Racetrack fans of the state of Maryland were shocked and surprised some weeks ago when a young lady named Kathy Kusner was granted a license as a jockey. But such a request would not have caused a ripple in the ranks of British railbirds two centuries earlier, when the names of a number of women, both titled and common, appeared in the records as riders.
Women as race riders began to vanish in the first years of the 19th century, but it was in 1804 that the most charming of all of them made her appearance—and quite by accident.
A blue-eyed charmer named Alicia Meynell, who claimed to be the wife of a Colonel Thomas Thornton (although a number of other ladies made the same claim), had gone out one day for a familial canter on the bridle paths of York, England with her sister's husband, Captain William Flint. In the course of their ride an argument began over which had the better horse. They raced on the spot and the lady won. Chagrined, the gentleman challenged her to a proper match at a proper track against a bet of ¬£1,500. It was a wager Captain Flint must have often regretted making.
There is no indication that Mrs. Thornton, as she called herself, ever regretted a thing and the racing world was with her from the start. As soon as the match was announced, all sorts of bets were placed—on what she would wear, how she would ride and whether she would win. Mrs. Thornton's appearance did not disappoint her admirers. She turned up to race in a dress designed to look like leopard-skin, with blue sleeves, a buff-colored vest and a blue cap (her adversary was all in white), and the crowd, which had to be restrained by a mounted company of light dragoons, cheered. Her horse was led by her friend and protector Colonel Thornton.
The race was over a four-mile course, and for the first three miles Mrs. Thornton kept the lead. "Never," declared a newspaper, "did a woman ride in better style." Nonetheless after three miles the captain pushed ahead on his mount, took the lead and kept it. Seeing that all was lost, about 500 yards from the post Mrs. Thornton pulled up and conceded defeat. The race had lasted nine minutes and 59 seconds.
The lady's friends said she bore her defeat with admirable good humor. Actually she responded to the loss with a rather sharp wit. A letter soon appeared in the York Herald of September 1804, in which Mrs. Thornton insisted that Captain Flint had not treated her with the proper courtesy. She had wanted to be escorted by a gentleman rider in case the ladies' sidesaddle she used should slip, but this was refused. And at the start of the race, with "some sort of word of command" he had told her, "Keep that side, Ma'am," depriving her of her whip hand. Really, she pleaded, with such behavior anyone could win against ladies. She challenged him to race again when she could be mounted on a better horse.
Captain Flint accepted, but the rematch never did take place, at least not with him as rider. But in August 1805, again at York, Mrs. Thornton was once more ready to show her racing mettle, this time against a friend, Mr. Bronford. When Bronford failed to show up, the lady cantered around the course and collected the prize of ¬£2,000 and four hogsheads of French wine.
Meanwhile, her first opponent was busy trying to collect the winnings that Colonel Thornton refused to pay. Thornton's excuse was that the wager wasn't a real bet at all but was only put up to arouse public interest, a kind of advertising. Flint didn't see it that way at all and became so incensed that on the very day Mrs. Thornton was racing he applied a horse whip with some vigor to the colonel's shoulders right there on the track, for which expression of righteous indignation he was severely criticized by the shocked crowd and arrested by the authorities.
The case was later dismissed, but the colonel never did pay up, and the injustice of it all did something to the captain. He began to lose his skill and to dissipate both his good reputation and his considerable fortune. Far worse, he began to suffer from asthma, which he sought to relieve with doses of prussic acid. One day in 1832 he took too much.
Mrs. Thornton, however, was not put off stride one whit. At 3:30 on the afternoon of her triumph, she dressed herself in another dazzling costume, a purple cap and waistcoat with long buff skirts that revealed purple embroidered stockings and purple shoes, and rode for two miles against Buckle, the leading jockey of the day. It is true that he carried a heavier weight than she, but nonetheless she showed her skill and courage. She took the lead and kept it for some time, displaying a fine close seat and perfect riding skills. The crowd was in an uproar. Then with a display of his own skill, Buckle drew ahead. Once more she pushed forward, and after a close duel brought her horse in the winner by half a neck.
The crowd went wild. Some churlish souls later hinted that Buckle had let her win and had proved himself a perfect gentleman by the delicacy with which he kept the race so close. But Buckle was known as the most honest jockey of his day and it would have gone against his grain to throw a race, even out of courtesy, and even for a lady. At any rate, his loss cost him little; he led a long and honored life and ended his days as a successful gentleman farmer.
Mrs. Thornton seemed to think she had won fairly and well, to judge by yet another literary outburst, in which she describes her riding with a skill second only to that of Muhammad Ali.
I put all his trials of skill to the stand,
For the jockey Buck I nearly threw from his seat.
He recovered his saddle, by seizing the mane,
My mare dared forward, as swift as the wind,
Nor heard I of the horse or of Buckle again,
Till I turned, and beheld them come panting behind.
My pleasure alone, that sensation defies,
Which the Laplander courts from the breeze of the south,
When I saw my Buck distanced, and dashed up the lines
With my mare hard in hand, and my whip in my mouth.