11/25/2009 12:00AM

Making the saddle a woman's place

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Diane Crump shows her jockey's license in 1969, when she became the first woman to ride in a sanctioned parimutuel race in the United States.

As a jockey, Diane Crump was banged around plenty. As an exercise rider and trainer, she suffered the wear and tear of more than 30 years worth of getting on tough horses daily. But then, as merely an innocent bystander earlier this year, Crump was knocked down and trampled into the blacktop by a runaway horse at a training barn, sustaining eight broken ribs, multiple horseshoe-shaped bruises and contusions, and a subdural hematoma at the base of her skull that could have rendered her handicapped the rest of her life.

It didn't, is the good news. And the broken bones and bruises have healed. The only lasting effect has been the occasional, frustrating loss of short-term memory, for which Crump must compensate with notes to herself and gentle reminders from her circle of friends and family in the Middleburg area of horsey northern Virginia, where she runs her own equine sales company.

Fortunately, Crump's long-term memory is as sharp as ever, which is a blessing, since a significant piece of racing history is attached to her name.

"I remember how loud my baby granddaughter cried the week I took care of her," Crump, who is 60, said with a laugh this week from her home in the town of Lyndon, Va.

"I can remember the day I was 4 years old, when they took me to the carnival and I got on my first pony," she went on. "And I can remember what the valet said that first day I rode. I'm sure they had to draw lots, because nobody wanted me. He finally said, 'This is crazy. Somebody's gotta help the poor thing.' "

At this point it should be noted that Crump's first day was the very first day that a woman rode in a sanctioned parimutuel race in the United States. The date was Feb. 7, 1969, at Hialeah Park, which means the 40th anniversary of the event came and went while Crump was recovering from her injuries.

Her landmark race was celebrated far and wide as a watershed moment in the history of women's sports, even though she insists she was only taking what she believed was a logical step in an inevitable journey.

"I don't remember getting nervous about that first ride," Crump said. "I never set out to make any history. But I always knew my destiny was to be with horses, and being a jockey was just the next challenge for me. I guess I was just waiting my turn, that's all."

Even though she finished 10th in the 12-horse field, Crump made headlines, magazine covers, and the nightly news. A documentary currently in the works, entitled "Jock," uses Crump as the signature image of its promotional material. She has the distinction of being the answer to a unique trivia question, while at the same time possessed of the perspective of the moment. And she remembers everything about the day.

"Those were the days of 24-hour entries," Crump began. "I was galloping a horse the day before I rode my first race. Somebody asked me if I knew I was named on a horse tomorrow. Nope, I didn't. And I didn't have anything but a Caliente helmet I galloped with, and a whip. That afternoon I went to the tack store across the street from the track and bought some pants, the boots. But I didn't buy a saddle because I thought, 'What if I never ride again? What if they boycott me?' "

It was a serious expense, and a legitimate concern. Riders at two different Florida tracks already had refused to ride when other licensed women were named on runners.

"Danny Gargan was riding a few races, and he was a friend," Crump said. "He said I could borrow his saddle. The thing was, I'm 5-4, and Danny, well, his irons were so short, and you couldn't make them longer. The race was a mile and an eighth. I thought I would get very tired, but for some reason I didn't. Must have been the adrenaline."

Crump dressed in Hialeah's Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association office, weighed in on a bathroom scale, and was escorted to the paddock by armed guards. Awaiting her in the walking ring was trainer Tom Calumet and her mount, Bridle 'n Bit. Calumet had a confession.

"He said, 'My wife said I better name you on this horse or she was gonna divorce me,' " Crump recalled. "He said she had been reading all those articles about that girl who was trying so hard and couldn't get to ride, and it just wasn't fair. And she wanted me on her horse."

"That girl" was Kathy Kusner, who had taken the Maryland Racing Commission to the state supreme court for refusing to issue her a jockey's license. Kusner was also a member of the U.S. Olympic equestrian team that went to the games of 1964, 1968, and 1972, when they won the silver in Munich. She was injured before she could take advantage of her legal victory, but Kusner did end up riding and winning races.

Crump thought women would have made up a much larger percentage of the jockey profession by now, especially at the top of the game. Still, 40 years downstream from her historic moment, she is not surprised the sport is still a male-dominated arena.

"Two weeks later, that same horse I rode at Hialeah shipped to Tampa, and I won on him there," Crump said. "At Tampa, they gave me a ladies' restroom for a jock's room. There was a knock on the door, and there was Kathy Kusner with Walter Farley.

"That was one of the greatest moments of my life," Crump said. "I read every book Walter Farley ever wrote. When I was in school, did I do homework? Hell no. I drew black stallions on every folder. And then Kathy said, 'You are my hero.' Me!"

Crump still has trouble believing the scene. "Kathy Kusner had ridden in the Olympics. I'd been riding for two weeks. What had I done?"

Enough to be remembered for a long, long time.