elliott, trying to keep her composure, had to lean so far out the window that she almost fell to the grandstand. Eventually, the racetrackers and fans took a liking to her, and she to them.

Keep reading.

Where are the Women?

My most popular tweet on August 17, 2013, featuring a link to a Teresa Genaro column in the Saratogian about women in racing

Two years ago, Teresa Genaro wrote about the poor representation of women in racing. She’s back this week with an update of little progress, in a Pink Sheet column that concludes with this indictment:

Yet when it comes to putting panels together, or hiring executives, or filling board vacancies, women seem to be elusively difficult to find.

If the problem is a dearth of women on leadership pathways in the industry, current executives should be asking themselves why, and what they are doing to cultivate women and bring them into the sport, as other industries have long done and continue to do.

Instead, racing seems content, for the most part, to pander to stereotypes, to view women as decorations rather than as customers, and to overlook them when putting people in front of microphones and in board rooms.

How many times does this have to be said? (That’s a rhetorical question.) How can we do better? (That’s not.) The issue isn’t specific to racing — it regularly flares up in media and technology (the other industries I closely follow). Does racing need some equivalent of the VIDA Count? (Would be just a start.)

To anyone who scoffs that diversity matters, know this — diversity drives market growth. As the American population becomes more diverse, diversity is only going to increase in importance to any industry’s long-term survival.

Related: “NYRA Board less diverse than GOP primary field.”

The Handicappers

How we talk about women in racing — an ongoing series. Today’s entry begins with Scott Raymond’s appreciation for Saratoga, which includes well-deserved praise for NYRA’s announcer and in-house handicapping team:

Yes, this is your NYRA crew like we just experienced at Belmont, but they deserve credit for adding to the Saratoga experience. They are among the best in the business. You have Larry Collmus, arguably the best active announcer in horse racing. Mike Beer, Andy Serling, and all the guys on Talking Horses do a great job. They are horseplayers; they aren’t talking heads. And Maggie Wolfendale in the paddock provides solid insight. Her husband is a trainer and she has experience as an exercise rider. She’s not just a young, pretty face they put on camera. Her insight from the paddock is key, especially in analyzing younger horses and first-time starters.

Only Maggie Wolfendale’s professional ability is defined in relation to another person and physical appearance. For fun, let’s rewrite a couple of sentences:

You have Larry Collmus, arguably the best active announcer in horse racing. His wife is a trainer. He’s not just a hot, sexy voice they put on mic. Mike Beer, Andy Serling, and all the guys on Talking Horses do a great job. Beer’s significant other is a jockey. Serling’s mother is a steward. They’re horseplayers; they’re not just handsome faces they put on camera.

It’s obvious that no disrespect was meant to Wolfendale, but it’s a good example of how a compliment can display the unconscious bias that women couldn’t possibly be good handicappers in their own right.

Sometimes the bias isn’t so unconscious:

“A lot of people see me and think my husband is picking my card, but I play my own,” [Jeannie] King said. “We don’t even sit in the same room when we’re playing.”

Judy Wagner, winner of the 2001 National Handicapping Championship, and the first horseplayer appointed to the NTRA board of directors, heard much the same when she began going to handicapping contests.

For the record, King has finished fourth in the NHC, and Wolfendale was a great handicapper before marrying the trainer!

See also:

Which was in response to this “joke”:

(h/t @superterrific)

Spot the Difference

Both Bob Baffert and Linda Rice were breaking horses for their horsemen fathers while in their early teens, and both trainers have been successful at racing’s highest level. Guess which one gets a New York newspaper profile that emphasizes skill and accomplishment in its first paragraph?

Ed McNamara for Newsday:

For a trainer, there’s no substitute for the knack, and Bob Baffert had it in junior high. It’s called “the third eye,” the uncanny ability to scope out young horses and identify who will be the best runner in the bunch.

Julie Satow for the New York Times:

For an industry in which the ultimate compliment is being “a real horseman,” Linda Rice is an anomaly. Barely topping 5 feet, Ms. Rice has shoulder-length blond hair and sharp features that could make her a Ralph Lauren model. The first female horse trainer to top the standings at a major racetrack, she’s tough and she speaks at a no-nonsense clip.

Dans La Famille

Ryan Goldberg profiles the remarkable Criquette Head-Maarek:

… as far back as the age of 5, Head-Maarek said, she told her father she wanted to be a trainer. “One day he said to me, ‘You marry a trainer, but you won’t be a trainer because there are no women trainers,”’ she recalled.

But in 1978, after four years as her father’s assistant, Head-Maarek was granted a training license by the French racing authorities, the first for a woman. Her father gave her 35 of his own horses, and success quickly followed. Owners such as Prince Khalid bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the late emir of Dubai, sent her horses. She remains the only woman to train an Arc winner.

This part of her story reminds me a bit of trainer Linda Rice:

A proud “my father’s daughter,” she’s the youngest of trainer Clyde Rice’s four children and the only girl. She began helping at her dad’s stable in grammar school. She walked horses, then exercised them. At 17, as they drove back from a Keeneland horse sale, a major accident blocked their route for hours.

That’s when Rice revealed her career path. She turned to her dad and confessed, “I want to be a trainer, just like you.”

Clyde Rice measured his response before speaking it. He told her, “That career would be a lot easier if you were one of my sons.”

Rice won the Easy Goer Stakes with Kid Cruz, eighth in the Preakness Stakes and a former $50K claimer, on Belmont Stakes day.

More Head-Maarek in the Guardian: “We’ll take my Rolls-Royce …

6/10/15 Addendum: Gai Waterhouse, daughter of Australian trainer T.J. Smith, shares a similar story as Head-Maarek and Rice about going out on her own:

Over the next 10 years I saw the likes of Kingston Town and Red Anchor come and go from my father’s stable, Tulloch Lodge, and eventually I decided I could take the next step and become a horse trainer in my own right. TJ was very reserved about me becoming a trainer; he felt it would be too hard for me to obtain owners, purchase yearlings and make my mark. My father thought I would be much better off working under him for the time being as his PR girl and trackwork supervisor. But like most young people, I could not be swayed. I had an idea in my head and I could not be stopped. TJ was telling the truth, and he knew it would be an uphill battle for me to forge a career on my own.

She has succeeded.

Related: Miss Mary, Licensed Trainer (7/8/10).

More Than Strength

Diane Crump reflects on her pioneering career as a jockey with Mary Simon, and the debate over whether women are strong enough to ride in races:

“You know what? None of us is that strong when compared to a horse. It’s the feel you have for them that matters. If you can get along with them, relate to them, those are the things that make you a horse person and a rider. Brute strength has no relevance at all …”

Or as Julie Krone, another rider who accomplished a number of firsts for women in racing, told Ed Zieralski recently:

“I know one thing. It takes both genders to ride a racehorse, the feminine for soft and subtle, and the masculine for strong and effective.”

Aspire to Win, Girls!

Unlimited Budget is among the 14 contenders entered in the Belmont Stakes. Someone should read “Lean In” to the filly before Saturday, apparently:

“It takes a special filly [to win a Triple Crown race], one that is willing to stare down the boys and say, ‘No, this one is mine,’ ” said Dr. Mary Scollay, the equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. “It’s so much about personalities and intimidation when these horses match up. I think it’s the same reason women don’t have as much, and the same kind of success, as men in the workplace.”

Three fillies have won the Belmont, out of 22 starters. That’s not such a bad record — only 141 colts or geldings have won, out of more than 1200.

Rosie Napravnik has the mount on Unlimited Budget, which makes her the first female jockey to ride in all three Triple Crown races in the same year. That’s wonderful, if also a reminder of the progress still to be made, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Julie Krone’s history-making Belmont win.

Meanwhile, at Suffolk Downs —

Elusive Son
Elusive Son (inside) outfinishes Step Brother in the first turf race of the meet.

Tammi Piermarini, the leading rider at Suffolk for the past three years, tops the jockey standings again after three days of racing, with five wins from 19 starts. Gary Wales and Andria Terrill are tied for second with four wins apiece. Piermarini’s first win of the meet came in race two on opening day with Broadway Hat, shipping in for trainer David Jacobson. The once-pricey auction purchase obviously found his level, taking the maiden $5K by four lengths. Trainer Ambrose Pascucci made the claim, the only one so far this summer.

Piermarini’s second win came in race six on the same day with Elusive Son, whose thrilling by-a-neck victory over Step Brother withstood a stewards’ inquiry into a little stretch bumping. The first of her two wins on Wednesday’s card offered a different kind of thrill — Mister Dixie, a 5-year-old gelding making his first start since July 2012, won race two by 12 1/2 lengths in :57 3/5, a tick off Rene Depot’s 1972 :57 2/5 track record for five furlongs.

Another rider, Jordano Tunon, scored the biggest upset of the meet yet when he won race six on Wednesday with Lapantalones Fance, the longest shot in a field of 10, paying $87.20 to win. While that might have been the highest win price of the week, it wasn’t the first time since Saturday that exotic payouts have been high enough to trigger the new, onerous 5% tax on winning bets paying over $600 instituted by a 2011 change in Massachusetts law (and affecting only Massachusetts residents). “[T]his is a dealbreaker for Mass. horseplayers,” tweeted one. Per a notice in the Suffolk program, track management is working on a fix. Get in touch to support their effort.

6/7/13 Addendum: Jay Hovdey on the 1993 Belmont Stakes: “It has been 20 years since Colonial Affair emerged from the gloom of a rainy New York afternoon to carry Julie Krone and the colors of Centennial Farms to victory in the 125th running of the Belmont …”

Rosie’s Ride

This 60 Minutes segment on Rosie Napravnik may be the first coverage of the jockey (who’s riding Mylute in the Kentucky Derby) I’ve seen this spring that doesn’t remind me of Freddy Rumsen telling Don Draper that Peggy Olsen’s insight into the Belle Jolie campaign “was like watching a dog play the piano.”

Go ahead, joke, “There is a filly in the Derby. The thing is this one has two legs, not four.” Wonder, “Can a woman win the Kentucky Derby?” Say, “You can almost classify her as just ‘jockey,’ now.” Because Napravnik can ride: She’s 25, and she’s won the Kentucky Oaks and a Breeders’ Cup race within the last year. So far, in 2013, only Joel Rosario has won more races than Napravnik; only four other jockeys have won more money. And she has the right attitude:

“There still are owners and trainers that don’t want to ride a female. The only way that I deal with that is, you know, to try to beat that person in a race, beat that trainer or owner in a race.”

Napravnik might not be on the Derby winner this Saturday, but she’ll be on a Kentucky Derby winner before her career ends. Bet on it.

3:30 PM Addendum: Napravnik tells Byron King she’s pleased with how the 60 Minutes interview turned out: “They did an excellent job with it.”

Breaking the Boy’s Club

In her remarks at the September 30 Thoroughbred Club of America dinner honoring her, Penny Chenery acknowledged a predecessor:

“I knew Isabel Dodge Sloan,” Chenery said. “I was scared of her. I saw her at the racetrack all the time and I never saw her open her purse.”

The first woman to top the leading owners list by earnings — in 1934, the same year her colt Calvacade won the Kentucky Derby — Dodge Sloan was the subject of a Claire Novak story for Kentucky Confidential in 2011.

“Racing and breeding horses are to me many things,” she said when she was honored by the TCA in 1951. “They are my hobby, my business, my pleasure and almost my entire life.”

Dodge Sloan was the first female honoree of the TCA; Chenery is the third. That’s in 81 years — as Chenery said, “Come on, guys.”

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