11/06/2015 3:31PM

Hovdey: Even racing can’t keep a good woman down


Eddie Gregson could have waited until the morning after the 1982 Kentucky Derby to announce that the victorious Gato Del Sol would not be running in the Preakness. Instead, he dropped the bomb on ABC and Jim McKay in the midst of the winner’s-stand celebration, which went over about as happily as a certain noise in church.

Gregson’s point, of course, was valid. No matter what the pressures of tradition, Gato Del Sol was not the kind of horse who should run right back in two weeks after a grueling race, especially after having competed in the Blue Grass Stakes just nine days before the Derby.

Alas, the point was lost in the furor over Gregson’s timing. He was pilloried in the press and mocked at Pimlico, where general manager Chick Lang threatened to put a mule or a goat in the stall usually reserved for the Derby winner. Gato Del Sol ran once more for Gregson, and then he was fired.

This is a long way of telling Maria Borell, who was fired as Runhappy’s trainer the day after they won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, that she is in good company. Ian Jory had California 2-year-old champ Best Pal yanked from his care by John Mabee midway through a 3-year-old season in which he finished a close second in Kentucky Derby. Jimmy Jerkens lost Fountain of Youth winner Quality Road, among others, when he was dumped by Ned Evans. Bobby Frankel, who tended to speak his mind, once lost the talented horses of Jerry and Ann Moss, including Ruhlmann, who went on to win the Santa Anita Handicap for Charlie Whittingham.

Even Whittingham was not immune. In the fall of 1964, his primary patron was C.C. Moseley, the aviation pioneer who fancied himself quite the horseman. One afternoon, Whittingham arrived at his Bay Meadows stable to find a row of empty stalls where the Moseley horses had lived. Whittingham’s friend, Dr. Jack Robbins, asked what happened.

“The man wanted me to blister all his horses,” Whittingham said. “I told him it wasn’t such a good idea. He told me to do it anyway, so I told him where to put the peaches.”

A few days later, oil magnate Howard B. Keck called, and Charlie was back in business. Granted, he was a little further along than Borell, with a reputation firmly in place. But that’s not the point. The point is that trainers sometimes can’t win for losing, and that they labor at the pleasure of their patrons while treading a tightrope strung between job security and good conscience.

This in no way explains away the actions of Jim McIngvale and Laura Wohlers, who have dragged the racing game through a muck pile of bad vibes. Those who choose to participate in Thoroughbred racing are not necessarily required to behave well in public, but they do have an obligation to conduct their business in a manner that reflects admirably on the sport. McIngvale conceded in an interview with The Paulick Report that the timing of the Borell firing was poor. At least he got that right.

Barely a day later and half a world away, the Melbourne Cup provided horse racing with a palate cleanser that helped dilute the Runhappy mess. Michelle Payne, 29, became the first woman to ride a Cup winner in the 155-year history of “the race that stops a nation” aboard the 100-1 shot Prince of Penzance. For context, Frankie Dettori finished second, and Ryan Moore was far back.

Upon pulling up from the two-mile ordeal, Payne let loose a cascade of joy and praise – which was expected – then added that she was especially grateful to have retained the mount in the face of the sport’s rampant male chauvinism and the less-than-100-percent support of the winner’s ownership group.

Her timing was perfect.

There was the predictable reactionary push-back that Payne’s remarks were inappropriate at such a celebratory moment or just plain inaccurate, given the statistical evidence of women holding licenses to train and ride in several of the world’s top racing nations.

Such a shallow interpretation of numbers, however, confuses the difference between simply having a job and being given a fair chance to advance in that job. Payne was merely loosening the gag required for most women in racing to go along just to get along in the face of paternal condescension, physical intimidation, and sexual harassment. To those who criticized her refreshing honesty, Payne had a simple message: “Get stuffed.”

There is a movie making the rounds right now called “Suffragette.” It’s about the women’s suffrage movement in England, circa 1912, and how the male establishment played hardball to keep the other 50 percent of the citizenry in its place.

A minor role in the film goes to a suffragette named Emily Davison, who on June 4, 1913, stepped into the running of the Epsom Derby in an attempt to attach a scarf of protest to the bridle of Anmer, the horse owned by King George V. Four days later, Davison died of injuries sustained in the protest.

One hundred years is hardly enough time to dispel the deeply ingrained residue of gender prejudice in any corner of the culture, horse racing included. Just as Davison sacrificed herself to the cause, Payne said what needed to be said at just the right moment. I suppose it is progress that she got to do it from on top of the horse.