The Kentucky Derby boasts a male-dominated history that's not unusual in the world of sports. But as a female jockey named Rosie Napravnik looks to change that with her plans to ride Pants on Fire (go ahead, giggle, we did) to victory, she's forcing America to look at just how at odds the words "man" and "jockey" are.
Consider this. The Derby requires jockeys weigh no more than 126 pounds, a fact that has left the mostly male jockeys plagued with eating disorders in an attempt to force their bodies down to a size most American men haven't seen since middle school. Although there's no height limitation, most top out at a measly 5' 6". Now size up the men in your life, followed by the women. Pure genetics would seem to make a woman a perfect fit for this sport, so how has a woman never finished in even the top 10 at Churchill Downs before?
Perhaps because femalekind has had too few examples and too few chances at the crown. Not including Napravnik, the 23-year-old who has her eyes set on the roses for the first time this weekend, there have been just five female jockeys to take a mount at Churchill Downs. The best showing from a woman came from Julie Krone, dubbed "racing's all-time leading woman rider in wins," who finished 11th in 1995. At that time, Krone was the fourth female to ever race the Derby. Since then, there's been just one more -- Rosemary Homeister, Jr. was 13th riding Supah Blitz in 2003. Not to denigrate the incredible male jockeys who have competed, but why?
Horses in particular have often been cast as the denizen of little girls -- they fall in love with their My Little Pony collection and their Saddle Club books. They get into dressage while their young male friends are playing Pee Wee football, offering a natural transition into the world of horse riding as work.
True, it's a physically demanding sport, but women do physically demanding work all the time -- be it in the United States military, on an oil derrick, or playing hockey, basketball, swimming, tennis, etc. And unlike other sports, women's bodies do not betray them from competing against the guys. They don't need the height or the weight so much as they need strength and stamina. Again, women would seem to be prime candidates to ride a horse to victory.
So I can't help wondering if it all comes down to the danger of the sport. And for evidence, I look no further than women's current great hope for horse racing glory. Napravnik has suffered a broken collarbone, a compression fracture of four vertebrae in her back, a broken wrist, and a broken leg on her path to Churchill Downs, even as she's won major races. In a nation still wary of allowing women to serve in certain military positions because of the "danger," even as we allow men to do the same, it's not surprising that parents would encourage their boys to get into this sport but attempt to dissuade their girls. The notion of the female as the weaker sex remains prevalent, even as amazing women stamp it down day in and day out.
But there has been no one yet able to stamp out that fear in terms of horse racing, to prove that it's not just possible, but a perfect fit for a female jockey. Napravnik can be that woman, the one who shows she laughs in the face of danger not because she's foolhardy, but because she can.
The fact is, if Rosie Napravnik wins the Derby this weekend (it's possible -- winning odds on Pants on Fire are 20 to 1), she won't just be winning for herself or even winning for women. She'll be setting an example that could lead to great things for the sport as a whole.
Would you encourage a little girl to grow up to be a jockey? Why or why not?
Image via boboroshi/Flickr