06/20/2013 1:15PM

Crump, first female jockey, reflects on trail she blazed

Keeneland Library/Jim Raftery/Turfotos
Diane Crump is the first female jockey to ride in an American parimutuel race as well as the first female to ride in a Kentucky Derby.

“The track bugler raised his horn to his lips, but didn’t blow the traditional call to post. Instead, he blared out ‘My Diane,’ and the walls of male invincibility on American Thoroughbred tracks came tumbling down.”
− United Press International (Feb. 7, 1969)

“If you could describe yourself in a couple of words, what might they be?”

A contemplative pause ensued at the end of the long-distance phone line, punctuated by what sounded like a sigh. When the response finally came, it was almost in the form of a question: “Ordinary . . . maybe? Average?”

This humble self-descriptive was uttered in late May by Diane Crump, the woman who on Feb. 7, 1969, had donned a set of silks, climbed aboard a finely tuned Thoroughbred, and exploded out of a starting gate in a sanctioned competition against men, putting a torch to centuries of racing’s dusty rules. Average? Ordinary? Not in a million years.

That month 44 years ago, war-protesting bell-bottomed youth were spilling onto bicoastal American streets, waving placards and shouting, “Hell no, we won’t go!” Outraged women, in increasing numbers, were demanding equity in pay and opportunity. The twin towers of the World Trade Center − America’s shrine to freedom and capitalism − were not yet finished. Woodstock had not yet happened. Charles Manson’s horrendous murders also lurked ahead in that weird, unsettled season, as did Kent State’s horrific shootings.

Even the Sport of Kings, galloping down the homestretch of its glory days, managed to grab a few dramatic headlines. Followers of late 1960s racing cannot help but recall the hysteria surrounding a certain group of audacious young women, some still in their teens, who had the gall to think they could, and should, ride with the boys. Among them, Olympian Kathy Kusner, the instigator, who deployed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to win the first jockey’s license awarded to a female; pretty divorcee Penny Ann Early, who was up to try anything, even suiting up for a game of pro basketball; pig-tailed girl-next-door Barbara Jo Rubin; Los Angeles “housewife” Tuesdee Testa; former nun-in-training Sandy Schleiffers. And there was Diane Crump, a strong-willed slip of a girl who invited no easy label.

As a group, they had much to endure along their bumpy road to equality. Boos and heckles and insults; ticked-off male jockeys; a patronizing, chauvinistic media; even the occasional physical threat. A brick was hurled through the window of a makeshift racetrack dressing room with a young woman inside. Another would-be rider came home to find a hatchet embedded in her wall. They were condescended to as “jockettes,” dismissed as novelties, and admonished to go home and wash dishes. Crude wit was generously dispensed from all directions, but especially from the jockeys’ room:

“What’s next? Topless go-go riders?”

“They’re not strong enough.”

“They’ll freeze. . . . They’ll panic. . . . They’ll hurt somebody.”

“Boycott the Broads” − which some male riders actually did. Even a future Hall of Famer threatened to quit the saddle if ever a girl outrode him.

[SLIDESHOW: Female jockeys, from Crump to Sutherland]

Into this hostile environment stepped a handful of courageous women, ready to haul an ancient and outmoded pastime into the modern era.

While each played a key role in doing just that, it was Crump who turned racing completely on its head with a rapid-fire series of firsts, achieved over the span of 15 months. Between Feb. 7, 1969, and May 2, 1970, she became the first of her gender to compete against men in a sanctioned North American parimutuel race; the first to ride two winners in a day; the first to win a stakes, Fair Grounds’s 1969 Spring Fiesta Cup on Easy Lime; and the first to get a leg-up in the Run for the Roses, a milestone that elicited relatively respectful mention from gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in his classic piece “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”

Crump may have seemed an unlikely hero − this 5-foot, 105-pound female dynamo − and she herself wasn’t particularly interested in being one. But the events that enveloped her in 1969-70 would sow a distant harvest she could never have imagined, and a hero is what she came to be.

Today, 44 years after her turn at the epicenter of the sports world, and 14 years after hanging up her racing tack, Diane Crump lives far from the media spotlight, on a two-acre woodsy spread along the Blue Ridge Mountain range of Northern Virginia. When she looks out her office window, there’s not a horse in sight, though a terrier or two may wander by. She no longer rides.

“I raced for almost 30 years, and I’m too beat up now to even try,” she said. “It’s not just the injuries, because that goes with the sport. It’s more the repetitive wear and tear. I hate to think of how many horses I galloped during my career − 25, 30 a day, every day for years. When I finally stopped riding [in 1999], it took two years just to get pain-free. I had so many knee surgeries, shoulder surgeries.”

Crump may be horse-less these days, but those four-legged creatures she once rode like the wind remain very much a part of her life. As owner/operator of Diane Crump Equine Sales Inc., she serves as a sort of clearinghouse for sporting stock in a part of the world where the sport horse is king − dealing in hunters, jumpers, eventers, dressage, and trail horses − anything that doesn’t currently race around an oval track.

“I’m like a Realtor,” she said. “People look at horses I’ve posted on my website, and if they they’re interested, they call me, and we’ll set up appointments to see them. I’ll meet them somewhere, then take them out to the different farms. On days when I don’t have customers looking, I go see horses that people have asked me to help sell. I won’t post a horse on my website that I haven’t seen.”

Crump’s business puts her on the road up to a thousand miles a week.

“Nothing’s close in Virginia,” she says, with an easy laugh.

In her down time, she is the same outdoorsy girl she’s always been, hiking for hours through the mountains and kayaking on the nearby Shenandoah River.

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One cannot speak with this doting grandmother, now in her 60s, without bringing up her storied past. Crump is good-natured about it, though she doesn’t seem to quite get the ongoing fascination. She does not view herself as a revolutionary icon, though she admits when the doors were there to be opened, she pushed on through.

“I hate to say it, but the women’s movement really wasn’t part of my mental process at the time,” she said. “I was simply working hard at the track, galloping horses. Yes, it was going on, but was I actually a part of it? Maybe, but it wasn’t something I was consciously trying to do. I was just a horse-loving kid pursuing her dream.”

A horse-loving kid with iron-clad will and steely determination. A girl whose wise parents let her follow her passion, lest she up and run away. A teen who enrolled in night school to graduate early so she could follow the horses when they departed Tampa.

“Had I turned 17 yet?” she said. “Don’t think so. But I left.”

She was a pistol.

You can still see that spirit − feel it − in those old black-and-white news photos. The one from Feb. 7, 1969, depicting a tiny little thing, head held high, being guided by armed security through a crushing Hialeah mob en route to a date with destiny.

PHOTO: Crump escorted by security through a crowd at Hialeah Park on Feb. 7, 1969.

A paddock shot of an intense young woman alongside a small-time trainer she’d never met before and a $5,000 claimer she’d never seen. Heck, Crump was unaware Tom Calumet had named her on Bridle ’n Bit until she saw the entries the day before. A Chicago car salesman in his money job, Calumet gave her a shot at the urging of his wife, a woman apparently before her time among backstretch spouses.

A final photograph from that extraordinary afternoon showed Crump’s elated, dirt-encrusted face, moments after she finished 10th of 12 aboard her 48-1 mount.

And what of the taunts, jeers, boos, and threats that became a daily part of this barrier-breaking process?

She snorts dismissively: “That? Oh, I ignored it all. It wasn’t even worth giving a second thought to. I’m not the kind of person who gets scared. That’s just not in my make-up.”

An argument frequently then-employed in opposing female jockeys had to do with the question of strength, a debate that sets Crump’s teeth on edge to this day.

“You know what? None of us is that strong when compared to a horse. It’s the feel you have for them that matters. If you can get along with them, relate to them, those are the things that make you a horse person and a rider. Brute strength has no relevance at all in the real world” of racing.

Despite incessant jabber over a woman’s lack of muscle power, Crump often found herself stuck on the most incorrigible of horses. She is on record as having won 235 races, many of those aboard rogues and outlaws. It was a tough road that never got easier.

“It was always hard getting mounts,” she recalls, especially “live” ones, a fact that clearly still rankles. “I got on every puke that no one else wanted to ride. If they reared up, if they ran off, if they were stupid, that’s what I got. I had to prove myself over and over and over again. That went on for years.”

Even Fathom, her world-changing 1970 Kentucky Derby mount, was tough in every way. So much so that Crump not only rode him but groomed him part-time as well. (Her late ex-husband, Don Divine, was Fathom’s trainer.)

“Sure, he was out of his class in the Derby, and he certainly wasn’t bred for that, either,” she said. “But I loved and understood him.”

Was Fathom her favorite, by virtue of the classic connection?

“No,” she said. “There were so many, I couldn’t put one over another. I loved every horse that tried hard, gave me everything, gave me his heart, whatever level they ran at.”

There were no women on the backside at Sunshine Park (now Tampa Bay Downs) when 16-year-old Diane Crump was licensed to gallop there back in 1964. No exercise riders, no trainers, scarcely a female groom. She was alone.

When she began riding competitively in 1969, she remained alone, changing into her jockey’s silks in the splendid isolation of a cordoned-off ladies’ room and, later, in a tiny trailer in the Tampa Bay parking lot.

“Thirty years later, you’d walk up the stairs to the jock’s room, go through the door, and half was set up for men, half for women,” she said. “When I came back to Tampa Bay in 1999, just as many women were riding as men. It went from zero, to just me, to half and half − equal. How about that?”

PHOTO: Crump in a 2010 photo with daughter Della and granddaughter Farah. She now resides in Northern Virginia, where she runs an equine sales business.

There were girls in that jockeys’ room young enough to be Crump’s daughter. Indeed, some were the offspring of old friends and competitors.

“A few knew who I was, but some didn’t,” she said. “When they found out, they were like, ‘Wow! That was you?’ ”

Crump acknowledges that while racing remains largely a man’s world, closing in on half a century after her debut in silks, she is nevertheless proud of the progress that has been made.

“It’s not like it could be, not like we all want it to be, but it certainly has come a long, long way,” she said. “At least today, if you have the ability and desire to ride races and make it to the top, you can. In my era, you could not. Back then, we didn’t have a fighting chance. Now we do.”

Looking back through the prism of 44 years, what advice would Diane Crump give young women today? Simply this:

“Live your dream. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t or that you’re not good enough. You are. I’m a little nobody, yet I’m in a history book. I didn’t plan on that. All I did was follow my passion, the gift that God gave me, and I never let it die.”