Did You Know...

Unless you're a good and intimate friend of mine you wouldn't know that my very first aspiration in life was to be a jockey. I loved horses and, growing up on a ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley and having lots of girlfriends who rode both dressage and western, it wasn't at all unusual that I should lean in this direction. I was never attracted to the local rodeo scene, however, with its barrel racing and such. I wanted the silks...

Across the road from the ranch we lived on (we didn't own it, but rented a small house near the barns and cattle/horse corral and breeding pen) sat a boarding stables called Jess Clark Farms, whose clientele was thoroughbreds and race horses. For the entire time that we lived out on Adobe Canyon Road (now Fredensborg Canyon Road), just the name of Jess Clark struck a blind fear in me. How could I, a 9 year-old horse lover, stay away from Clark's white fences, where his charges grazed on tender green grass, their tails swishing lazily at flies? Huge, sleek, apollonian and proud, they were nearly otherworldly to me. The attraction, as it is for many girls at that age, was overpowering. (Go back to your pipe, Dr. Freud. This was True Love.)

Horse ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Of course, Jess Clark must have paid a fortune in insurance to keep those horses during their off-seasons. I understand that now, but at that age, when I spotted his white pickup zooming down the drive toward me, I always took off running for cover in the overgrown creek bed so that he couldn't find me and threaten to go to my parents. Eventually, he actually carried through with it and my neighbor and best friend, Cathy, and I watched in horror from atop a favorite hill that overlooked the ranch as that pickup made its way across the road and straight to my front door. I knew I was in for it. My dad was a loyal sort, though. When I finally dared to show my face that evening, he calmly told me I really needed to stay clear of Clark's horses, but in the meantime he'd told him where to get off and had sent him packing. Good old Dad!

At last, after a number of such visits, Clark decided it would be easier to allow me access to some of the horses under his strict supervision. I was allowed to start mucking his stables (free labor for him), to groom the less expensive horses and, eventually, even to exercise them by leading them about by a halter and lead. I was in heaven! There was a groom there (probably all of 22, but he seemed old to me) who taught me everything I needed to know and kept an eye on me. I spent the entire summer at this unpaid job, which resulted in my being allowed to ride the horses around the exercise track the following year. My parents bought me some dressage boots; I'd arrived. I was a tiny puckish thing, short, wisp-thin and never destined to be very big, and some of the horses were so tall, I could stand beneath them, my head barely brushing against their chests. To mount, I had to climb a fence. I loved them and they loved me. I became attached to one in particular, a grey that everyone called King. I'm sure his racing name was something longer and more impressive. We rode like the wind—I'm positive he never even felt me on him as I opened him up and let him wear himself out.

Lori Martin & King.
It was exactly at this point in time that the TV show National Velvet, starring Lori Martin, aired. What could be more perfect? She was a girl my age in love with a race horse named King. I never missed that show. I even wrote a fan letter and received this photo in return, autographed. Thus it was that I decided I wanted to be a jockey when I grew up. Enter, my mother.

"Girls can't be jockeys."
"But, Mom, Velvet won the Grand National!"
"That's TV. In real life girls can't be jockeys. You can either be a secretary, a waitress, or a salesgirl. Or you can always get married."

Of course, my parents couldn't afford riding lessons or dressage gear (with the cute little velvet riding helmet that I coveted so badly), much less a horse and its upkeep. We were lower middle class (my dad was a TV repairman and musician) and college had never been open for discussion, much less consideration. The following year we moved from the ranch and I took up pop music as my career choice. There were plenty of women there, and doing quite nicely, thank you very much.

Diane Crump
As you might imagine (if you're at all into such things), when Diane Crump, the first woman jockey, made her newsworthy entrance in 1969, I about died. Apparently, Mom, girls could be jockeys. But it was too late for me. I graduated high school and hitchhiked to Haight-Ashbury. I learned many years later that Crump wasn't the first woman jockey, in fact. She was the first to ride the Kentucky Derby, but not the first by a long shot. There was Anna Aldred in 1939, Wantha Davis, who won over 1,000 races in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, and hundreds more. Mom was wrong on more than one count, but she'd been a rider of thoroughbreds when she was a girl and had run into the sexism that still ran rampant well into the 1960s. Her admonishment, "Girls can't be jockeys" meant it was difficult, but maybe not impossible, although the world of racing would do everything in its power to stop me. She just wanted to save me the heartache and struggle of trying to enter the Sport of Kings as a 95-pound, starry-eyed girl who didn't even own a horse.

I never did get a horse, although I continued riding for years. The last time I rode was in 1982. It's a long time, but if I could afford a horse I swear I'd get my seat back and ride like the wind one last time!

1 comment :

  1. What wonderful story-telling and I can soooo relate. My grandfather was a race horse trainer and I'm told that when I was two or three he would take me to the track and put me on the lead ponies. I wish I had a photo of that time. That must be where my love of horses came from. We had no money for me to ride as a child, so I didn't fulfill that dream until the ripe old age (for starting to ride) of 38. I've had my ass in a saddle almost every day since then. I need it like I need oxygen.


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