Debbie Downing is a retired jockey. She started riding in 1977 at all of the New England tracks, even the “bullrings” – the bush league tracks. She rode during a time when women jockeys had it incredibly tough, tough to break into the sport, tough to be taken seriously. These were the 70’s, and still, women had to prove themselves. Debbie did that, “You gotta want it really, really bad!” Gutsy, gritty, lion-hearted… these women jockeys were true pioneers. They each have a story, but their shared, common thread was sheer determination and something else, a quality only known to these brave women.
Debbie learning the ropes from Hall of Fame Jockey, Eric Guerin in 1976!
Here’s an article which Debbie wrote in 1992 in The Equine Athlete, two years after she retired from race riding:
“I think most jockeys go through a grieving period after they stop riding – I know it was that way for me. It has been nearly two years since my last race, and sometimes, I still awake from dreams feeling the ripple of muscles between my calves and the closeness of the horse’s sweating neck.”
I started riding in the late 1970’s when women riders were not widely accepted. Only a few years earlier, Kathy Kusner had been forced to go to court to win the right to ride.
Prior to that, male jockeys had refused to compete against women, saying there would be female blood spilled on the racetrack. Of course, it was to their economic advantage to question the women riders’ competence.
I had many memorable moments riding at all the tracks, then operating in New England. I would go anywhere and ride anything with a saddle on it, even venturing to the small bush league tracks to prove myself.
“You can see my smile. How much I loved to ride whether it was at Saratoga, Suffolk, Rockingham, Narragansett, Meadowlands, or scootin’ by the beer stand where the tasty french fries were fresh made at the bull rings. I was having a ball and you can see it in the picture. Now I have more metal in my body than the bionic woman and I wonder, would I do it all over again? “
It was at a bullring track called Great Barrington, Massachusetts that I was to have my final win on an ageless wonder named Golden Arrow. A robust chestnut gelding, he carried me safely home around tight turns among the old jockeys carrying “machines” and young jocks with their whips flailing and reins dangling.
DEBBIE ON GOLDEN ARROW ~ THE GUTSY, GAME GELDING
There is no doubt this horse knew more than his rider about how to get to the winner’s circle. We were to win five races in seven starts, with a second and a third place finish. By far the gamest horse I was ever to be astride, he was also one of the oldest thoroughbreds in North America to ever win a race – he still maintained his zing at age seventeen.
There was more corruption during those years. Race fixing and the illegal drugging of horses was rampant. The powerful analgesics often administered masked the symptoms of serious infirmities, making it a hazardous career to guide these injured horses.
By contrast to the drugging of horses, race-fixing seemed more light-humored to me. Perhaps because, as an apprentice, I was to be a chief beneficiary. During one race, I was able to maintain a larger lead than Secretariat enjoyed in his romp at The Belmont. I coasted to an easy victory, never uncocking my whip, while my peers in the back argued over who was going to be second. All of them received lengthy suspensions for their less than sterling performances.
In another race, I was on a less-than-noble steed for Robert Klesaris, who was to become of the leading trainers in New York. This animal had never been close to winning in his life, but mysteriously, I found myself at the front of the pack. Not having much faith that my mount could keep this pace, I decided to conserve him as much as possible for the finish. A few strides later I was to hear a frustrated jockey behind me yell, “For Pete’s sakes, honey, will you go on with that horse – I can’t hold this one back much longer!”
I also became skeptical toward the scale of weight in those years. Many of the clerks were not adverse to supplementing their wages with a well-placed bribe. For the most part, you could just about pay for whatever you wanted the trainers to think you weighed.
Several of the leading riders at the now defunct Suffolk Downs in East Boston took advantage of this fact. Oddly enough, their horses still managed to maintain their racing form even when carrying as much as 10 to 15 pounds more than was listed on the program.
An anonymous phone call to the Massachusetts Racing Commission put an end to those tactics. The riders in question were made to re-weigh in and the handsome young Clerk of Scales was quietly given a demotion.
Debbie, with her beautiful twin daughters in a few of these pictures.
Rockingham Park re-opened in 1984 after being closed for several years due to a devastating fire. There were 10 races on the card that day, 7 of them were won by women jockeys! Here’s Debbie winning the first race of the day!