The Great Jockey Diane Nelson: RIP “Ponytail”

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“Diane came to New England the same time I did in 1986. She was such a wonderful, upbeat person.  All she wanted to do was ride and win.  That winter of 86-87, she had a wonderful duel for the riding title with David Moore.  It was all done with the greatest sportsmanship and they dead-heated for the title.  She went to NY to ride and had great success, but nothing changed about Diane. Any time you saw her, she was so happy to see someone from where she had her first success.  I was sad to hear of her passing, it was a life lived with joy and passion.  God Bless you, now they’re chasing the ponytail in Heaven.” – A Colleague

Diane Nelson was a former, elite jockey who passed on July 5, 2017.   She grew up in Long Island, NY, working on a breeding farm, then going to New Zealand to learn to gallop horses.  She returned to the US and worked in Ocala, FL.  All to learn the trade. From the bottom up. From all accounts, a great jockey, too. She rode 1095 winners of 9905 mounts, no small feat.  She was the sixth female jockey to reach that milestone.  Her career began in New York, at Aqueduct on February 27, 1986, and her final ride was at the same track on January 20, 2007.  She won a total of 8 graded stakes in her career. Diane then rode Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, Suffolk Downs in Boston, and the New Jersey and New York circuits. Her career was cut short due to back injuries.  She was also a model for Ford Modeling Agency, an aspiring swimmer, but riding and horses were her passion.   Diane was noticed by the Ford Modeling Agency and she began doing some commercials.  In a 1998 article, Diane told the New York Times that she found modeling too much of a distraction.  “I was bouncing around and was really unhappy.  So, I decided I’m going to stay in New York and ride, whether I make it or not.”

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Many of the comments here are taken off a Facebook page, “Rockingham Park.”  It’s an extremely close-knit group of people who worked there, lived there, loved  there.  Each other.  They knew Diane well and they are grieving. As one member of the Rockingham Park FB page lovingly wrote:

“The group of us were very tight together. Far more laughter than tears, but today is as sad of a day as when Jill Jellison passed.  Two very respected women.”


These are Jockey Debbie Downing’s words , a former jockey, friend and colleague of Diane’s upon hearing of Diane’s passing.  And a song Debbie chose below.  They were friends and colleagues:

I got the text from fellow gal jockey Jennifer Pinard as I was driving back from the mountains and I had to pull over to let the memories and tears flow. A friend, Diane Nelson, that I had ridden for and ridden against at Rockingham Park, was dead.  Lori Coburn,  remember the party we went to?  She yelled at me, “If Coburn can eat some damn sponge cake – you can eat some damn sponge cake!”  A natural lightweight, Diane would only occasionally join me in the “hot box” where she would raise her arms to the sauna and beg, “Please God, I promise never to eat potato chips again!!”  Oh she was a treasure!  As Abby Fuller and Tammi Piermarini have written: Our grief knows no bounds and as time passes, is growing more and more collective.
Ex-girl jockeys do not seem to have a long shelf life.  Ride on.

Diane was interviewed and quoted quite a bit through her career.  You can read much more in the articles which are linked at the bottom of this page.


“Strength does not win races. If I had to arm-wrestle with any guy in the jockey’s room, they’d probably all beat me.  I feel that is offset by the fact that I have a good communication with horses and a good feel for the horse.  I let the horses run naturally.” – Diane Nelson

Here’s a collection of some of the comments from admirers, colleagues, friends, connections and fans:
“Diane was a blessing to everyone that she crossed paths with.  She will be truly missed by many.  I met Diane in New Zealand many years ago and she was the one that encouraged me to come to the US.  I will always be thankful to her for that.”
“I remember watching Diane bring home Lottsa Talc.  She always rode that mare the best of anyone.  Beautiful smile, always laughing.”
“I met and rode with Diane when she came to NY.  My best memories were driving in her Mercedes on a dark day to ski Hunter Mountain. Great rider, skier and person.”
“Diane was very hard to beat coming down the stretch.  Had a few battles with her at Aqueduct.  Diane loved it when someone could make her laugh.  A beautiful person.”
“Diane was a special friend, beautiful inside and out.  We shared many great summers in Saratoga, training her former race horse turned-event horse Esso.  She possessed a kind heart and gentle soul.  Love you Diane, and may you ride again in Heaven.”
“She was a truly beautiful girl.  But she was also a really good person.  We rode together at Rockingham for a time and were friends, but it was when she came to the NY tracks and the Meadowlands that I got to know her better.  She was a very good rider.  She held her own with the big boys in NY, and we know what that’s like.”
“Diane loved animals – all animals. She was a talented horseman in many equine disciplines.”
“Her special gift of how she related to horses, calming them, having them at their best, talents that are much needed.”
“Diane was a dream to be around.  I remember when she first came to our barn at Aqueduct, the late Butch Lenzini was on the other side and he said to me, “Give this young girl a shot.” I remember saying to her, “Forget about racing, are you married?”  She just laughed and was very polite to me and our crew.”
“I didn’t know Diane personally, but knew of her as she had a few mounts for my uncle and rewarded him with honest rides, honest wins and honor.  She now rides with the winds of peace.”
“She was such a gifted jock and inspired a lot of girls to take up riding.”
“I had Diane ride quite a bit at Rockingham Park and a few times in NY.  She was a very special woman, gifted as a rider, but so much more.  She was truly a nice person.  You loved to have her on a horse, she always came to the paddock with an upbeat attitude  and really knew how to get along with horses (and people).  She got run out of horses that other riders never could.  As sentimental beings, horses felt her calm demeanor, relaxed  under her and performed at a high level.”
“She was a wonderful horseman.  Nobody cared about the horse itself more than she did.  She did so much to take horses off the track and rehabilitate them, find them homes and new careers.”
“We should all learn from the bottom up like she did and be a well-rounded person.  She really tried to give people a leg up on the racetrack.  It’s really a sad loss for all of us.  She did a lot for the sport, she did a lot for women in the sport.”
“This quietly came through the New York circuit with great sadness ~ it stole the breath from you and hurt the heart where now, reflection weeps.”
 Here are some links to articles about Diane:
Note: I did not know Diane, only knew of her, but I did see her ride at Rockingham Park!  I am known to say and believe that no one ever dies as long as their memories are kept alive by the people who knew and loved them most.  RIP Diane Nelson; no doubts at all that you are remembered. 

8 thoughts on “The Great Jockey Diane Nelson: RIP “Ponytail”

  1. Beautifully done Linda. You have true compassion and talent for writing about you horse racing passion. Diane would have like how you wrote this.


  2. Thanks, Sherry…you all are quite the subjects. I so admire all of you who chose this incredible path! In awe. I hope Diane would like this a bit, she is deserving of so much. So young…


    1. Thank you, Suzanne. I hope they do, I’ve been fascinated for years with the world of racing and all of those people who make it happen.!


  3. she rode my horse ‘Winsomeduck” for me and sharon hodges at Rockingham park – she was a great horseman & Linda is right – all of us who worked at Rockingham Park and had horses there still stay in touch – it is like a family and we all grieve when one passes away – great writing and Diane will be missed


    1. Susan, So glad to know that you knew her. It seems that everyone who knew her, worked with her (and against!) thought the world of her. She made her mark in her profession and in her personal life with people; everyone whose lives she touched has such high praise for her. Thank you for your comment!


  4. no one knew that she was ill – I miss the track very much – am trying to breed my Northern dancer mare in NY (without much success) and will have to race the offspring in NY state because of the stupid NH legislature thinking that horse racing will degrade the quality of life – or does another shopping mall – it is a sad time for all of us as a lot of my race track friends are ill or passing away – thanks for the great article


    1. So many miss the tracks…and now Suffolk will be gone forever, too. A Northern Dancer mare! She must be a beauty! What a bloodline. NY has so many tracks, we have none. I don’t understand that at all. Thank you for writing, good luck with the mare, send a picture of her, I’d love to see her. Sad, yes, that so many people are passing…bygone era for sure.


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