They let the woman ride, so the men took “sick.”

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 7, 1969, Diane Crump became the first woman in the U.S. to race as a professional jockey when she finished 10-of-12 in the seventh race at Hialeah Park astride her mount Bridle ‘N Bit.

A 1969 Times story credits Diane Crump with breaking horse racing's sex barrier. [Times Files]
A 1969 Times story credits Diane Crump with breaking horse racing's sex barrier. [Times Files]

Though she lost the race, she won a victory for women riders across the country. No longer would women just be the exercise girls, the people who kept the riders’ mounts in shape with solo trips around the track. Crump, who lived and trained in Oldsmar, had been an exercise girl for six years before her first pro race at age 20. A few weeks later, she won her first race at her home track Florida Downs, now known as Tampa Bay Downs.

The field of 12 Crump raced against was made largely of substitute riders. According to a Times article from the day after the race, only five men agreed to ride. Seven others used doctors’ appointments and other excuses to get out of racing.

It had been a years-long struggle for women riders. It was only after the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that women were even able to get temporary jockey licenses. However, to get a permanent one they had to compete in a race.

Not even the Jockey’s Guild director supported women riders, saying in a 1968 statement that “there are times when his (a jockey’s) life may hinge on the cool judgment and skill of a fellow jockey. A woman’s emotional makeup might betray her at a time like that. It could also imperil the lives of the other jockeys, not to mention her own.”

Jockey Diane Crump,center,takes a quick peek at jockey Ronnie Behrens atop Walter Mitty after the horses broke for the fourth race Hialeah in 1969. [Times files]
Jockey Diane Crump,center,takes a quick peek at jockey Ronnie Behrens atop Walter Mitty after the horses broke for the fourth race Hialeah in 1969. [Times files]

Sitting it out

When Barbara Jo Rubin, a then 19-year-old exercise girl from Miami, qualified for a race at Tropical Park in January 1969, 13 jockeys refused to ride. The Florida State Racing Commission was called on to investigate. Owner-trainer Mary Keim has said she’d call on Crump for the Hialeah race if the commission would clear the way.

Even with a pass to race, Crump didn’t have an easy time. Her horse, Merr E Indian, didn’t qualify for the race. But Catherine Calumet, wife of Brindle ‘N Bit’s owner-trainer Tom Calumet, told her husband to name Crump as the rider or she’d get another trainer.

A long way to the track

Crump had to get an armed escort to the track and was met with boos and jeers as she readied to race. Some even shouted that she belonged in the kitchen, not the track. Even some newspapers weren’t kind, describing her as a “slip of a lass” and doubting her ability to race. Other women were called “girl riders” or “jockettes.”

Diane Crump welcomes a fellow woman rider in 1969. [Times files]
Diane Crump welcomes a fellow woman rider in 1969. [Times files]
Diane Crump, rides in 1998, nearly 30 years after becoming the first professional woman jockey.
Diane Crump, rides in 1998, nearly 30 years after becoming the first professional woman jockey.

Career for the ages

Nevertheless, she persisted, finishing the race to cheers and going on to have a 30-year career.

Fifteen months after her first race, Crump would break another barrier in becoming the first woman to compete in the Kentucky Derby, an honor only five other women have achieved in the 49 years since. Throughout her career, Crump would have more than 1,600 starts and 228 wins, earning nearly $1.3 million, according to Equibase.com. Now 70, Crump has a private horse sales business in Virginia.


Barriers gone, but numbers stalled

Though it’s been 50 years since Crump broke through horse racing’s glass stable, the sport remains heavily dominated by males. The Jockey’s Guild says women riders now only make up about 8 percent of its membership in the U.S. But now, thanks to Crump and other pioneering women like Rubin, Penny Ann Early and Kathy Kushner, women are now as free to take to the track as any man.