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Girls and horses— we all know about the special connection they share. Not so long ago, there was no way that connection could lead to career in horse racing. It was a man’s game. But in 1968, Maryland granted the first jockey’s license to a female in the United States. And, within a few years, female jockeys started to show up on the backs of horses at racetracks around the state. There weren’t many, and it wasn’t easy. But it was possible.
Three years ago, Maryland Racing Secretary Georganne Hale created the Lady Legends race to honor those pioneering female jockeys. Last year, Hale, who is the first female racing secretary in the state, added the Female Jockey Challenge, a race featuring current female riders from all over the nation. Featuring those two races, Black-Eyed Susan Day— the day before Preakness at Pimlico Race Course— has become a celebration of women in horse-racing.
On the eve of this year’s races, Style visited five women who are deeply involved in the past and present of Maryland racing. Come along for the ride.
Dove Houghton TRAINER
The first word Dove Houghton ever uttered was “horse.”
“My parents didn’t know what it was about,” says Houghton, who at 46 is one of the most successful female trainers in Maryland. “They weren’t horse people. But I forced the issue. I made them give me lessons. And as soon as I was big enough, I worked at stables.”
As much as Houghton loved horses, she wasn’t competitive. She never dreamed of being a jockey or racing. She just wanted a life in which she worked with horses. And, she says, that’s still her goal today. “It’s funny to say this as a trainer, but I’m not that ambitious,” she says. “I’m not going out and trying to win the Kentucky Derby. I’m just trying to make a nice living doing what I love.”
For years, Houghton worked as an assistant to top trainers Tony Dutrow and Carlos Garcia. In 2004, they encouraged her to start her own stable. “I was scared to death,” she says. “I started with just two horses.”
She did well with those two horses and when her name started to appear regularly in the racing results in The Sun (which no longer publishes racing results), she started to earn the trust of a variety of owners. Today Houghton trains about 25 horses regularly in her “medium-sized” training operation based at Laurel Park. Her horses race anywhere from three to seven days each week, competing for purses from $13,000 to $40,000. She earns her living from a percentage of her horses’ winnings, which have exceeded $3 million over the course of her career. In 2006, she scored her biggest win when her horse, Spirited Game, overcame 15-to-1 odds to win the $75,000 Conniver Stakes at Laurel Park.
Houghton was raised in South Carolina and came to Maryland in 1992 by way of Delaware Park, where she got her start as a trainer. “In ’92, Delaware was going downhill. It was the heyday for Maryland racing— great purses and great horses,” says Houghton. “I still think Maryland racing is pretty strong.”
Houghton lives in West Towson, where she raised her 21-year-old son. “He was dragged to the track his whole life, poor kid,” she says.
She’s at Laurel Park every day starting at 4 a.m., overseeing the care and training of the horses and getting on them herself to give them exercise. If she’s got horses racing, her workday might last until midnight, when she gets home, takes a little nap and wakes up to hit the track again. Other days, she leaves the track about noon to spend the afternoon bookkeeping. “With 25 horses, there’s a lot of money going in and out,” she says.
The business part is her least favorite aspect of being a trainer. She even shies away from recruiting new owners. “I’m not the greatest people person,” she says. “I’m great with the horses.” — Laura Wexler
Georganne Hale RACING SECRETARY
Even after almost 40 years in the industry and 12 years as racing secretary of Maryland, 53-year-old Georganne Hale still gets excited by the glimpse of a day-old foal on one of the two perpetually playing TVs in her office at Laurel Park. “Oh look!” she cries.
It’s a typical spring Saturday at the races— Hale has been at her desk since 8 a.m., taking calls, sending emails and talking with visitors who drop by her office.
Hale grew up with horses in Sparks, Md., where her father was a trainer and her mother showed horses. Throughout high school and college she worked on the “backside” at Laurel, Pimlico, Bowie and Timonium— “Groom, hotwalker, exercise person, foreman, I did it all,” she says. Then she moved to the business side in 1984 as assistant horse identifier, helping ID horses by lip tattoo before races. “I just worked my way up,” she says. “I’ve done every job in the office.” Now the only person she answers to is the president of the Maryland Jockey Club, Tom Chuckas.
Hale is in charge of essentially everyone who makes the racetrack run, including track maintenance workers, facilities managers, jockeys’ valets, grooms and the starting gate crew. If there’s a fight, security drops the guilty party off with Hale to babysit. If the heat’s broken in the women’s
restroom, someone tells her. “They know that if they come to me it’ll get done. I like things done,” she says. People even come to her just to talk. “Everybody spills their guts to me. Maybe I should’ve been a priest or something.”
Every six months, Hale assigns to various trainers the 2,460 coveted, rent-free stalls at Pimlico, Laurel and Bowie tracks. Every four weeks she writes the condition book, which lists all upcoming races and conditions for eligibility. The biggest challenge of her job, Hale says, is getting horses— quality and quantity. When horses are scarce, she says, “We hustle the entries. We ask the trainer, would you like to run in this race?”
There is no racing at any of the tracks from June through August, so Hale’s workload lightens, but she’s still plenty busy, trying to clean up the barn areas while everyone is gone and take care of issues neglected during the year. “I mean, if I had to get on a tractor I’d get on a tractor,” she says. “I’m an old farmer. I know how to drive a tractor.”
The best part about her job, Hale says, is dealing with people. “It’s fun to see all the different personalities. Definitely a lot of good characters,” she says. “The race-trackers are one big family.”
Family, indeed. When a trainer wanders into Hale’s office and casually informs her that someone called her a nasty word that rhymes with witch, Hale’s reaction is to crack up. “Everybody teases me because I have lots of snitches on the backside.”
In 2009, when the idea arose to make the day before Preakness more women-focused, Hale proposed the first-ever race to feature retired female riders. Thus the Lady Legends race was born. “I have to admit I was a little nervous the first year,” Hale says. “Nervous about [the riders] getting fit— they hadn’t ridden in so long.” But the Legends race has been a roaring success, and through a partnership with the Susan G. Komen Foundation has raised thousands of dollars for the fight against breast cancer. Last year Hale organized another event for Black-Eyed Susan Day: the Female Jockey Challenge, a set of races featuring current women riders.
Hale goes silent as she watches a Laurel race finish on the television. The horses are literally running past the outer door to her office— if she opened it, she could watch them go by— but there are calls to take, decisions to make and problems to solve, not to mention a delicious pulled pork lunch to eat, prepared in the jockeys’ kitchen. Just another day at the office. —Colleen Dorsey
Mary Wiley Wagner FORMER JOCKEY
On the day in 2009 that Mary Wiley Wagner was invited to ride in the first-ever Lady Legends race she was still undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. But that didn’t keep her from saying yes. “After I hung up the phone I thought, ‘Oh crap,’ because at that point I was still weak,” says Wagner. “I couldn’t even walk to the top of the stairs without stopping.”
But the 48-year-old Wagner, who garnered 275 wins during her 1986-97 career, was determined. A month after finishing chemo in November 2009, she hit the gym three hours a day, six days a week. Come March 2010, she started training on horses. “Even after 14 years my muscles still remembered everything they were supposed to do,” says Wagner, who lives on Kent Island.
After Wagner placed a respectable fourth in the first Lady Legends race, she did something few jockeys do: she came out of retirement. Her goal was to win a race within a year after her final chemo treatment. “It was a personal challenge,” she explains. “The chemo had knocked me down so far that I needed to prove to myself that I could still win a race.” Wagner eventually won a race one year and two days after her chemo ended and, with her victory in hand, re-entered retirement. But she hasn’t stopped racing altogether. She won the second annual Lady Legends race in 2011 and will compete again this year.
Wagner got her start in racing thanks in part to a remark made by a boy at the Bowie stables where she worked in high school. The boy told her flat out she couldn’t be a jockey because she was a girl. “And that was it! Within 10 seconds my attitude was, ‘Bet your ass I can be a jock.’”
From then on, Wagner dedicated herself to horse and farm work, doing everything from exercising horses to digging post holes. After about five years and a brief false start at racing, trainer Meredith “Mert” Bailes began to put her on horses. In 1986, her first real year racing, she became the fourth-leading apprentice in the country. Eventually she was making $5,000 a week.
Like the boy who’d made the remark in the stables, some jockeys didn’t approve of a female in their midst. Others tried to embarrass Wagner by “accidentally” dropping their towels in the dressing room where Wagner had to weigh in before races. But in general, Wagner says, “They had as much respect for me as I had for them.”
It was, however, sometimes difficult to deal with owners, trainers and even trainers’ wives. “I would get judged much more harshly,” Wagner says. She couldn’t dress too femininely because it would stir up gossip that she was sleeping with her trainers. Even when Wagner was the second- and third-leading rider in the state, she lost out on good horses. Bailes told an owner who refused to let women ride his horses that he was riding a jockey named “Marvin Wiley.” After Wagner had won more than 20 races on the owner’s horses, she finally met the man in person— and he never said a word about the fact that Marvin was actually Mary.
Through hard times and good times— where “good times” include more than $2.7 million in earnings— Wagner has kept on riding. And now her story is an inspirational tale for other women, proof that you can get back on the horse even after cancer. —Colleen Dorsey
Jennifer Rowland Small FORMER JOCKEY
At 8:30 on an early spring morning, Jennifer Rowland Small is astride Golden Wheels, hugging the rail as she rides 33 mph at Laurel Park. Like the other riders on the track, she’s lean, lithe and strong. Unlike the others, she’s 61 years old.
She awoke at 3:30 a.m., did chores at her farm in Upperco, then made the drive to Laurel, as she does several mornings a week, arriving in time to get out on the track about 5:30 a.m. to do whatever trainer Catherine Holly Robinson has in mind for her. Could be exercising a horse. Could be schooling a mount at the gate.
It’s work, of course. But it’s also love. Small has loved horses since she was a girl back in the ‘50s. Back then, there was no hope that such a love could convert into a career as a jockey. After high school Small got a job working at the legendary Sagamore Farms and learned to exercise— or gallop— racehorses. When she started college at Maryland Institute College of Art, she began galloping at Pimlico early in the mornings. “I’d get up at 3 and get on horses and work them for $3 a horse,” says Small. “Then I’d go straight from Pimlico to MICA in time for my first class at 9:30 a.m., complete with a little ‘essence of horse’ maybe on my shoes.”
About that time, one of the trainers at Pimlico noticed that several of his horses ran well under Small and offered her a chance to race them. So she applied for a license— becoming the third woman licensed in Maryland. “At first I thought of racing as a way to raise tuition money and help my family,” says Small. But that first year, she became one of the leading riders at Charles Town, and the leading apprentice at Timonium and Marlboro racetracks. And what she’d initially seen as a way to pay for school turned into a reason to leave full-time classes. From 1971 to 1977, Small put roughly 120,000 miles on her car each year, driving to race at Penn National, Delaware Park, Charles Town, Bowie and Marlboro. “There was a lot of rough riding,” she says. “The male jockeys would push and slam me. They were verbally abusive. What I liked to do in return was beat them.”
In 1977, after the fourth or fifth time dislocating her shoulder, Small underwent surgery that reduced the use of her left arm and ended her racing career. “It was really difficult to quit racing,” she says. “It about drove me crazy for years.” She worked as a trainer for more than a decade until a severe episode of rheumatoid arthritis crippled her in 1990. “I wasn’t sure I was going to live,” she says. “I couldn’t walk.”
After undergoing chemotherapy, Small returned to health. But she didn’t feel she could rely on training to provide for herself and her two children, so she re-invented herself as a self-educated licensed financial planner. And though she owns two horses of her own, she didn’t get on a racehorse again until 2010, when racing secretary Georganne Hale invited her to ride in the Lady Legends race.
“Coming back was like déjà vu, like time hadn’t gone forward,” says Small. Three months before that first race, she started her morning ritual of exercising horses at Laurel Park several mornings a week. She raced in 2010 and in 2011— and will ride in the Lady Legends race again this year. Last year, she received her bachelor’s degree in painting from MICA five days before Black-Eyed Susan Day, finally finishing the college degree she’d put off in order to race so many years ago.
Earlier this morning, Small had sketched a horse and rider in marker on the white board in the stable. It could be a portrait of her, back on racehorses after all these years. —Laura Wexler
Forest Boyce JOCKEY
Forest Boyce has just won her first race of the day, and she’s relaxing on the steps outside the jockeys’ rooms at Laurel Park, explaining that on a typical day she goes to bed around 9 p.m. “I’m such a loser,” she says.
Loser would not be the word most would use to describe Boyce, who has earned 257 wins and counting, and purses totaling more than $5 million in the four years she’s been a professional jockey. She rides four days a week at Laurel and Pimlico from January through May and then again in the fall, and on her off days rides at other nearby tracks such as Philadelphia Park.
Raised in the suburbs of Baltimore and educated at Garrison Forest School, Boyce, 27, spent her childhood involved in fox hunting, pony club and horse shows. At age 11, she started galloping for trainers and at age 24, her trainer friend Alex White put her on her first mount in a professional race. To everyone’s surprise, Boyce won.
Little did she know about the jockey’s rite-of-passage that awaited her beyond the winner’s circle. “I come back from the race, so excited I won— next thing you know, I just get hammered,” she says. “Dirty water, tack water, shaving cream, eggs, powder, oh, it’s disgusting. They just cover you.”
The traditional inundation, all in good fun, didn’t dampen Boyce’s spirits, nor did the fact that many of her trainer friends weren’t too encouraging at first. “A lot of people were like, ‘You’re too tall, it’s gonna be a struggle, you don’t want to do this,’” Boyce recalls. One of her trainers, Dickie Small, wanted to see her go to college, not become a jockey. “It was like I had to go prove it to him, and then once I proved it to him, after I rode for a few months professionally, he started helping me and he never stopped.”
Boyce did go to college— she studied drawing at MICA— but at this point in her life, she doesn’t have time for art. She’s too busy winning. As an apprentice in 2010 she was the leading rider in Maryland with 129 wins, and in 2011, her first year as a journeyman, she kept steady with 99 wins. “I’ve learned a lot from ex-riders,” Boyce says. “They watch the races and they see where I screw up. … I guess it’s the artist in me, I don’t focus on just one thing, I try to make it all better, and constantly.”
Last year Boyce placed second in the first annual Female Jockey Challenge at Pimlico, and she will be riding again this year.
Boyce respects the work done in the past by pioneering female jockeys, like those in the Lady Legends race. “Those women paved the way for us,” she says. But being a female rider is no big deal for Boyce. “To be successful I think you can’t really focus on ‘Oh, I’m a girl, so this and that.’ It’s more important just to be a rider.”
It’s already time for the next race of the day, so Boyce has to get going. “I basically just follow my horses,” she says. “Wherever they go, I go.” —Colleen Dorsey