Here's another interesting article on Kayla Stra:
Woman jockey Stra beats the odds in bid to race
By LOWELL COHN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Friday, February 26, 2010 at 7:16 p.m.
All Kayla Stra ever wanted was to ride with the boys. Now she's doing more than that. She's riding with the boys and beating the boys.
Stra is a 25-year-old Australian jockey in her first season at Golden Gate Fields and she's way up on the money list — her earnings are about a quarter of a million and growing. She's one of three full-time female jockeys in California — Chantal Sutherland and Joy Scott ride in the L.A. area — and in spite of being petite and (I don't mean to sound sexist here) pretty, Stra said the other day, “I wish I was a boy.”
“Seriously, there's been so many times I wished I was a boy, and I really mean it. I love riding horses. I love racing. And the amount of times I could have ridden a horse and I should have ridden a horse and I haven't, it's broken my heart. I work the horses. I know the horses, and I could have just won on so many horses and had so many nice horses and just the fact I was a girl, they don't want to know me. They'll just say, ‘No.' That was the hardest part of going through everything — being a girl. But I don't like to think about it.”
Now for the necessary background. Stra was a whiz-bang jockey in Australia — kind of a prodigy if you want to know the truth. She had been a troubled kid, didn't like her home life, and she dropped out of school at 13 after she'd gotten in a ton of difficulty, some of it involving drugs. (She sees her life story as an example of how to leave drugs in the rearview mirror.) She needed a center to her life and took up with horses. She started riding at 14, got her license at 17 and rode her first winner at 18 — it was her fourth ride.
“I got involved with the horses because I didn't like people,” she said. “I thought working with horses I wouldn't have to deal with people. But when I wanted to become a jockey, I learned you have to talk to owners and trainers and communicate between the horses and the people. And being the rider, you kind of have to be the speaker for the horse.”
Stra still prefers horses to people. Who are we to argue with her? One 20th century philosopher wrote, “Hell is other people.” He didn't write, “Hell is horses.”
Stra left Australia a few years ago just for an adventure and to test herself against the top American jockeys. If she wasn't so wild about people before, this experience almost soured her on Homo sapiens for good.
She went to Southern California thinking she'd catch her break just like a heroine in a storybook. No break. Every morning she would show up at the tracks and work out horses for the trainers and owners. Here's a fact you need to know about the racing culture: Jocks work out horses for free. This is how they get to know the people who assign the mounts — call it networking in the Thoroughbred world.
So, Stra networked, and the owners were happy to use her for free in the morning. In the afternoon when horses raced for real money, well, that was another story entirely.
“Everybody wanted to see somebody else give me that opportunity to show how much I could do on a horse,” she said. “Everyone was waiting for someone else. I had to work my way up from the very bottom where people didn't want to ride these horses because they were dangerous or bad-tempered. It was a pain in the butt to have to do it. At the same time, I thought every horse I ride means something if I can get one owner to watch me or one trainer to watch me and see that I've improved his horse from 10 lengths last to six lengths last — at least that's something.”
It didn't work like that. It didn't much help when she participated in a reality show called “Jockeys.” The horse-racing culture got to know about her and maybe she got a few extra mounts. Not enough. And then she did something radical. She chucked it all, fled to Golden Gate Fields.
“I was starting to get short-tempered with people,” she said. “I had waited long enough for the opportunities to come and I also proved myself on a number of horses that paid 80-to-1 or 70-to-1. There's only so many times you can do that, and I really was frustrated. When I was asked if I wanted to come up here I said, ‘I'm going to try it,' because I didn't want to go to work angry and feeling I deserve more.”
The horse owners in Northern California immediately accepted Stra. But don't take my word for it. Listen to Sam Spear, who does public relations for Golden Gate Fields and has his own racing show on KTSF TV and is an all-around Thoroughbred expert and an old-timer who understands this ancient sport.
“California is considered a liberal place,” Spear said. “It's not liberal when it comes to female jockeys in Southern California. There haven't been a lot of female jockeys that have been given opportunities in Southern California like they have in other areas of the country. That's just the facts.”
Stra pronounced a strong “yes” after each of Spear's sentences like someone witnessing in church: Yes, yes, yes.
The life pain is behind her now. The day I interviewed her she raced twice and twice she finished in the money, a proud, skilled rider sitting confidently on her mount. It hardly bothers her that she has a separate locker room from the boys — she shares it with the track veterinarian and the paddock judge and has to sprint from her locker room to the boys' locker room, from one side of the paddock to the other, before each race because the scales are in the boys' locker room. Who cares? It's the riding that matters.
And it doesn't bother her when she meets people and they refuse to believe she's a professional jockey — “No way.”
Why don't they believe her?
“Because I'm a girl, and they have this opinion of jockeys being funny-looking little men.”
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at blog.pressdemocrat.com/cohn. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.