Why aren't women riding for roses at the Kentucky Derby?

Story highlights

  • Paul von Hippel, Katherine Keyes, and Caroline Rutherford: Racing needs to fix its gender problem
  • Putting more women in the saddle could address several of the sport's chronic problems, they say

Paul von Hippel is an Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin. Katherine Keyes and Caroline Rutherford are at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, where Keyes is an Associate Professor and Rutherford is a data analyst. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN)No women will ride in Saturday's Kentucky Derby. That isn't unusual. Old race result charts (which are like box scores) show that since 1970, when Diane Crump became the first woman to start the Derby, only five other women have passed through the starting gate -- alongside 301 men. Since 2004, only one woman, Rosie Napravnik, has started any Triple Crown race -- and Napravnik retired three years ago.

Paul von Hippel
Katherine Keyes
Caroline Rutherford
We're so used to seeing male jockeys that the dearth of women almost seems normal. But it's actually bizarre. Recreational riding is much more popular among women than among men, and professional jockeys must maintain weights that are much more typical for women than for men. How is it possible that male jockeys outnumber female jockeys by 7 to 1 -- by 50 to 1 in top races? It might be the most lopsided example of workplace gender discrimination in the country.
Racing needs to fix its gender problem, and not just because it's unfair. Putting more women in the saddle could address several of the sport's chronic problems -- including dwindling audiences, stagnant performance, and an epidemic of eating disorders and substance abuse among the sport's underweight men.

A troubled history

Thoroughbred racing has a long history of gender discrimination. In 1968, Kathy Kusner, an Olympic equestrian, had to sue the Maryland Racing Commission to get a jockey's license. Over the next two months, male jockeys boycotted Churchill Downs and Tropical Park to protest the entry of a new "jockette" named Penny Ann Early. Jockey Bill Hartack, a five-time Kentucky Derby winner, opposed the boycotts. "I won't stop (women) from trying (to race)," Hartack wrote in Life magazine. "Hey, maybe a couple of them will make it. The rest (will) find out how hard it is and they'll give up ... because a female cannot compete against a male doing anything." Diane Crump described her Derby appearance to CNN in a 2012 interview. "The hecklers were yelling: 'Go back to the kitchen and cook dinner," she said. "That was the mentality at the time."
Crump said in 2012, "I like to think I was a little footprint on the path to equality." There's been progress since 1970, but not as much as you might think. She told the San Diego Tribune in 2013, "We just don't have the numbers." As recently as 2005, when Napravnik started her career, she used her initials, A.R., to disguise her gender -- just as Patti (P.J.) Cooksey and Julie (J.L.) Krone did when starting their careers in the 1970s and 1980s. "Why ride a girl," one trainer asked Napravnik, "when you can ride a guy?" In an interview on 60 Minutes in 2013, Napravnik also recalled being crowded against the rail by male jockeys. Fans hurled catcalls -- "Have a baby!" "Go home and make dinner!" -- that were identical, word for word, to abuse leveled at female jockeys in the 1970s. Julie Krone endured so much physical intimidation and abuse from male jockeys that she ended a 1986 fight by hitting one of them with a lawn chair.
Between the three of them, Cooksey, Krone, and Napravnik eventually won over 7,000 races. Krone won the Belmont Stakes in 1993 and made the Hall of Fame. Naprvanik's winnings made her a top 10 jockey three years in a row.
Imagine what they could have accomplished if they'd had better opportunities early in their careers. Imagine what other female jockeys could accomplish if there were more role models and fewer barriers.

Persistent underrepresentation of women

No organization tracks the number of women in the saddle, but we can estimate their number from first names. According to data available from Equibase, which records every throughbred race in North America, only 14% of working jockeys had female first names, like Allison or Larissa, in 2016. Compared to men, women rode less often and in less-elite races, getting 10% of race starts (2% in Triple Crown races), and winning just 7% of prize money. These percentages are not improving. They have actually fallen a couple of points since 2000.
The small number of female jockeys is striking because women and girls are so interested in horses and horse riding. Approximately 90% of Americans who own or manage a horse are women, according to a 2012 survey. Horse riding camps are full of girls. Outside of the Olympics, Triple Crown horse races are the only sports events watched by as many women as men.
Women are also better sized to ride in thoroughbred races. In the Kentucky Derby, colts carry 126 pounds, and since the saddle and other gear typically weigh about 7 pounds, jockeys can weigh no more than 119 pounds. In less-elite races, horses carry less weight, and jockeys can weigh as little as 100 pounds.
At these weights, women vastly outnumber men. Between ages 16 and 30, there are 5.2 million women in the United States who weigh less than 120 pounds, versus just 800 thousand men -- so jockey-weight women outnumber jockey-weight men by seven to one. The excess of jockey-weight women is even greater after age 30, both under 110 pounds and under 100 pounds.
Are women missing something that they need to compete with men? The successes of Cooksey, Krone, and Napravnik suggest they aren't.
If young, stereotypically-masculine strength is required to compete, somehow that didn't prevent Krone, who weighed 100 pounds "soaking wet," from winning the Belmont. It also didn't prevent 105-pound Bill Shoemaker from winning four Kentucky Derbies, the last at age 54.
The more likely culprit is persistent gender discrimination. The best evidence comes from a 1995 study which found that, though women won less prize money than men overall, that happened because women didn't get good horses in good races. In fact, women actually won more money than men who rode similar horses in similar races. Women outperformed men with the opportunities they got, but women didn't get the opportunities they deserved.
Broadening the pool of riding talent could only help a sport where race times are slower now than they were in the 1980s. It could also mitigate some of the toll that life as a jockey takes on men's health.
Men often struggle to maintain racing weights. Nearly a quarter of male jockeys are underweight for their height, and large percentages of jockeys skip meals (69%), take laxatives (14%), and dehydrate themselves with diuretics (34%), saunas (67%), spitting and sweatsuits. Bulimia is so common, affecting 30% of jockeys, that many race tracks have installed "heaving bowls."
Women suffer eating disorders, too, and in fact are more likely to suffer eating disorders compared with men in the general population -- but far more women than men are short enough to maintain racing weights without resorting to desperate measures. Top male jockeys average 5 feet 3 inches, while top female jockeys average 5 feet 0 inches, with a healthier body mass index, greater metabolic energy, and higher bone density than male jockeys.
On purely business grounds, maybe the best reason to let women ride is that other women would watch them. Racing tries to reach out to women now, but it uses roses, derby hats and recipes for mint juleps. How would women respond if they saw more of their own in the saddle?
What would it take for owners and trainers to start more women in top races? Financial incentives might work. Suppose the starting fee were waived for owners who started a woman in races like the Kentucky Derby. The Derby starting fee is just $25,000 (entering costs the same amount) -- chump change to the track or the network, which would likely recoup its investment many times over in free publicity and new viewers.
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What could it do for the sport if two women -- or five, or ten -- were among the 20 jockeys in the next Kentucky Derby?
Wouldn't you like to find out?
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the year of Kathy Kusner's suit.