In 1978, Julie Krone’s mother forged her daughter’s birth certificate so the fifteen-year-old jockey wannabe could become a groom and exercise rider at Churchill Downs. Three months later, mother and daughter had to hop a fence when the guards at Tampa Bay Downs wouldn’t let them onto the grounds. Krone would eventually become the first and, so far, only woman ever inducted into thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame. For female jockeys yet to come, her wily determination opened the gate.
Kate Repp of Pleasanton got her first racetrack gig with relative ease — through a racetrack veterinarian she knew — but there’s still plenty of race for her to run. “It was funny,” Repp recalls. “No one wanted my book when I started riding, and now people are like, ‘Oh, maybe …'”
“That’s how it works when you start winning,” chimes in her agent, Mark North.
It’s a windy, sunny Friday, the third-to-last day of Golden Gate Fields’ spring meet. Repp, 23, is sitting in the horsemen’s cafeteria, looking for all the world like somebody’s kid sister as portrayed by Kirsten Dunst. She’s five foot one, with a broad smile and pale blonde hair topped by a pink riding helmet. Her sweatshirt bears a haloed tiger on the front, above the legend “Sweet as Sugar.” On the back is another tiger, this one with horns and the slogan “Tough as Nails,” the only visible hint of the young jockey’s grit. North, by contrast, has a Sopranos vibe, with salt-and-pepper hair, stocky frame, and a tendency toward dry racetrack humor and machine-gun bursts of laughter. Repp began looking for an agent early last year, someone who could convince trainers and owners to take a chance on a female rookie. So North, who has known Repp since she was eighteen, bought a mechanical horse and invited her to practice at his Pleasanton home while watching race replays in the mornings.
“She got to the point where she was looking good enough in the morning that it was time to let her try,” he says. “And the first horse she rode in Fresno ran second. We created a monster. She came running back down the racetrack: ‘I’m a jockey! I’m a jockey!'”
A self-described “track brat,” North has ridden horses and hustled book, and knows just about everyone at Golden Gate Fields. But at the time he was semiretired, having inherited a healthy sum. He nonetheless agreed to take Repp on as his sole client. She rode the Northern California spring/summer circuit this year and last, and spent the past winter riding in Philadelphia and Delaware. But she missed her friends, so Repp and North have returned to the NorCal circuit, where they plan to stay awhile. It’s a risky move — by most accounts, the East Coast is kinder to female riders, and the lack of winning women at Bay Meadows, Golden Gate, the Alameda County Fairgrounds, and other local tracks has allowed sexism to flourish, in both overt and more covert, institutional forms.
“I’ve had people make comments sometimes,” Repp says. “But you just learn to blow it off. You know, we’ll call to hustle mounts from bug boys, and they’re like, ‘We don’t need a goddamn woman on this horse.’ And some people love the girls. There’s been a lot of trainers that like girls because we’re quiet on the horses, and we have good hands. It’s the same as any business. You’re gonna meet people that like you; you’re gonna meet people who don’t.”
It’s especially tough for a rider who still has her “bug,” the asterisk after her name in racing programs that declares to the world that she’s still a rookie. In handicap races, all horses carry a similar overall weight, but bug riders get weight concessions, allowing them to be lighter than their full-fledged rivals. This presents a challenge to the apprentices to keep their body weight down. “It’s hard to go anywhere because everyone eats,” Repp says, “and I get all cranky when everybody else is eating and I can’t.”
The bugs start at ten pounds and decrease as the junior jocks chalk up wins. A couple more wins, and Repp will trade her seven-pound bug for a five-pounder, which she’ll have until her one-year apprenticeship ends in January. But as long as she still has the star next to her name, Repp will seem a risky proposition for trainers and owners. “The East Coast, they use the bug [riders] a lot, and they use the bug girls,” she explains. “Here, it’s been a little bit of a challenge to break in. The guys here are good, there’s no denying it. … You have to ride as tough as the boys to get a shot.”
That day at Golden Gate, Repp rode in six of the eight races. Most bugs, male or female, don’t get to do that, but with 42 wins, 39 places, and 37 shows this year, Repp is ranked the third-best female apprentice in the nation. What’s more, locally based Russell Baze, the second-winningest jockey in thoroughbred racing history, is out of commission. A recent Friday found him sitting in a office at Golden Gate Fields, a fat calico cat keeping him company as he received laser therapy on a busted collarbone. Nine days before, a horse he was riding broke a leg, went down, and, in the jockey’s words, “planted me like a tulip.” He’ll be out of the saddle a total of four to six weeks; long enough, perhaps, for Repp to step in and prove her mettle.
“Katie’s doing real good,” Baze says. “She’s learned very quickly.” Still, the champ mirrors the racing world’s general attitude toward female riders. “You have to have a certain amount of male hormones rushing through your body to actually excel at it,” he says, “because it’s extremely competitive and physical, and it’s just not a job that’s suited to — there’s just not too many girls, I think, that are really suited to doing it and doing it at the level where they could actually succeed.”
All due respect. “You’ve got these guys like Russell Baze,” Repp says, “and that man, you know, he’d be on a horse that’s dead and can pick it up and literally carry that sonofabitch across the finish line. And some women are just not physically capable of riding horses with that kind of strength. So I can see their point. But I don’t really think that strength is the biggest key to riding a horse well. Sometimes finessing them gets the job done. There are horses that really need a strong rider and there are horses that don’t. I might not fit a horse that needs someone huge, somebody that really has to get after it, but I might fit a horse that’s got a funny mouth or needs somebody who can just relax.”
The third race had a $4,000 claim, which meant the value of each racehorse was estimated at $4K based on win record, age, and condition. Astride Our Valentine, Repp placed second behind a horse she’d recently ridden in a $10,000-claim race. That the winning owner and trainer had reduced the horse’s value for this contest suggested either that they’d overestimated his ability when Repp was riding him in the $10K, or just that they wanted a sure thing this time around. In any case, Repp’s removal in favor of a more seasoned rider was insulting to the young jock and her agent. At the track bar later, North saw the owner and, as he put it, “busted her stones” for five minutes straight, right in front of her teenage daughter. He greeted the owner as “MF” — “my friend,” he quickly clarified. Amid edgy laughter, she bought him a beer, paying with a Benjamin — a fact that didn’t escape North’s notice — then paid in advance for his next round. North’s cell phone rang — Repp was calling from the stockade. She had a message for the owner: “Tell her that wasn’t very nice.”
So why was Repp yanked? “It’s just racing business,” the owner declares, all pretense of joviality gone. But as long as there’s somebody willing to take a chance on the jock, there’ll be a chance for her to give racing the business. The young lady who earned the nickname “Little Julie” back east at Phila Park will be racing daily through July 10 at Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, which boasts the oldest horse track in America. And while she makes her rounds of Northern California’s summer meets, Golden Gate Fields will be redoing the ladies’ jockey room in anticipation of her return.