Tom Jicha

Tom Jicha grew up in New York City and worked with John Pricci at the short-lived revival of the New York Daily Mirror. Tom moved to Miami in 1972 for a position in the sports department at the now defunct Miami News.

Tom became the TV critic in 1980 and moved to the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1988. All the while he has kept his hand in sports, including horse racing. He has covered two Super Bowls, a World Series and the Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinel’s horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Saturday, February 23, 2019

Shortage of Female Riders Is a Cultural Issue, Not Gender Bias

By Lynne Snierson

At the 2018 Breeders' Cup World Championships, a two-day event stacked with 14 races, Donna Barton Brothers was the only woman astride a horse in the thick of the action. But the retired rider was conducting live interviews with the winning jockeys for NBC Sports rather than competing against them on the biggest stage.

Sophie Doyle was the last woman with a Breeders' Cup mount—finishing 13th on Fioretti in the 2015 TwinSpires Filly and Mare Sprint (G1). Since then, in the 2016-18 Breeders' Cup races, a total of 484 horses left the gate, each with a man in the irons.

On the surface, the lack of women competing in Breeders' Cup races—as well as in the Triple Crown and many other top-level events—could be translated as an issue of gender bias. But Brothers and other accomplished female riders believe the problem is systemic to recent changes in North American culture and mostly unrelated to gender.

"You don't see a lot of American boys getting the mounts, either," said Brothers, who rode Cat Appeal in the 1994 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) and Hennessy the next year in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) before wrapping up her racing career in 1998. "We don't have an agricultural society anymore, so boys and girls aren't growing up on farms and around horses like they used to."

The North American Racing Academy, created in 2006 and now part of Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, is well-regarded. But when it comes to turning out polished, professional riders, the school pales in comparison to the rigorous jockey schools in Latin American countries, France, Ireland, Japan, and other nations.

"Just to get into their jockey schools is very competitive," Brothers said. "They have to pass academic tests and they have to be able to have horsemanship. To make it to graduation is extremely competitive. The students ride in actual races before they can graduate. In our school, we graduate the students so they can go work for a trainer. We don't have an agricultural society, and we don't have a good feeder system like the Latino countries do. This isn't a female-male thing. It's a Latino-American thing."

"I agree 100% with Donna," said Rosie Napravnik, who in 2012 became the second woman to win a Breeders' Cup race, following Hall of Famer Julie Krone in 1988, when she piloted Shanghai Bobby in the Grey Goose Juvenile for Todd Pletcher. Napravnik is the only woman to win two Breeders' Cup races, thanks to the Steve Asmussen-trained Untapable in the 2014 Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1). Now retired, she conditions off-track Thoroughbreds and works with her husband, trainer Joe Sharp, who offers student internships through NARA.

"NARA is a good program, but they have branched out to being more of a horsemanship program with becoming a jockey an option," Napravnik said. "It's a small class to start with, and it probably thins out as people go through everything you have to go through to even want to become a jockey. You really have to pay your dues."

Remi Bellocq, the executive director of NARA and Equine Studies at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, said 80-90% of the school's students are women. But in addition to training jockeys, the school educates those who wish to become exercise riders, assistant trainers, breeding farm managers, grooms, and other workers for the industry.

"I do agree that this is not a male-female thing," he said. "There has been an influx of riders from the Latin American countries and other regions where they have more traditional racing schools. The question is, why can't we compete with them? The advantage they have over us is that they have one central regulatory agency. We can't require students to go to NARA."

Another disadvantage is that NARA is the only jockey school in the world requiring students to take and pass accredited college-level courses and earn the minimum 30 credits required for an associate's degree. Moreover, the foreign schools are akin to the specialized training centers that turn out Olympic athletes.

"The problem we have is that any time we get a kid that has the size, physical ability, and talent to become a jockey, we can't keep them very long," Bellocq said. "They don't want to spend the time and effort to take classes like anatomy and physiology. Our courses are rigorous, and that has cost us a lot in getting kids who have the God-given ability. They're not going to stick around to earn 30 credits. They want to go off to a track and start riding races. That puts the only recognized racing school in the country at a big disadvantage compared to the other racing schools, which offer high school-level classes."

At 52, Brothers believes climbing to the summit is harder now than when she rode, because there are fewer rungs on the ladder—which holds true regardless of gender.

"We don't have a strong middle market in the racing industry anymore," she said. "We always had the bottom of the barrel and we had the cream of the crop, and the biggest market was in the middle. But now there is a pretty big bottom and a pretty big top and a narrow middle.

"Everyone I've known, including me, Julie Krone, Mike Smith, Gary Stevens, Patti Cooksey, and anybody you can think of who is my age or older, started at the very bottom, went from there to a middle-level track, and then went up to the top. Now there isn't that feeder system anymore. If you start at the bottom now, it's really hard to even make it to the middle because it's so far away from the bottom."

Complicating the issue is the fact that when graduates of the jockey schools in other countries come to the U.S. as apprentices, they are so experienced they can head straight to meets like Gulfstream Park West or Aqueduct Racetrack in the winter, pick up an experienced agent, and make an immediate impact. Consider the examples of the extraordinarily successful brothers Jose Ortiz and Irad Ortiz Jr., along with Manny Franco, all graduates of Puerto Rico's Escuela Vocacional HĂ­pica.

"The American system just isn't there anymore. Meanwhile, the Latino countries have gotten better at producing top-level jockeys. As soon as they get here, the trainers want them and will stand in line to ride them because they can get the weight off and they get a great rider at the same time," Brothers said. "That's the story that needs to be told. The fact that girls aren't getting Breeders' Cup mounts isn't the issue. It's that racing is different now."

Emma-Jayne Wilson, who earned both an Eclipse Award and a Sovereign Award as the outstanding apprentice jockey in 2005 and is the only woman to win Canada's prestigious Queen's Plate, said it is "a matter of fact" women don't often get Breeders' Cup mounts. And here are the stats in cold, hard numbers: The only other women who have reached horse racing's Super Bowl are Wilson (2011), Chantal Sutherland (2008, 2011, 2013), Lisa McFarland (1996), and Sarah Rook (2012).

While agreeing with Brothers and Napravnik, Wilson added that other circumstances come in to play. "I think that it has to do a lot with the circumstances of the horses and where they've come from," said Wilson, who chooses to remain based at her home track, Woodbine, and has turned down chances to ride elsewhere. "But there are so many variables in racing that I wouldn't put it on just that one factor."

A determining factor for both Napravnik and Wilson was the choice to become a parent as well as a jockey. Napravnik put that decision on center stage in 2014, at the height of her career, during one of the most memorable moments in Breeders' Cup history. With a winner's circle announcement in the midst of celebrating Untapable's Distaff victory, she shocked everyone with the announcement that she was expecting a baby and was retiring, effective immediately.

"My goals were to become a top rider at the upper levels of racing, and that's all I concentrated on for 15 years of my life. It was my choice not to take a break to have a family (and subsequently try to come back)," said Napravnik, the mother of a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old. "I'm very fortunate in the way it worked out for me. I put 110% of my life into riding races and being a professional and getting myself to where I wanted to be. I didn't feel that I could do that and have kids at the same time. When I was riding, there was no room for any other priority than riding."

Wilson is also a mother now, but it was more workable for her to have a career and a family simultaneously.

"My wife was the birth mother," she said. "There are sacrifices I had to make in my career, as well as my wife did in hers, for us to have our twin girls, who will be 2 in February. I was lucky in the sense that I didn't have to take as long of a break, but we did have to think it through and decide how we were going to work it best for my career and for my wife's career. She's an equine chiropractor, so her job is very physical and active as well. Late in the pregnancy, she had to dial it back, obviously."

Given the difficulties, would the women who have made it to the summit recommend this profession to aspiring, young female riders?

"Absolutely," Napravnik said. "There are successful females riding today, and just because they haven't been in the Breeders' Cup doesn't mean they're not successful. There is no reason that a woman can't succeed if she really wants to."

"Without a doubt, yes," said Wilson, who rode in 40 schooling races before she got her professional license. "The biggest thing I would do, though, is to encourage any young rider, female or male, to be prepared, polished, and to get as much experience as they can. Preparation is the key."

Bellocq and other industry stakeholders are doing their best in that regard.
"Down the road, I know that we will certainly see the next Rosie Napravnik or Julie Krone, for sure. But you can't just snap your fingers and have it happen," he said.

• January 16, 2019 reprinted from BLOODHORSE Daily

Written by Mark Berner

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