Kayla Stra’s Long-Shot Bet

She came to California to make it as a jockey, only to be cast as a sex symbol in a reality show. Now she's in the Bay Area trying to win races — and to overcome the prejudice against female jockeys.

The scene starts lightheartedly enough. Kayla Stra waltzes into the men’s locker room to watch the instant replay of one of her races with a fellow male jockey. But as they’re joking around, some of the half-naked jockeys changing nearby grow perturbed by her presence. “Kayla, the girls’ jock room is that way,” says one jockey, pointing. Stra complains that the girls’ room doesn’t have the constant replay channel like the mens’. But the male jockeys aren’t having it, and report her to the stewards.

Frustrated, Stra writes a note and tacks it to a bulletin board. “Fuck you winying [sp] little bitches who think that I have nothing better to do than come into the ‘jockeys” room & stare at you! I am a professional & have absolutely no interest in interrupting you from your job. You do that yourself by going out of your way to make a big deal of it. GROW UP!”

The male jockeys who read it are in disbelief. One calls her a bitch. Another says that if he sees her … and motions that he’ll smack her.

It could be a scene from 1969, the year in which the first woman jockey competed at a North American racetrack. But it was a scene from 2009 — a reality show, actually, called Jockeys that aired on the Animal Planet channel. Australian-born Stra was one of two female jockeys featured on the now-cancelled show, which highlighted the plight of jockeys at the Santa Anita track in Los Angeles County.

Initially, the petite, dark-haired 25-year-old Stra was cast as a sex symbol. There are scenes of her jogging around the track in a tight tank top and tiny shorts. Her publicity photo cast her in a half-hearted Jane Russell pose.

But as the show wore on, it became clear that Stra’s personality wasn’t jibing with the sexy girl-next-door. Scenes like the one in the male jock room ended up making her look out of place. “Being in this industry as a female is tough,” she tells the camera. “Girls want to do it just as good as the boys and they’re going to make them prove it. I don’t think they want to give it to anybody easy.”

Forget that Stra was a competitive rider in her native Australia and had won more than 500 races. At Santa Anita, Stra was struggling. And being a female made things doubly hard. While she hoped the reality show would help raise her profile, it didn’t lead to the success she was looking for. Her fellow female cast-mate, however, successfully parlayed her good looks into a semi-naked photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, a web site featuring glossy glamour shots, and a gig as a spokesperson for a cosmetics company. So last year, Stra left Los Angeles and came to the Bay Area. The newest rider at Golden Gate Fields, whose summer season opened August 25, is now focusing on what she does best: ride. And she’s continuing to beat the odds despite long ones against her.

“She certainly has a chance to succeed at Golden Gate,” said her agent, Ron Freitas. “I wouldn’t have taken her on as a client if I didn’t believe it. But I also think she could have made it in LA as well if she had stayed there. She’ll land on her feet wherever she goes. But why did she come to Northern California, then? Simple, she came here because it gave her the best chance to win.”

In a world dominated by male athletes despite the plethora of women who ride horses, Stra highlights the decades-long struggle that women jockeys face. Racing alongside their male counterparts, female jockeys often face prejudice that prevents them from getting picked to ride top horses. It’s an unfortunate catch-22 situation where they can’t win without good horses, but aren’t given good horses without wins.

So Stra’s working her way up the hard way — one race at a time.

Like a lot of young girls, Kayla Stra grew up fascinated by horses. But, as for a lot of girls, carrying that interest into a career has proven more difficult.

She grew up in Adelaide, Australia, where as an eight-year-old she talked her divorced parents into buying her a pony. She spent her free time riding him in the dwindling countryside around the South Australian capital city. When she was in school, Stra thought about riding, and when she was riding, she forgot about school.

By age thirteen, Stra was failing her classes and falling in with a tough crowd. These days, she nonchalantly points to trouble at home, drugs, and a loathing for school. “I love horses, I hated people,” she recalled. She dropped out of school about the same time that she discovered her paternal grandfather had been a jockey. “It was his dream, but he didn’t get to do it for long,” she said, somewhat cryptically.

By the end of her first teenage year, Stra had left home and was spending nights with friends and days at the track. The rest of her education was done with trainers, grooms, and fellow riders. Too young to do anything but clean stalls and exercise horses for the regular riders, Stra made herself a mascot and foundling.

Within a couple of years, she was allowed to race at a unique Aussie tradition called “picnic races.” A combination fashion show and horse race — think of the Kentucky Derby with beer instead of mint juleps — picnic races take place in fields and fairgrounds, with horses often running on patches of dirt. In the crowd are beer kegs and girls wearing silky dresses. Into that scene came a girl also wearing silks — but on top of a racehorse.

Before long, Stra began winning. Soon she had an agent and a handful of mounts at Australia’s legally sanctioned racetracks. And there was no shortage of racing; the country’s 330 tracks make it the nation with more racing places than anywhere in the world, but the purses are small and the profile is on the low end. The only star of Antipodes’ racing that has rated a thought in American minds was Phar Lap, a champion thoroughbred from the 1920s that died shortly after his only Northern Hemisphere race, a second-place finish in Tijuana.

Stra spent five years riding throughout her native land, racking up wins in a variety of races and eventually shedding her apprentice bug (a weight allowance given to novices and noted with a large asterisk in the racing form). Between 2001 and 2006, she won without any allowance at all. She earned every dime battling equal weight with the boys.

Stra describes Australia as a place where her apprenticeship skills were given a thorough workout. “It’s where I learned to be a horseman,” she said. “I had a trainer who taught me to be a good listener, how to keep a good seat on a horse.” As a teenager and a female, however, she didn’t feel particularly welcome in the jockey community. It’s a zero-sum game, because if a new rider is any good, other riders lose out on mounts and money. “The one woman jockey wouldn’t talk with me,” Stra said.

Eventually, the young jockey decided she was ready to leave behind some of her country’s parochialism and start anew. So, at age 23, Stra moved to Orange County, where some of her maternal family members lived. Only this time she would be building a new life in the teeth of the most competitive class of jockeys in the world, and on television, for everyone else to watch.

Santa Anita Park is the biggest racetrack west of Kentucky in terms of purses and reputation — at least it has been for the last seventy years. Triple Crown winners, Hall of Fame trainers and riders, the 1984 Olympic Games, and movie stars have called it home. The story of Seabiscuit largely takes place there, and back in the day when the glitterati of Hollywood needed a place to winter, the flags atop the Arcadia track beckoned. The Marx Brothers spent A Day at the Races there, and everyone from Bing Crosby to Alex Trebek has owned thoroughbreds that have run the track.

But the new millennium has been a bummer for the industry in general and for Santa Anita in particular. Attendance there has dropped by about one-third from what it was a generation ago, and that was a generation past its peak. Many complain that the racing experience isn’t fast enough. People wanting to wager look for more action than nine races dragged out over six hours. The few tracks that have prospered have become “racinos,” an amalgam of slot machines, poker tables, and, for those who want to breathe fresh air for a minute or two, racing.

In 2006, serious talks began about closing the legendary track, and while it has received a stay of execution, by the end of this year, the expanding Westfield Mall will swallow a portion of the track’s now superfluous parking lot. But the purses at Santa Anita are still among the highest in racing, so it still draws the best riders, which drew the attention of the TV network Animal Planet.

Meanwhile, Kayla Stra had arrived in Southern California but was failing to get many mounts at Santa Anita. “I was frustrated, I just wanted a chance,” she said. But with hundreds of riders with flashier résumés wanting the same thing, it could hardly have been a surprise that Stra was far back in line. “I had a good record in Australia, and all I would get was an occasional sixty-to-one shot.”

It can be a vicious circle around the oval. Trainers look for the rider who is going to give them the best chance to win. Since jockeys earn a cut of the purse if they win, it serves their interest to hop on the best horse offered. Without an established agent to get her aboard, Stra wasn’t getting offered anything other than leftovers. Her name couldn’t even be found on the first page of the jockey standings at the Southern California track, and her winning percentage of 4 percent translated into more frustration. “I don’t know if it because I was a girl, or because they didn’t know me. They must have said, ‘Oh, here’s this little girl from Australia. We don’t know her and we don’t know if she’s any good.'”

It took months before Stra brought home her first winner, Flying Bearcat, at Hollywood Park, and that didn’t do much other than get her a few more exercise rides in the morning. “They said I would just have to wait,” said Stra, pausing and then twisting her mouth into a kind of sardonic smile. “I’m not too good at waiting.” In her second year at Santa Anita, however, the waiting would end.

The reality series Jockeys was pitched as a series that would depict racing life like it really is. Folks in the industry were excited about the show’s potential. But it soon became clear that its success would depend on how much drama it could squeeze from its main characters. The show was marketed with the tag line, “To win it all, you have to risk it all.” The danger of racing was made explicit: “It’s the most dangerous two minutes in sports!” A series of spills and ambulances were highlighted in the opening credits.

Stra was approached about being one of the featured riders and agreed right off. “They asked me if I wanted to be on TV,” she said. “And I thought, well, it will help to pay the bills.” Stra was ranked much closer to zero than hero, but it was apparent from the start that she was chosen not just for being an underdog, but also for her “womanly” traits. Her fan mail reflected an appreciation for something other than her racing form. “Smoking hot jockey,” was one of the less insightful comments on a YouTube video. Stra shrugs and says it’s the nature of celebrity. She seems neither inspired nor offended at how her looks have played into her story. “I wasn’t looking to be a star; I thought it might help me get better horses,” she said. Not surprisingly, once the show aired, Stra began getting noticed at the racetrack.

But the program satisfied almost nobody. Track fans didn’t fall for the re-recorded race narration that sounded like a Hardy Boys program. (“Can Mike hang on?! Here comes Alex!”) And newcomers to the sport didn’t take to Jimmy the Hat, professional tout, who offered viewers insider wisdom like, “People come out here to gamble.”

From the start, Stra was getting as much camera time as riders with far higher profiles. Usually introduced with some variation of “the new girl,” Stra was one of two female riders featured, and, in the beginning, the more regularly featured one. The first few episodes reveal her as a plucky underdog. In one scene, a trainer gently chides her as he tries to keep up with her while walking to the paddock area. “If there was a walking race around here, you’d be in first place,” he said, teasingly. “Not funny,” she responded, without even a hint of levity. Reflecting back, Stra says, “They saw me as some kind of out-of nowhere long shot. I never saw myself that way.”

The producers also made feints toward Stra a sex symbol with a seductive promotional photo and shots of her exercising scantily clad. But she poisoned the well on that angle, too, saying on camera, “Winning a race is better than sex.” Her first-person speeches to the camera were terse and not very revealing; the manufactured drama in her storyline (“Will Kayla ever win?”) was pumped up with a completely depressing montage of her getting beat in about eight races in a row. Neither the producers nor Stra did a very compelling job of turning her into a rooting interest. And so, by the end of the first season, Stra’s face in the opening credits was replaced by other jockeys. Her storyline, thinned out considerably, began testing her out as sort of a villain. “I hated the way they edited the show,” she said. “I stopped watching it.”

Meanwhile, the other female rider, Chantal Sutherland, was rushed to the front of the narrative. Not a single episode missed the pretty Canadian rider with her boyfriend in the jockey’s room, having heart-to-heart talks about their future and starting a family. During those episodes, we saw Stra in a bar with some guy we weren’t introduced to, and then she committed a race violation and had her horse disqualified. In the show’s second and final season, Stra fumed about unequal conditions for women riders, and then got teased by fellow riders for being thin-skinned about it.

Ultimately, she got hung out to dry by the jockey community and the show’s producers, who clearly found her to be a bit more (or less) than they expected. Before the show had been officially cancelled, Stra was gone from the narrative — and Southern California.

Kayla Stra does not like to play the gender angle. Numerous interlocutors have explored that path, but she insists that it hasn’t been much of a factor in her development. But while her talent may not necessarily be tied to her gender, her career prospects unfortunately may be.

Relatively speaking, the history of professional female jockeys is a short one. It was 1969 when Diana Crump took a mount at Hialeah Park and became the first woman to ride in a major race in the country. A couple decades later, New York-based rider Julie Krone hurdled more barriers by becoming the first woman to win a Triple Crown race.

Discrimination against woman riders in Australia lasted longer, but also vanished quicker. The Aussies restricted female riders to “ladies-only” races until 1980. Jockey Bill Smith rode throughout the mid-20th century but only because she kept her real identity as a woman secret. But since then, the continent has worked to make up for lost time. In Victoria, 17 percent of the riders are women with only 10 percent of the mounts, according to AllWomenSport.com, and female jockeys are starting to win big races and big purses.

Back in the states, however, female jockeys still face discrimination. “They say that women jockeys aren’t strong enough,” said Stra’s agent, Ron Freitas. “And that’s what they’ve been saying since the first female rider probably put on the silks.” He says that the prejudice against women riders has been on Stra’s back since she arrived.

Oddly, prejudice against female jockeys is more pronounced on the seemingly open-minded West Coast, according to Sam Spear, the éminence grise of Golden Gate Fields who hosts a radio show on the weekends. “California of all places,” he said, shaking his head. “This is the last holdout on women riders. Back east you see a number of females running, but out here trainers are still kind of spooked. They’re convinced that the women aren’t strong enough.”

Things are starting to change, however. “It’s a lot more acceptable for trainers to use a woman rider than back in the day,” said Los Angeles-based filmmaker Jason Neff, whose recent documentary, Jock the Movie, tells the story of women’s tough ride into the Sport of Kings. “People realize that you don’t just need to muscle a horse into position, that there is real benefit to the more psychological, instinctual touch that women bring to the sport. The fact that women weren’t thought of as strong enough is giving way to the realization that maybe they are better at communicating with the horses and that can be as powerful as a pair of really strong arms.”

Stra says that the constant focus on strong jockeys misses the point. Wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, it’s obvious that she is built to hold on. Her shoulders are strong and her arms are muscular as well. What Stra holds up, however, are her hands: “I think I’m better than most of the guys when it comes to feel. It means when I climb on, I use my hands at first to see how the horse is feeling. If the horse is feeling energetic, I get the vibe in my hands. If they aren’t feeling like running, I get that, too.”

Others are starting to see Stra’s potential as well. “The only thing you can realistically ask a jockey to do is give you a chance to win,” said her trainer, Bruce Dillenbeck. “Kayla does that. I can’t expect to win every race, but she will give you all she’s got anytime I have picked her. I love how competitive she is. I don’t know why more trainers don’t use her, but I’m certainly going to continue to. … I’m not going to say ‘no’ to somebody who has the kind of talent Kayla has.”

Kayla Stra has gone from being a minor celebrity losing races in public to being competitive in obscurity. After two years of getting nowhere down south, she’s now getting second- and third-place finishes at Golden Gate Fields. As a result, she’s finally catching the eye of the local racing community. “Kayla has run some really good races here,” said the track’s Sam Spear. “I think that she has what it takes to be a top-notch rider.”

Still, it’s not yet clear that Stra has mastered the calculus of her move. She says she enjoys being a role model, but one has to wonder whether you can inspire from a racehorse at a track that barely draws flies. Attendance at Golden Gate has sunk proportionate to the rest of the industry, and it never was a very big track. Years ago, the track stopped publishing the turnstile count, knowing that a losing proposition has a way of scaring off those with money in their pockets. Except for Sunday dollar days, the rows of empty seats stacked in consecutive empty sections speaks to one seriously passed over spectator event. The newspaper coverage has shrunk to the minimum, while TV time has completely disappeared.

But Stra’s presence on the field has been noteworthy, even if rookie players don’t realize from the newspaper listing that the rider listed as “K. Stra” is a woman. She’s now getting plenty of mounts, and a large percentage of them on the board means that she’s starting to be the sort of rider who patrons are willing to trust their money on — regardless of gender. And on the closing week at Golden Gate Fields this past spring, it was easy to see why.

With just two furlongs to go, Stra had established a two-length lead. But her horse’s form showed little ability to drive the field, and she risked burning him out early. To the few hundred fans who rushed to the rail, the only question was whether she could hang on.

But with every stride, it became clear that she wouldn’t. Her gelding was gassed, and two favorites, one from the inside and one from the outside, passed her down the stretch. Usually that’s when a horse that sets the pace disappears. But the newest jockey in the East Bay asked her horse the question and her mount answered with a rush back into the scrum. With a half-dozen other horses charging late to get on the board, Stra stuck it out and hung on for third place.

The racing form, in its staccato summary, said it best: “Dueled, stayed on.” It might be the tale of Kayla Stra as well.


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