Robyn Smith, the jockey, invented herself a few years ago so that she could succeed in that role. Few athletes have forfeited more than she has to chase after a dream, to try to live out a little girl's fantasy, for she gave up a good and glamorous life in the pursuit. She changed her style and her habits, she traded in a knockout face and figure for a jockey's stark image, and she discarded her past, pretending almost that she never had one, that she just materialized, walking out of the mist at dawn one morning late in 1968 at Santa Anita. Even her closest friends have no firm idea who she is or where she came from or even, for sure, what her name is. Nor, as she protests, is any of that really important. She has constructed this whole other person, forming her out of perseverance and independence and ambition and talent—and because she likes the new person much more than whoever Robyn Smith was before.
And it has worked. There is nothing there anymore but Robyn Smith, the jockey.
Once she was good looking enough to work seriously toward a Hollywood career, but by now the transformation is so complete that Robyn Smith (see cover) actually looks her prettiest in racing silks. She is 5'7", standing on long, lovely legs, the kind so fine that women envy them; not just the things that men whistle at when a skirt rides high. She has dimples, chestnut hair and eyes the color of twilight that alternately doubt and challenge. Yet seldom does she flatter herself. Usually she wears pants and baggy cardigans, and after them racing silks look positively feminine on her.
She claims her natural weight is around 110, but that is preposterous. A high-fashion model of her height would hardly be that light. Probably Robyn weighed 125 before she became a jockey. She strips at no more than 105 now, is flat-chested and her riding breeches hang down, flapping, off her hips. "Her little rear end is like a couple of ham hocks," says a friend who worries about her. Her face is gaunt and drawn, and life comes to it only from the sun and the freckles on her nose.
July 30, 1972
She is still pretty, even beautiful in profile (where she does not appear so skinny), but those who knew her when she was just getting into racing shake their heads at the beauty she exchanged for stirrups. These people all say: "You should have seen her then." They all shake their heads and say that. She doesn't seem to care. Barry Ryan, a trainer she knows well, one day said something like, "Robyn, you're just looking awful," and she replied, "Great!" gaily, defiantly.
Yet she is almost paranoid on the subject of photographs she considers unflattering. Something so concrete, so conclusive as a picture perhaps forces her to remember what she was. Otherwise she has no time or inclination for that, except on rare occasions when she suddenly decides that she is giving the wrong impression, that she is sounding too mannish or neuter. Then she pauses and carefully sets the record straight. Like the thin man who is supposed to be yelping to get out of every fat man, there is still a gorgeous, alluring woman inside Robyn Smith, the jockey, and not often, but every now and then this creature tosses her head and sighs.
A newspaper reporter was trying to convince her one day that she should let him ghost her autobiography. Robyn wasn't interested. "Why don't you do one of the other women jockeys—Arline Ditmore or Donna Hillman?" she asked, putting him off.
"Donna Hillman?" he said. "You mean the pretty one?"
Robyn cocked her head and smiled at how silly a man could be. "No, I'm the pretty one," she replied, correctly.
Her retreat from glamour has been largely forced upon her, because even now that she has established herself as one of the better riders in the country, there still are whispered innuendos and snickers whenever a new trainer puts her up on a horse. And the mere threat of gossip costs her work. "This lame excuse I always hear," she says. " 'I'd like to use you, Robyn, but my wife won't let me.' And it's true—not all trainers, of course. But I have trainers' wives come up to me and say sweetly, 'Why, Robyn, we're all just so thrilled you're riding so beautifully and doing so well,' and then I'll hear that these same women behind my back have said, 'That bitch better not come around my husband looking for horses.' I mean, I've actually heard these things.
"Well, the truth is, nobody at the track is impressed with my looks. I've never once had a trainer make a play for me. I've never even had one ask me out. I wouldn't go out with one even if he did ask. I just don't want to feel obligated to anyone for putting me up on a horse. Now don't get me wrong: it doesn't bother me that nobody asks. I just got over the other extreme, in Hollywood, where everyone was after my body—you know, I mean everyone was after everyone's body. So I don't mind it at all. And look, if I've got to go out with a trainer to get rides, how long would I last? I'm legitimate. I don't care whether anyone believes that, but that's the truth."
The record supports her. Miss Smith has ridden regularly in the big time in New York since late 1969. She lost her apprentice allowance last January, and while she had developed a grudging reputation as a pretty good "bug boy," most people expected her to fade away without the weight bonus that is granted to beginners. Besides, racing's bias against females had denied Robyn the experience that most good apprentices pick up. For example, Bobby Woodhouse, another fine young American rider, won his first race in the summer of 1969 at virtually the same time Robyn did. Yet in 1969 and 1970 Woodhouse had 1,657 mounts while Robyn had a grand total of 67. Only in the past few months has she even been able to retain an agent.
Despite this, she simply went out and forced herself to become a better rider after she lost the apprentice allowance. "She's 80% improved from last year," says Angel Cordero, one of New York's leading riders. At the spring meeting at Aqueduct this year, she finished seventh in the jockey standings although she had only 98 mounts, while all the other jockeys except one in the top 10 had at least twice as many rides. Only Cordero had a better winning percentage than Miss Smith's 20%, and it is even more impressive to note that at the top track in the country she was the leading U.S. jockey; the six riders ranked ahead of her were foreigners. By the end of that meeting it could be fairly argued that the best young American jockey was a woman.
"I never thought she would ever do anything like this," says John Rotz, who rides against her and occasionally takes her out. "And I told her so." He drew thoughtfully on his cigar. "Of course, Robyn will never listen to you when you tell her things like that."
This apparent inability to discourage easily, if at all, has been her salvation. When she first appeared in New York, nobody would give her a chance even to breeze a horse. That only encouraged her to walk around and mumble lines out of old Alan Ladd movies: "Someday, mister, you'll beg me to ride in a stakes for you." Robyn is given to stuff like that. She also says things like: "I don't need anybody at all in the world" and "I have nothing to hide."
She is attracted to melodrama, especially when it conflicts with the dull truth. The matter of how she got to New York is a small thing, for instance, but a typical example. Actually, the trip came about through the offices of a New York trainer named Buddy Jacobson, who had encountered her somewhere along the way in California, where she had been riding on the rinky-dink fair circuit. Jacobson brought her East, but he lost interest in her potential almost immediately and, as a consequence, he has been written entirely out of Robyn's script. According to her story her motivation was pretty much on the order of Saul's after what happened on the road to Damascus. " 'Dammit,' I said," she recalls vividly, " 'if I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it right.' " Whereupon, in her version, she then got all her money together, just ditched her car and took the next flight to the Big Apple.
Robyn is right; it is a much better story that way. But it really isn't necessary, for things were soon genuinely desperate for her in New York. Without Jacobson's help, she had to scuffle for any opportunity. She would run from barn to barn, pleading for a chance. She was getting short on money. "Time was running out," she says. "People were getting set to move south. I get very defensive when I'm down and out, so I acted like a rich girl. You know, I lied about things to build myself up. Of course, even then I thought I was a great rider. That was no front." Luckily, it rained one November morning.
"It was a cold, driving rain," says Trainer Frank Wright, a handsome Tennesseean whom Robyn came to see that dreary dawn. "I had chased her away from the barn once before, but I guess somebody sent her back because I had been one of the first to use exercise girls, and my wife is a show-ring rider. Robyn just stood there outside, with the rain falling on her, and when I looked down and saw the water running out of her boots, I said, 'Well, please come inside.' I told her, all right, I would give her a chance to gallop for me, and she just smiled and thanked me and ran right off to the next barn in the rain. Robyn always runs, even these days."
She rode her first race for Wright on Dec. 5, 1969 on a horse named Exotic Bird who was owned by a Detroit dentist. Exotic Bird's distinguishing feature was his penchant for finishing last. "What have we got to lose?" Wright asked the dentist, and Robyn just missed by a nose getting fourth money. "There's a mechanics in all sports, and a lot of people pick that up," Wright says. "But beyond that, there's a naturalness that can't be learned. In riding, when someone has that, we just say that horses run for him. You can't see it in specific style or technique. You just find it out: horses run for him. Well, horses run for Robyn, and you could sense that right away. The same horse would go in 47 for another rider, and then he'd do 46 and three for her. That was the first thing that was apparent. Trainers accepted Robyn long before owners."
Robyn had been riding for a little over a year when Wright put her up on Exotic Bird at Aqueduct. She had never seen a horse race until sometime in the spring of 1968; one day a date had just happened to take her to Santa Anita. This occurred while she was an aspiring film actress, going to acting school in Hollywood. She is not, however, "a former Hollywood starlet" as it always says in the stories about her the first time her name is mentioned.
Robyn also used to maintain that she was an English major at Stanford, class of '66, but that turns out to be a complete fabrication. Robyn says, indignantly, it is unfair to blame the Stanford hoax on her because when she was under contract to MGM the studio made up the fiction for publicity handouts. Unfortunately, MGM has never heard of Robyn Smith. Indeed, the studio did not have any aspiring actresses under contract at the time.
But unlike the Stanford business, which was made up out of whole cloth, the "studio" interlude has just been embellished a little. It seems that Miss Smith was enrolled at the Columbia Studio's acting workshop and had a good industry contact in Martin Ransohoff, who is the president of a large production company named Filmways. Robyn always says Ransohoff was her agent, but it turns out he really wasn't—well, let's not get bogged down in that.
Ransohoff certainly helped her, and he remembers her fondly. "There aren't many people I have enjoyed more," he says. "Robyn was the cream-and-honey outdoor type. I believe if she had stayed in Hollywood big things could have happened for her." Robyn, naturally enough, quite agrees with this assessment. "Oh, I could have made it in acting," she declares, dismissing the subject. "There's absolutely no doubt in my mind about that."
However, racing began to fascinate Robyn about this time. In Maryland a show-ring rider named Kathy Kusner was getting a lot of publicity suing for the right to ride, and it was clearly just a matter of time for the girls. That was when Robyn Smith, the jockey, was created. Her entrée at Santa Anita was a trainer named Bruce Headley, who had met her a couple of years before ("Talk about beautiful; you should have seen her then"). He let her work horses for him in the morning before she went to acting school.
"The horses weren't so scared, but boy, I was," Robyn recalls, in a most uncommon burst of self-deprecation. "Invariably, they'd run away with me, but it was dark in the morning that time of the year and Headley couldn't see. One day, when it got lighter in the morning, he said, 'Gee, you don't gallop real good, do you?' "
But Robyn was determined and, says Headley, no less proficient than any new male rider. She still was strictly a novice when an owner named Kjell Qvale, who was on the board of directors at Golden Gate Park near San Francisco, heard about the lovely exercise girl at Santa Anita. By now, March 1969, girls had won the right to ride and had become something of a fad. Everybody had to see one once, like dirty movies. Qvale gave Robyn her first mount in a race on April 5. Robyn shrugs at the whole experience. Golden Gate got publicity and she got her license.
"Everything is timing in this world," she said. She was sitting this day in some new hay in a stall at Belmont. She had on her usual costume—the pants and the dreary blouse and the cardigan—but she looked pretty, if not in any kind of starlet way. She looked like the tomboy kid sister just before they made her put on lipstick and a bra and wear the new gown with crinolines. Wow: Is that really you, Robyn Caroline? She was not pleased. She took off her sweater and made a muscle and a face. She made the muscle, a very nice right biceps, to prove that she is deceptively strong. She made the face because she was mad that she did not have a single mount that afternoon. Robyn is not beautiful when she is mad. She is terrifying.
"What the hell do I have to do?" she asked. "Eighteen percent I'm winning. Eighteen percent, and I don't have one ride. Ah, I should just forget about it and go shopping or something. There's jockeys who just love it when they can get a day off. But I don't have any ambition to do anything else. It's my whole life. I never knew it would be so satisfying to win. I love horses and speed, and I've always liked competition, but I never knew it would be so satisfying to win. Nothing makes me happier. I mean, some man could buy me something, anything, and it wouldn't mean as much to me as winning a race. I just love to win. It satisfies me mentally. If I don't win, I get very depressed.
"All I want to do is be happy, and racing makes me happy. It's the only thing that makes me happy."
She is obsessed with it. Nothing else interests her. Says Frank Wright, who remains a close friend: "You'd think she'd allow me 10 minutes of latitude in a conversation, but all she does is pick your brain about racing." Until the spring meeting, when she hit it big and began to show herself a little at night, Robyn was so conscientious that she almost never stayed up past nine o'clock, and she tends to torment herself any night, rerunning the day's races until she falls asleep. She lives only five minutes from Belmont in a well-carpeted apartment she shares with two pet rats, and she never strays far from that general area of Long Island. Manhattan, half an hour away, is merely another place without a racetrack that she has no reason to visit. Her social life, such as it is, revolves around the track. Her hobby is to graze horses.
"A lot of nights I come over to the stables and just walk with them," she says, "because, you know, I like them. I like to graze the horses I ride, especially the ones that win for me. It's their reward, sort of, and besides, I like to be around the animal that won for me because that means a lot to me.
"Now don't get the wrong impression. I'm not so hung up on it that I'm sick. When I do it, I just do it because that is what I feel like doing. I'm not liable to graze on a cold rainy night in February, but I have done it on a cold rainy night in February just because all of a sudden I felt like it.
"You know, not all of it is the animal. I just like to be alone. I don't think I'll ever get married. I'm just a loner. I've had friends who see me grazing, and they come over and want to talk with me. It doesn't occur to them that I might just want to be alone with a horse."
A cat came to the door of the barn. One of Robyn's stories is that she was once allergic to cats and dogs and horses and stable dust. This is why she never rode as a child. Robyn Smith, the jockey, doesn't have this allergy, although it is never clear exactly why. She took the cat in her lap and petted it devotedly and was lost, absolutely lost, for a while. Montaigne wrote, "When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?" and one thinks that of Robyn with cats and horses alike. She has broken down and cried, hopelessly, just because a time conflict has robbed her of the chance to breeze a horse. For animals she has patience, and with them she never wears that look of suspicion she reserves for all the prying people.
One day at Aqueduct just after a trainer had lifted her up onto her mount, Robyn took the reins and broke into a huge smile. By the paddock rail a fat man, no doubt referred to as "heavyset" wherever he drinks beer, grew excited. "The bitch smiled!" he cried. "I got to bet her. I never seen her smile before." His companion, a much smaller man in a car coat who is, it seems, more of a paddock behavioral authority, was quick to rebut. "Nooo," he said. "The bitch just never smiles with the people, with the trainers and whatnot. Onna horse she smiles alla time."
"Onna horse she smiles?"
"Onna horse, yeah, regular."
Her disposition is not, for all that, so easily defined, if only because nothing about Robyn is that pat. "Now don't get the wrong impression," she declares again, with some new urgency. "I'm not a recluse or anything. All those parties in Hollywood, I liked them well enough, I just had enough of that. Besides, it's just that I don't care if I'm seen. I'm not really impressed by anything. I mean that. Nothing impresses me. I guess I'm an iconoclast. I guess I'm the biggest iconoclast I know."
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (with Robyn at upper left), who is chairman of the New York Racing Association, used Robyn as his regular rider for several months this year until they had a falling out late in June. For a while, they were good friends. Robyn confounds Vanderbilt as much as she beguiles him. "Her life is very full," he says. "She knows just what she wants to do, and she's going to do it. I asked her once what she wanted most, and she said she wanted to be the best rider in the world. In the world, just like that. I suppose she would have said the best rider in the world ever, but she just didn't think of that at the moment."
The fact is, though, that obscured by all the forced National Velvet business, in barely four years this young woman has risen from learning how to stay on a horse to a position among the elite in a very hard, dangerous profession. That she has managed this ascent despite the strong bias against women in her field makes the success story all the more remarkable. Miss Smith is no National Velvet; she is pure and simple Horatio Alger, an old-fashioned all-American melting-pot hero who just happens to be a heroine. Her natural instincts and a large talent were requisite, but what kept her afloat were the corny storybook values: determination, confidence, stick-to-itiveness, sacrifice and all the rest. She has never let up. "You've got to remember," says Frank Wright, "that Robyn had to be at her very best every morning. Every morning. Because every morning there was someone around just waiting for her to slip up so he could say, see, I told you so."
Miss Smith's big break came when Allen Jerkens of Hobeau Farm gave her a chance and, significantly, he took her on largely for reasons of spirit. "I liked her interest," he explains in his soft, measured way. "She has a lot of desire and as much determination as anyone I've ever seen." Around the track Jerkens commands respect. "The fact that he put her on live horses—that was like the Good Housekeeping seal," Wright says.
Jerkens liked the way horses ran for Robyn. She was always strong out of the gate—even Bruce Headley, her first tutor, remembers that distinctly—but Jerkens noticed that she could rate her mounts well, too. "She gives a horse a chance," he says. He considers Robyn a weak finisher, though. Women riders as a group have suffered this criticism because the stretch drive is where a jockey's strength tells. So it is especially meaningful when a rider such as Cordero now testifies: "Robyn is saving more ground and she is keeping her cool at the end." Presumably, even though the notion infuriates her, Robyn is just never going to be able to regularly out-muscle male riders down the stretch, so she is going to have to depend on these other assets.
She has some advantages. Her general style, notably her seat, is copied from Eddie Arcaro; she read his book and follows it faithfully. Perhaps more important, she brings a clever mind to her business. Vanderbilt says that aside from Eric Guerin, who rode Native Dancer for him, he never had a jockey who could size up a horse so well.
Robyn is bound to improve simply by getting more chances to ride. Like many other inexperienced jockeys, she cannot yet, for instance, switch the whip from one hand to another without first lodging it in her mouth, and her left-hand whipping is atrocious. She also has a tendency to lose her concentration and treat a horse like a car in traffic, stop and go, or to let a race get away from her, if only for a couple of moments. "It usually happens about the quarter pole," Jerkens says. "I'll tell her—well, you took your little nap again—and she'll get furious. But I don't see her blowing races that I think she should win."
Says Vanderbilt, "Even before Robyn rode for me, I wanted to see her make it. She deserves to make it. She's just plain good, and she cares. Horses run freely for Robyn. She has no fear out on the track; she's a fighter. As far as I know, this is the only girl in any sport who has ever competed with men on equal terms."
Robyn has reached this unique estate because she is a natural athlete and because she has always competed with men as a matter of course, if not at such a high level. Since the word "Jockette" was removed from the ladies' locker room at Aqueduct, her only real complaint about the facilities is that she cannot go into the men's quarters and play pool with them—despite her assurances that "I won't look."
As a kid she played boys' games, and certainly jockeys don't intimidate her because she is, after all, taller than everybody she rides against. "The men jockeys have treated me terrific," she says, "but then, all my friends have always been men. I resented being called a tomboy, though, because I wouldn't want to be a man. I like them too much. I just get along with them, period. Women resent this for some reason. My mother used to resent this. Like when she and my father would have people over, I'd hang around with the men." Robyn always addresses married couples as "you guys."
She exercises every morning, runs religiously, and indulges herself only in a little wine and brandy. She is a fine golfer, long off the tee, and picks up any sporting activity easily. Ransohoff, the film producer, took her deep-sea fishing. "We hit a school of albacore," he says, "and I mean they were rolling. Robyn hung more albacore in that hour than any man on board."
"I'm thin, but I'm strong," Robyn explains clinically, getting set to flex again. "I always had good muscles. I'm a rare physical individual—and I'm not trying to be narcissistic about it. It's just that I'm very unusual in that way."
Yet Robyn has taken off so much weight that she appears to have no emotional reservoir to sustain her. Her system is littered with the residual effects of weight pills, water pills, hormone pills, big pills, little pills, pill pills that she gobbles indiscriminately. Even when she was a world-beater at the spring meeting, she was constantly at a temperamental flood tide. She breaks into tears regularly, not only over losing a race but, say, while watching some banal TV drama. The least aggravation unnerves her. People fall out of her favor upon the smallest alleged slight, only to return just as whimsically to her good graces. Her fetish for freedom borders now on mania; it is easier to schedule an appointment with the Dalai Lama than Robyn Smith. She has become less receptive to criticism, and woe to the most well-intentioned innocent who forgets and idly tells her the same thing twice.
Indeed, in the last couple of months, she has contrived to bring such disaster down around her pretty head that at times she seems bent on self-destruction, her own worst enemy. When she was riding so high several weeks ago Barry Ryan was moved, in a moment of sad prescience, to say: "I don't want people to get mad at Robyn because now that she has made it to the top, I'm afraid of what she might do to herself if she starts to go down. Someday soon we're going to find out whether Robyn Smith is a big girl."
Sadly, she sometimes is a horrid little one. One day, for instance, she canceled her mounts at the last minute, saying she was sick. She was not too ill, however, to pop over to Belmont that afternoon and take a good Jerkens horse she rides, Mighty Lak A Rose, out to graze. Shortly thereafter Miss Smith was set down for 10 days for careless riding (she bore out on the turn, and in the ensuing jam another jockey fell), and perhaps she fumed even more over a Dutch Uncle warning she received from one of the stewards, who cautioned her that her reputation was being made vulnerable by her new habit of hanging out at a particular restaurant.
Systematically, it seems, she has set out in recent weeks to heap vitriol on those who have helped her the most. Among the more important people she has cut down are her agent, George DeJesus, and Alfred Vanderbilt. Robyn maintains that Vanderbilt was "too demanding to work for" and that she stopped riding for him of her own accord. He says that his patience was exhausted and he terminated the arrangement. Whichever the reason, she made a scene at the time, cussing him out in public.
Of course, that sort of thing can be expected of Miss Smith. She is consistent in the sense that she has always been given to temperamental excess, in good times and bad. "I make my own conflicts," she says evenly. Two years ago she flew completely off the handle and lashed a Jerkens stable foreman across the face with a shank. There has been nothing as intemperate as that recently, but Robyn continues to have a bad reputation with service employees—attendants, clerks, guards. They forgive her her ambition, reasoning that a woman could not have made it without uncommon drive, but they find her brusque, cavalier and often, to their mind, thoughtless.
Robyn protests that her singular status encourages people to judge her critically, and certainly, where female horse people are concerned, she suffers the whip of jealousy. She is, after all, living out the impossible dream of a lot of small girls who grew up to find the dream suddenly possible, but still beyond their capabilities.
"I know," Robyn says. "All my life people have said I'm not very friendly. But listen, I'm friendly with some people. I have real friends. I'm moody, but if I'm bitchy, I get it right out of my system." Indeed, she is quite as tactless with friends as with strangers, although she can be extraordinarily generous with people she cares for.
Miss Smith's disposition may be affected by the fact that she is probably very hungry almost all of the time. She nearly starves herself except for periodic eating bouts when she simply goes berserk over food—"like six ravenous wolves," according to one startled witness. Recently, for example, she devoured at a single sitting two shrimp cocktails, two orders of prime ribs and another large one of ground sirloin. On the side, she put away three-quarters of a bowl of Caesar salad. When she goes on this kind of dinner binge, she will wash it down, alternately, with white wine and Tab. The next day she dutifully returns to her starvation-pill diet.
A couple of additional pressures weigh heavily on Miss Smith. One is the press, including articles such as this one, which she abhors. Part of the problem is caused by her rather misguided interpretation of the First Amendment. This is tied, part and parcel, to her conviction that anyone inquiring "How are you?" is prying. In support of this attitude, she believes in a policy of mystery and circumlocution which results in exactly the inverse of what she intends. That is: almost everybody who knows her is mad with curiosity about her past.
In Miss Smith's behalf it should be stated that she has not been treated with much sensitivity by the press, which invariably has dismissed her as a cliché: FORMER HOLLYWOOD STARLET MAKES GOOD AS HARDBOOT. In almost every story about her, the most meaningful inquiries have dealt with how much profanity the male jockeys employ in her presence. Has the Washington press regularly asked Margaret Chase Smith if the guys tone it down on her behalf in the cloakroom? Otherwise, it has all been straight out of the Tupperware school: Yes, girls, jockettes put their pantie hose on one leg at a time, too. "I just hate it," Robyn says, with considerable justification.
She can be taken pretty much at face value when she says that she does not want publicity. She has turned down endorsement offers primarily because she doesn't give a hoot. "I'm going to be highly successful," she declares, with all the emotion one would employ in ordering at McDonald's, "so there'll be a much more interesting life for them to write about 10 years from now. But the main thing is I just don't want to do it, so I'm not going to. I just want to ride."
Unfortunately for Robyn, besides the professional prying she has also attracted rumor and gossip on an amateur basis. In an unwelcome tribute to her special celebrity status, the track abounds with Robyn stories which are labeled just that, as in: "Want to hear a new Robyn story?" She is never Miss Smith or Smith in the track vernacular; always Robyn or Robynsmith, run together, and occasionally The Bitch. The latter title is not pejorative, only vulgar recognition of the fact that she is the one member of her gender regularly around. (If somebody says "that bitch," however, well, that is a horse of another color.)
Not only are there Robyn stories, but there are Robyn jokes, which are less malicious, if not more amusing. Sample: Did you hear Robyn took off her bikini top at the pool and was arrested for indecent exposure? No, what happened? They dismissed the case because of insufficient evidence.
When Alfred Vanderbilt began to be seen regularly in her company, the Robyn stories really began to run away with themselves. Vanderbilt, 58, a member of The Jockey Club, on a third marriage, was as easy a target for innuendo as his rider. No one could resist at least some maiden-aunt snickering about the patrician millionaire owner and his beautiful mystery woman jockey.
In truth, there was much less there than met the eye. Vanderbilt may have acted a little teen-age silly about Robyn, but even with all the gossip that she was going to cost him his job as head of the NYRA, he was sincerely devoted to her best interests. Robyn used to get peeved at Vanderbilt sometimes because she thought he was snooping—she thinks everybody is snooping—but she certainly appeared to appreciate Vanderbilt's efforts on her behalf.
"Yeah, I know what they're all saying," she said firmly when the rumors about her and her boss were everywhere. "I'm used to it. It's just a, well, more of a daughter thing. I mean, there's no romance. Look, I'm a whole lot closer to Mrs. Vanderbilt than I am to Mr. Vanderbilt. You ever heard that? No, because nobody wants to hear that. But I think Mr. Vanderbilt is a wonderful man. There's no one nicer!" It was but a few weeks later, after he took her off his horses, that she was loudly ranting at Vanderbilt in a well-populated Aqueduct corridor.
Thus, while the criticism of Robyn is often cruel and unfounded, she hurts her reputation with her temper and her vague, devious, even fictional responses. Particularly, after both the Stanford and MGM claims turned out to be so much poppycock, Miss Smith became fair game for closer scrutiny. The bald facts are that there is no record of any Robyn Caroline Smith (or anyone like that) born in San Francisco when she claims—Aug. 14, 1944, nor for several years on either side of that date. Nor does any person with that name seem to have attended school in Hawaii, where Robyn says she grew up. Clearly, either the rest of her authorized life history is as bogus as the college-Hollywood malarkey, or she has adopted a new name.
The irony in all this mystery is that no one who knows Robyn well thinks she is hiding anything deep and dark in her past. The feeling is that she probably is just making a harmless retreat from a life that was sad or drab or both. There will be a much more interesting life for them to write about 10 years from now. Some friends suspect that she came from a broken home or possibly was an orphan. Others think she may have endured a bad marriage during that blank period when she was supposed to have been an English major at Palo Alto. Robyn says she has no living relatives. By her spare account, her parents both died of natural causes a couple of years ago.
Nonetheless, the one constant, if vague, reference point in her allusions to her childhood is a strong, magnanimous father whom Robyn reluctantly identifies (this time) as a wealthy lumberman. Robyn's father pops up in her rare off-guard recollections only to give her things or to take her places, such as on hunting trips or on wonderful boats. Sometimes the father is referred to as a stepfather or uncle. He never has a name.
Asked about the "y" in her name, she declares without equivocation that it is "the girl's way" of spelling Robin. Oh. The birth date on her jockey's license makes her 28 in two weeks, though it is possible that she cheated a little when she first applied for a license, claiming her age was 24. Vanity aside, there could be a good reason for that, since no one over 25 can ride as an apprentice. Anything is possible. Maybe she is 16. Maybe she is Anastasia. Who really knows anything about Robyn Caroline Smith's past except that somehow it pains her?
Despite all her historical camouflage, Robyn is usually the very model of candor. She is bold and straightforward in expressing her views and unafraid to stand by herself. She is the classic example of what a modern woman who so desires can be—free and competitive. One major contradiction of the feminist movement is that the women in its forefront seek a society based on merit, where sex is no factor, but they have become professional females themselves. Gloria Steinem is much more defined by her sex than all the Fab housewives she is fighting to save. By contrast, and without surrendering any of her femininity except perhaps a couple of unimportant inches off her bust line, Robyn Smith is the true brave new woman.
"I never think of myself as making progress on behalf of anybody but myself," she says. "I have no interest whatever in the women's movement except in the sense that I believe everybody should have the right to do what they want to do. I don't want to invade a man's world. I just want to ride horses. I'm not out to prove anything."
Yet Robyn's uncommon success has made her a symbol, whether she likes it or not. Among other things, it has caused a great many knowledgeable people in racing to speculate about a time, say within a generation or so, when a substantial minority, or even a majority, of race riders in America will be female. This theory has a persuasive socioeconomic base to it. The success and proliferation in the U.S. of Latin American riders—usually referred to around the track as "the Spanish boys"—has come about because most American men have grown too large for riding and too soft to put up with the grueling 19th century apprenticeship which is based on the postulate that to be a good rider a boy first must become proficient in mucking out stalls. Inherent in the hypothesis that women will dominate the jockey ranks is the suggestion that American women are really a breed apart from American men—a smaller, disadvantaged race, just like the Spanish boys.
It is a very neat, plausible forecast; Robyn thinks the whole thing is so much bunk. "I don't want to talk against women," she says, "but most just cannot ride a racehorse. There's something lacking, and as far as I can tell it's a combination of both the mental and the physical thing. Mostly it's a lack of coordination, I guess. From the time I was a little teeny girl, I could always throw a baseball like a boy." To leave no room for doubt, she pantomimed a smooth overhand delivery. "But you know how most women throw." She acted out a jerky pitch. "I don't know why that is. It's the same way with riding a horse, though. Most women can't do it right.
"The trouble is that the women who generally would be best at riding are the big heavy broads who could never make the weight." She paused and thought about this for a moment. "You're just not going to find a lot of women like me," Robyn said.
You should see her now.