Jockeying for position

Behind a door just off the paddock area of Pimlico Race Course, several jockeys are prepping for the day's races. They're handicapping the competition, comparing notes on horses and, in at least one case, going through a yoga sequence: reaching back to pull one leg high overhead in the Dancer's Pose, touching nose to knee for the Pyramid.

Perhaps this is also happening in the men's locker room, but there's decidedly more stretching space here where the female jockeys suit up, shower and await their calls to the track. But maybe not for much longer: With the success of female jockeys such as Rosie Napravnik, who will ride in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, more women are rising through the ranks of the male-dominated sport of kings.

"For a long time, there weren't a lot of girls around here," said Forest Boyce, 28, a female rider and one of the leading jockeys of either gender in Maryland. "This is the most girls I've been around."

On a recent day at Pimlico, the yoga-practicing Boyce is one of four women competing in the day's 10 races, compared with about 30 male riders. That's roughly in line with the estimated gender breakdown of the nation's jockey corps, although no group keeps statistics on it.

Napravnik, who started her career in Maryland, finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby, the highest ever for a woman in the first jewel of the Triple Crown. On Saturday, the 25-year-old is set to become just the third woman to race in the middle jewel, the Preakness, arriving here under a spotlight from "60 Minutes" and People magazine.

"It's very exciting," said Napravnik, who is now based in New Orleans. "It's going to be special."

Napravnik said Maryland's racing community "felt like such a secure environment.

"There were plenty of opportunities for a woman rider, and an apprentice rider," she said. "Maryland is known for great apprentice riders."

Indeed, both Napravnik and Boyce, who graduated from Garrison Forest and the Maryland Institute College of Art, were runners-up for the national Eclipse Award for outstanding apprentice jockey, given annually by thoroughbred racing to new riders.

Maryland's role in the history of woman jockeys actually goes back to the start: it was the first state to license a female rider, though it had to be forced to do so by a judge.

Kathy Kusner, an Olympic equestrian whose application the Maryland Racing Commission repeatedly denied, sued successfully and was awarded a jockey's license in 1968.

It would take decades, though, for a woman to break through to the top ranks of the sport. Julie Krone is still the only female jockey to win a Triple Crown race, the Belmont Stakes, aboard Colonial Affair in 1993.

Given how many girls grow up loving and riding horses, and how racing favors lightweight jockeys, it's something of a mystery why there aren't more women in the sport. Some have posited that racing's tradition-bound culture, or women's supposed lack of upper body strength, or their need to take time off from the sport if they want to have children have limited their numbers.

But change appears to be afoot. Chris McCarron, who runs the nation's first professional jockey school, said eight of the nine students he is training are female. McCarron, a legendary jockey with six Triple Crown wins over the course of his career — including the 1987 Preakness aboard Alysheba — saw one of his graduates, Kristina McManigell, 24, race at Pimlico last week.

"She's got a bright future," he said after giving McManigell a big hug after she dismounted. "I keep telling her she has to wear shades, her future is so bright."

McCarron, whose North American Racing Academy is located in Lexington, Ky., said it's a "tremendous misconception" that jockeys need brute strength. It's more important to have stamina, on and off the track, he said.

"You have to fight through the frustrations. You have to have a lot of determination and perseverance," he said, something particularly needed for women in a men's sport.

"The girls really need to have a thick skin for this," he said. "There's a lot of teasing in the jock room. It's the nature of the locker room."

Sometimes, though, there's more than teasing to deal with: McManigell sued a male jockey last year, alleging that he entered the women's locker room at another track while she was in the shower and made sexual advances.

The track banned the man indefinitely from racing there, according to news reports at the time, and McManigell said her lawsuit was resolved. She declined to give specifics.