Diane Crump, here in 1969, says women jockeys made a lot of progress during her 30-year career.

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Diane Crump broke the gender barrier at the Kentucky Derby in 1970

Crump's proud of women's progress and glad to put "my little footprint along the path"

CNN —  

When Diane Crump became the first woman to ride at Hialeah, she faced catcalls – go home, you need to go to the kitchen, you don’t need to be out here getting other jockeys killed.

But instead of taking those words to heart, she went on to a trailblazing career, including becoming the first female jockey to race in the Kentucky Derby.

Crump was a teenager in February 1969 when, at Hialeah Park racetrack, she became the first female jockey in the United States to compete in a pari-mutuel race. (Pari-mutuel refers to a system of betting.)

A self-taught rider who got her start working on a horse farm near her home in Oldsmar, Florida, outside Tampa, Crump generated a large enough crowd in her debut that Hialeah provided armed guards to escort her to the track.

Crump would break similar ground the following year at the Kentucky Derby. The 1970 Derby has long been remembered not for Dust Commander, the horse that won it (or for that matter, the jockey who rode him), but because it became a pivotal moment in sports journalism.

Hunter S. Thompson immortalized it in his essay, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” which is now recognized as one of the original examples of gonzo journalism. Thompson – who reportedly could not actually see the race from where he was standing and focused instead on the drunken behavior of the crowd at Churchill Downs – made only a passing note of Crump’s smashing of the glass ceiling at the legendary track.

Riding a horse called Fathom that she had helped to train, Crump finished 15th in a field of 17. She continued to ride professionally until 1999 – with a break of some years during which she was a trainer – and now runs her own equine sales business in Virginia. Since Crump’s ride in 1970, only five other women have followed in her footsteps. This year, no women will be at the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby.

As Derby Day approaches, CNN Opinion spoke with Crump about her experience as a racing pioneer, the progress women have made in racing and why more women have not broken into the rarefied position of competing in the Kentucky Derby.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

CNN: When did you know you wanted to ride horses professionally?

Diane Crump: All of my life, I’ve just wanted to ride horses. I just loved horses from the time I was a little kid. It doesn’t even make sense – I wasn’t around horses as a kid. But when I was 12 we moved to Florida, to Oldsmar – five minutes from Tampa Bay Downs. I got a job on a farm where I learned to break yearlings. I was self-taught in a way – I never really had formal lessons. I worked on the farm and little by little as I started breaking the yearlings, I learned how to gallop. I learned by doing. If I got bucked off, I got back on. It was trial and error. If it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you better, right?

CNN: Can you describe your first professional race (at Hialeah)?

Crump: The crowd was wall to wall. I had a guard on each side and one in front and behind. Mostly (the crowd) was just (there) out of curiosity, more than it was malice. Yeah, there were catcalls – go home, cook dinner, you need to go to the kitchen, you don’t need to be out here getting other jockeys killed. (People said,) “Why do we need women? There’s already been X amount of jockeys out here that have been killed in the past.” And I thought, “Well, we weren’t out here, so how do we have anything to do with it?” But it was the feeling that women wouldn’t be smart enough, strong enough or hold up under pressure – those were all the things that were said. Of course, when you look at it now, almost 50 years later, things have definitely changed and improved, thank goodness.

In this country at least, women always had quite a place in equine sports. Not on the racetrack, but in other sports with horses, women had a lot of place in that world. It was just so male-dominated (in racing) that I caught everyone by surprise and upset the apple cart. In show jumping, in that world women were fairly accepted. They rode on the Olympic team. Kathy Kusner (whose lawsuit paved the way for women to be licensed as jockeys) competed and won a medal for the United States.

I rode my first race in 1969, and I’d say that in the 1970s, it stayed tough (for women). You did have to prove yourself, over and over again – all of us in that first era. In the 1980s, it started to get a little bit better. PJ Cooksey came along, and then Julie Krone (who won the Belmont Stakes in 1993) came along. But it did take about 15 years before things started opening up.

If you only weigh 110 pounds, I don’t really care if you are a man or a woman, it’s about athleticism of course, it’s about fitness, but it’s not about sheer strength. It’s not like (being) a football player.

CNN: Looking back, what do you most remember about riding in the Derby?

Crump: Half the time, I was Fathom’s groom, because he was tough to handle. Obviously, if you’re there (at Churchill Downs) the week of the Derby, there’s nowhere else in racing you can go where there’s that kind of excitement. There’s a special something in the air – it’s hard to explain – but if you’re there, the feeling is so strong that it’s quite amazing. Being a part of it is unlike anything I’ve ever been through.

I always had worked for whatever barn wherever I galloped. I was a part of that whole operation and that meant a lot to me, to be involved with everything – all the care, with legwork, just because I just loved it so much. Even Fathom – I galloped him as a baby. It made it more special. I mean I wanted it to be more – I wanted to ride (more) races. But in my era it wasn’t going to happen like that. But because I did love the process, that was a fulfillment. Every horse was so important to me.

And seeing the Derby from a distance as a kid, and then to be a part of it? There’s really nothing else that matched that. As a rider, it’s something you dream about. You dream about winning it, of course – that didn’t happen, but I did get to ride in it. I was a part of that, and here I’d only been riding races for slightly over a year.

CNN: Having been a part of it, how do you usually watch the Derby?

Crump: I like to watch it with just my family. It does have a special place in my heart. And it does have a special meaning to me, so I like to watch it either with my close friends or with my family. I went once with some friends to the Derby, but it wasn’t the same for me. It’s more special to me if I watch it from home.

In her 1969 debut, Crump, center, keeps up with Mike Sorentino, left, and Craig Perret at Hialeah Park.

CNN: Do you have thoughts about why so few women have ridden in the Derby since you broke that barrier?

Crump: It’s numbers. You have to ride a certain amount of horses and be riding for the stables that have the quality of horse that can run in the Derby. That’s the problem. Like all of horse racing, it is a numbers game. That’s the issue. There can only be 20 horses in the Derby. That’s the reason.

There are some very good girl riders, and there have been over the years. But they have to be in the right place for the opportunity, and that’s what hasn’t happened. It’s been hard to get them into the stables that have that quality of horse. And that’s not going to happen any time quickly. That’s the tough part. But yes, the (female) riders are out there who are capable.

CNN: That’s interesting. So it’s a pipeline problem and a matching problem. It reminds me of conversations about gender in the tech world. You have all these talented women coming up, but the way the system is structured, it becomes a numbers game that’s hard to win.

Crump: That’s exactly what it amounts to. Just think, in 1969, and through that decade of the 1970s, the women that rode – there were not that many – would have to use a jock’s room that might be a ladies’ room, cordoned off. It could be a first aid room, where maybe three of us would be, while there were 50 (male) riders in the main jock’s room. And that was (it) for a decade. It wasn’t until the 1980s that they started actually building women’s jock’s rooms.

They have a beautiful women’s jock’s room at Churchill Downs now, but it took 15 years. In 1969, when I was riding in Tampa (at what’s now Tampa Bay Downs), which was where I grew up, I won a race two weeks after my first professional race, at Hialeah. And before that race they put me in a women’s bathroom. It wasn’t even close to the jock’s room. The next year they did put in a little tiny trailer, which they kept out there for close to 10 years before they added a women’s jock’s room. In 1969, my jock’s room was a bathroom and then they went to the trailer, but when I rode my last race, which was in 1999, it was at Tampa Bay Downs. And when I went to the jock’s room there, they had increased the size of it so that the men’s jock’s room and the women’s jock’s room had equal space, 50-50. That gave me a sense of accomplishment and pride to think, “Look how far it came (in 30 years). OK, no, it’s not the same as full equality, but look where’s it’s come in 30 years.” And that was how I closed out my career, right there. And a lot of the girls who were riding there then were kids of the people I had grown up with. I liked being able to go out like that.

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    I’d love to see, to have at least a few of the women jockeys who are out there be able to get to the next level. Hopefully, it will happen in the not-too-distant future. But let’s face it. They have made a lot of progress. For that, I am thankful and proud that at least I was able to put my little footprint along the path.