02/19/2004 1:00AM

Jockey's short career broke barriers


It wasn't exactly 15 minutes of fame that Barbara Jo Rubin enjoyed when she became the first female jockey to win a parimutuel Thoroughbred race in 1969 - but close to it.

Rubin became an instant sports celebrity as a 19-year-old when she broke the gender barrier on Feb. 22, 1969, at Charles Town Races in West Virginia and proved she could succeed in what had been strictly a man's world. She drew big crowds to the racetrack wherever she rode and appeared on such popular national television programs as "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "To Tell the Truth."

At the end of the 1969 season, Rubin had won 22 of 89 races, an exceptional success rate of nearly 25 percent. Then, just as quickly as her star rose, Rubin vanished. After her sensational rookie season, she never rode another race.

But Rubin never ended her involvement with horses. Today she lives and works at a horse farm in Troy, Ill., about 20 minutes from St. Louis, where she juggles responsibilities as an owner, manager, and trainer. She works with about 35 horses, giving lessons to roughly 50 children in such varied disciplines as pleasure riding, barrel racing, and western driving.

On Saturday night, Charles Town will honor Rubin when she returns to the track one day short of the 35th anniversary of her historic first victory.

At 54, she's still close to her riding weight, tipping the scales at 112 pounds. Four years ago, she married a childhood friend, Gordon Gubin. The only competitive riding she does now is in dressage, where horses are trained to make precision movements in response to barely perceptible signals from the rider.

Rubin's memories of her one year as a jockey remain vivid, especially the reaction of the fans. The overwhelming majority of them, she said, were rooting for her.

"They had to have police escort me to and from the paddock," Rubin said recently. "Not because of any threats, but because everybody wanted to get close and take a piece of my clothing as a souvenir. I would have ended up wearing nothing."

The other jockeys were not so enthusiastic or supportive.

"They were nice to my face," she said. "But behind my back, they weren't so nice."

In the most extreme episode, a trailer that served as Rubin's dressing room was pelted with stones while she was inside, and jockeys at Tropical Park in Florida staged a boycott rather than compete against her.

Rubin likened her role to a one-woman traveling circus act, going from track to track for one-day appearances as part of her contract with trainer Bryan Webb.

"I just wanted to ride at one place and be like any other jockey," Rubin said. "But I had to travel. I didn't care for it, but if I didn't do it, I knew I couldn't ride."

Rubin said she often was assigned mounts no other jockey would accept, horses who were accidents waiting to happen. By Rubin's count, she endured 14 spills in a two-week period, and by the end of her first season, Rubin's knees and back ached constantly.

While preparing for the 1970 season, a horse she was exercising in Florida hit the rail and dragged Rubin along the ground. She sustained hip injuries and blood clots, which kept her sidelined for nearly four months. Just when she was healthy enough to begin riding again, she fell and broke her pelvis.

Frustrated, Rubin tried training horses at Tampa Bay Downs, but she didn't like owners who pressed her to over-race their horses.

"I didn't last long," she said. "It just killed my spirit."

She spent one season as an outrider at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire. Then, in her late 20's, after she divorced her first husband, Rubin attempted one last comeback as a jockey. Again, she was the victim of two nasty falls during training hours. In one, she broke all the ribs on one side of her body. In the other, a horse stepped on her and broke her neck.

So Rubin learned to be content working with horses in other ways. She has competed as a driver, an endurance rider, and, most recently, in dressage.

"As long as I can be around horses, I'm happy," she said.

Rubin began riding when she was about 7 as a form of exercise to strengthen her legs, which had been crippled by polio. She excelled in the ring at horse shows and began to exercise horses. She rode her first races, at bush tracks, when she was 12.

"I would ride for my boyfriend, who could get better odds on me because I was a girl and they thought I would fall off the horse," she said.

Rubin wasn't the first woman to earn a jockey's license (Kathy Kusner was), or the first to ride in a race (Diane Crump), or even the leading female apprentice of 1969 (Mary Bacon). But she was the first woman to win a race, a $2,500 allowance aboard a 6-year-old gelding named Cohesian at Charles Town. Cohesian won the 6 1/2-furlong race by a half-length over stablemate Reely Beeg.

Phil Grove, 56, a steward in Maryland, rode in the race against Rubin.

"She was on tons the best horse," Grove said. "If we could have beaten her, we would have. But we basically just had to follow her around the track. The male ego took a big beating that night."

Grove admitted that he and the other Charles Town regulars were reluctant to allow a woman into their domain.

"We were all apprehensive," Grove said. "We thought it was a terrible publicity stunt. But we also realized that if it would help West Virginia racing by bringing more people to the track, we would do it. So we all swallowed our egos and let it happen."

Less than a month later, Rubin became the first woman to win a race in New York, aboard Brave Galaxy at Aqueduct. Later, in addition to touring the United States, Rubin rode in the Bahamas, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Canada.

"The excitement I felt . . . you can never take that away," she said. "I loved breaking from the gate - that was so exciting. Even galloping the horses was fun."