07/11/2017 11:06AM

Former jockey Diane Nelson dead at 51

Barbara D. Livingston
Diane Nelson was a leading jockey at Rockingham Park before moving her tack to New York in 1990.

Diane Nelson, a former jockey whose career was cut short by back problems, died on July 5. Details regarding her death were not readily available. She was 51.

A private family service was held Monday on Long Island at the Moloney Funeral home in Suffolk County in New York.

Nelson rode 1,095 winners -- the sixth female jockey to reach that milestone -- in a 21-year career that ended in early 2007 after Nelson could not overcome back issues. She underwent back surgery for a herniated disc in Dec. 2005 and would need several more operations before retiring in 2007.

Nelson grew up on Long Island, where she was an aspiring swimmer. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1990, Nelson said after she stopped swimming in her early teens she got a horse she had been asking for from her parents for many years.

That led to Nelson to pursue a career with horses. She worked on a breeding farm on Long Island, then went to New Zealand, where she began to learn how to gallop horses. She returned to the U.S. and took a job in Ocala, Fla., where the farm manager, Robert Nelson, was working to become a trainer. Diane and Robert later married and through a friend were introduced to Dominick Imperio, who brought the Nelsons to the Northeast to start their careers.

In 1987, Nelson was the second-leading female rider in the nation with 209 wins. She had a personal one-year best 228 winners in 1988. In both years she was the leading rider at Rockingham Park in New England. Nelson bounced around at tracks in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York for a few years before ultimately moving her tack to the New York Racing Association circuit -- Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga -- in 1990.

At the beginning of her stay in New York, Nelson was noticed by the Ford Modeling Agency and she began doing some commercials. In a 1998 article, Nelson told The New York Times she found modeling too much of a distraction.

“I was bouncing around, and was really unhappy,” Nelson told The Times. “So I decided I’m going to stay in New York and ride, whether I make it or not.”

From Nov. 1991 to March 1992, Nelson rode the popular sprinter Boom Towner to seven consecutive victories. In the mid-90s, she rode the New York-bred mare Lottsa Talc to seven stakes wins. Before she got hurt in 2005, Nelson rode Acey Deucey to victory in the Grade 1 Prioress when the race was run at Belmont.

In the Tribune article, Nelson talked about the challenges of competing against men at the highest level of racing.

“It’s definitely tougher on this level,” Nelson said. “If you’re a woman, you’re constantly trying to win on horses that aren’t the favorite.”

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

Nelson gave the former jockey Leah Gyarmati her first two wins as a trainer on the filly Flippy Diane, one of those wins coming in the Maryland Million Distaff.

“She was a wonderful horseman. Nobody cared about the horse itself more than she did,” Gyarmati said. “She did so much to take horses off the track and rehabilitate them, find them new homes, new careers.”

Gyarmati said she had a lot of respect for Nelson, who even though her family had money, wanted to make her own way.

“We should all learn from the bottom up like she did and be a well-rounded person,” Gyarmati said. “She really tried to give people a leg up on the racetrack. It’s really a sad loss for all of us. Just the fact that she hasn’t been around the track the last few years was a big loss. She did a lot for the sport, she did a lot for women in the sport.”