Early Women Jockeys
By Eliza McGraw
1939 works as the first date in the history of women jockeys, because that’s the year that Anna Lee Aldred became the first woman to receive a jockey’s license. Later, in 1970, Diane Crump was the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby, and in 1993 Julie Krone was the first woman jockey to win a Triple Crown race when she took the Belmont aboard Colonial Affair. In 2013, Rosie Napravnik became the first female jockey to ride in all three Triple Crown races, and in 2014, she won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
But before these milestones, there were some other female jockeys. They may not have broken official barriers, but they led the way for today’s women riders. It’s March, women’s history month, which makes this a good time to look back at some of these early female riders.
In 1898, a Mrs. Bagwill was riding racers in Nevada. She was 24 years old and rode some winners at the Nevada State Fair. Turf, Field, and Farm mentioned that she rode astride. She wore jockeys’ silks. In 1907, the New York Times reported that 14-year-old Dorothy Tyler debuted at the racetrack in Joplin, Missouri. Tyler, reportedly willful and stronger than all the boys in her hometown, had her own racehorses, which she groomed herself. She won at a quarter mile on Blackmare, beating a professional jockey. The crowd cheered wildly. “Since she was a small child Miss Tyler has been fond of outdoor sports,” the reporter wrote. “Her father has let her have her way in most things.”
Later that same year, there was a rumor of an American woman jockey sweeping France. The idea seemed so representative of a maverick American spirit, something Europeans would imagine Americans as doing, kind of a “who knows what they’ll think of next?” trend. But, as the Washington Post reported, the woman in question wasn’t American or a jockey. She was an Englishwoman who had visited America and fox-hunted there. Then she visited Chantilly, a noted horse racing center, and somehow the stories got conflated. “Unfortunately for this picturesque story, which the French papers ‘find’ so essentially American, she does not come from America, and is not dreaming of becoming a jockey,” the Post reported.
In 1909, a girl jockey named Dorothy Kincel became famous through Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Iowa, riding at state fairs and some race meetings. A magazine called Sketch said that Kincel trained her own horses and was “her own stable-boy.” She was profiled in The Thoroughbred Record, and The Washington Post also picked up the story. A “great natural jockey,” she ignored the cheers from grandstands, and was “all business” as she headed to the start. Kincel was a tough, athletic kid who could “pick up a hundred-pound keg of nails with her finger ends.” Her mother said that she and her daughter rode in a train with “sweaty horses, Dorothy in her jockey clothes, and all the other jockeys; we rode all night in an old box car, as the caboose was full of drinking men. It was that or be $100 out of pocket. You see the life is hard. But the girl makes good money for two or three months that helps to support us and send her to school.”
In 1912, two American jockeys who rode in Hungary reported that a local woman had become a jockey by watching them ride. She rode her first winner in Budapest that October, and the Americans noticed her courage, ability to judge the pace, and good hands.
In 1924, Eliza Carpenter died. She was 75 and a former slave who had become a Sooner, making the run into Oklahoma on a chestnut mare when the territory was opened for settlement. According to an article in the Baltimore Afro-American, she was the only African-American racehorse owner in Oklahoma. She raced horses—Irish Maid, Blue Bird, Little Brown Jug–at Topeka and Tijuana. Carpenter primarily employed a jockey named “Lucky” Johnson, but when she was displeased with riders’ work, she would ride her own horses.
By 1927, the idea had gripped American imagination enough that star Bebe Daniels was in a movie called “Miss Jockey.” (See the poster here.) According to the poster, she plays “a madcap miss whose cradle was a saddle. How she takes the men and horses over the jumps! And wins the big race to save the lad she loves—and how! Gowns? Sure.” The idea that a horsewoman needed to pay attention to her dresses came up again in a 1928 Atlanta Constitution article. Race promoter Jim Coffroth was considering all-female jockey races in Tijuana, the article said. Racing men, the piece said, were undone by the news. “The very thought of a derby, a futurity, or a steeplechase presided over by a bob-haired band of gigglers, has them in the throes of panic.” Ironically, the article was illustrated with photographs of two accomplished horsewomen, neither known as a “giggler.” One was Western rider Helen Johnson, and the other was rider and trainer Judy Johnson, who in 1935 became the second woman to earn a trainer’s license in New York.
Coffroth would get his way. In 1931, women riders raced at Agua Caliente for the La Jolla Town Plate (pictured above). Babe De Freest won, aboard a horse named Big Bill Thompson:
In only eight more years, Aldred would earn her license, and the dynasty of women jockeys would continue.
Sources (ProQuest Historical Newspapers):
“American Woman Jockey: The Paris Newspapers Make A Discovery Which Lacks Only Truth,” The Washington Post, November 10, 1907, SM1
“Fans Mourn Woman Jockey,” Baltimore Afro-American, December 20, 1924, 8
“Girl Jockey Winning Races A Wonder of the Northwest,” The Washington Post, April 11, 1909, M8
“Girl Jockey Wins Race,” New York Times, July 3 1907, 1
“Hollywood’s Girl Jockey Race Winner,” Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1931, 9
Kingsley, Grace. “Bebe Daniels’ Next Paramount,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 1927, A10
Ritt, William H. “Queens Menace Sport of Kings,” Atlanta Constitution, January 8, 1928, A4
Great article! Too bad Kathy Kusner didn’t get a mention. She was licensed to ride in MD and WV while she simultaneously was training for the Olympic Show Jumping team. Amazing athlete and rider.
Thanks to all the great gals that paved the way for me.And of course my father Pete Maxwell and Juanita.
I raced from June 3,1972—Nov 1989.
Jockey Jeannie Maxwell
Hi Lady My name is Ron .I met you a few years ago at a retail store I worked at in Westland Michigan .Saw you race at DRC and Hazel Park.Love to hear from you again. You biggest fan in Michigan Ron
So wonderful to hear of this tough ladies. I applaud them for their athletic ways and the love of horses.
There was a woman jockey in Canada you might want to consider for your next update Joan Phipps you can look her up on utube the Joan Phipps story
Hey Karen – just noticed this. You Rock!! We clearly need you on our marketing team as we move forward with the book & film!
My aunt, Lillian Jenkinson was the first woman in Nebraska to receive a jockey license in late 1920s or very early 1930s. There was a story about her in Omaha World Herald. She was still riding at fairs in Illinois and Kentucky in the early 1950s
Add to your list Joan Phipps. Canadian jockey in the 70’s. First woman to ride against men in New Zealand. Won the race on long shot “Daphalee”. Also won 2 world championships in Brazil. First female Jockey to ride in Trinidad. First Canadian Steward. Believe she may have been the first female Steward in the world.