PHOENIX — Underneath a white tent on the apron of Turf Paradise racetrack, a group of female jockeys who are competing there this season awaited racing fans. Dressed in their racing silks, the women ranged in age from 16 to 43 and spent about two hours Saturday signing autographs and taking photos with the spectators.
One by one, fans put down shirts, hats or photos for the women to autograph. There are seven women riding at Turf Paradise this season, and six were in attendance at the track’s “Super Saturday” event.
Some people made a beeline through the crowds to the table to get items signed and to meet the women. Other fans approached more cautiously.
But female jockeys are much more than a curiosity at Turf Paradise.
Women make up less than 10 percent of licensed U.S. jockeys, according to Jockeys’ Guild. But at Turf Paradise 20 percent of the riders in the jockey colony are women.
“In the late 1960s, early 1970s, female jockeys weren’t really accepted,” said Darrell Haire, Jockeys’ Guild regional manager. “The mentality was that it was a man’s sport. Now, (women) are accepted.”
The meet and greet with the female jockeys was only one component of Turf Paradise’s Super Saturday, event, which included eight races and the marquee $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup.
But for a lot of the spectators who flocked to the track, the event provided a glimpse at the advances female jockeys have made in the racing industry, especially at the north Phoenix track.
Turf Paradise has developed a rapport with female riders. In a male-dominated industry, trainers at Turf Paradise have been open to giving women their shot on race day.
Jockey Natasha Coddington said that the open attitude played a role in her decision to ride at Turf.
“Before I came down here, I heard Turf Paradise, the trainers back here, liked women riders,” Coddington said. “I think it’s just a good place for us to try and get a start.”
Horse racing fan Mechele Burry, 52, has been to Turf Paradise at least once a year for the past several years. She said she never saw a female jockey racing at Ak-sar-ben Racetrack, where she regularly attended races in Nebraska before that track was shuttered.
Burry was pleasantly surprised to see seven women riding at Turf Paradise, and placed wagers on horses with jockeys Coddington and Shannon Beauregard aboard them on Super Saturday.
“It is really interesting to see such a male-dominated thing, being taken over — well, not taken over — but at least the females are getting in there to race,” Burry said.
Horse racing is one of the few sports in which men and women can compete side-by-side. But acceptance has come slowly for female jockeys.
“I think it’s sort of the locker room type of thing,” Burry said. “It’s just always been male-dominated. I think it’s just one of those things that it’s always been men, and the horse trainers have always been men. But more and more women are getting involved with it, and I think it’s great.”
Coddington, 24, said most jockey colonies only have about three women.
Coddington, who rode in two races on Super Saturday, believes horse racing will always be a male-dominated sport, but that there will be a few “really good women jockeys out there.”
Coddington said it is a demanding business that takes a strong personality.
“It’s really hard for females to break into the business, I’ve discovered,” she said. “You have got to be really strong-willed, and be able to take a lot of criticism. It’s hard for some women to take it.”
Apprentice jockey Amelia Hauschild, who is only 16 years old, said the job is also physically demanding.
“I’m in the gym three hours a day just being physically active in order to be fit enough to ride,” Hauschild said. “A lot of girls aren’t really raised in the sports sort of mentality.”
Hauschild rode in her first race on Jan. 22 and admitted to being intimidated as a woman and with so little experience. But she finished second and has high hopes for the future.
“Being a female jockey right now, people are trying to support females more so I think it’s a good time to be a female jockey,” Hauschild said. “But, definitely, I want to prove to everybody that we can do everything the guys can do.”
Hauschild grew up going to Rillito Park Racetrack in Tucson and knew that she wanted to be a jockey by the time she was 4. She is among the youngest jockeys of any gender on the West Coast.
“I think a lot of girls are realizing that they can do it and not to let anyone say they can’t,” Hauschild said.
Hauschild knows some people will doubt her abilities because of her age, but she also sees her youth as an advantage. Starting at such a young age gives her more time to learn and eventually achieve success in the industry.
Unlike Hauschild, Turf Paradise apprentice jockey Vanessa Romberg, 43, came to racing late.
She only received her license 1½ years ago in Mexico City, where she learned to race. After riding at the Downs Racetrack and Casino in Albuquerque, Romberg came to Turf Paradise in October.
“I was so happy to have such a group of colleagues here,” Romberg said. “We are sharing a lot of experience, and that is really nice. I hope that we will have more and more female jockeys in the future.”
“They have a passion for this game, or else they wouldn’t be doing what they are doing,” Haire said of the female jockeys. “That feeling of being on a thoroughbred going 35 to 40 miles per hour; there is nothing like it.”