The main thing a woman has to understand about being a horse trainer is that it's a man's game. Never mind how unfair that situation is, or the heartaches and frustration it causes; the fact remains: Despite the growing number of female trainers at virtually every track in the U.S., racing is very much a male province. About all a woman can do is grin, bear it and hope that someday she will find an equine jewel among the misfits and rejects that invariably come her way.
Ask a woman horse trainer if she would recommend her profession to another woman, and the response is usually silence. Even the most successful women in the business hesitate to endorse it as a career. You have to be a special kind of person, they say, an independent sort who can maintain her femininity while also being one of the boys, one who knows that having a slim chance of success on the track may cost her any chance of having a "normal" life away from it. Tough. Hard. The racetrack makes you that way.
"Do you think I'm hard?" asks Dianne Carpenter. She's frowning, as if the thought troubles her, as she sits at a table in Wagner's Pharmacy, across the street from Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. In her mid-40's, she has blonde hair and a husky voice and is wearing gold-flecked makeup.
Carpenter doesn't wait for an answer. She sighs, then recalls the day in 1988 when she was getting Kingpost ready for the Derby and one of her other horses, a 2-year-old colt, snapped a leg during a workout and had to be destroyed right there on the track. She cried, sure, but she also went on about her business. Does that mean she's hard?
September 23, 1990
"I used to cry about the remarks people would make," she says. "If I won a big race, they'd say I was lucky or that the horse overcame my training. If I lost, I was a dizzy blonde. It doesn't bother me anymore. I don't have anything to prove, but I would like to get my name in the book. In the end, that's what everybody wants, to get their name in the book."
"The book" is the record book, the one that lists the achievements of the game's best. Every trainer, man or woman, wants his or her name in it—alongside those of Charlie Whittingham, D. Wayne Lukas and Woody Stephens—but so far no woman has trained a winner of a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup race. In fact, you have to go far down the yearly lists of the top trainers in the country in wins and earnings to find a woman.
The reason has nothing to do with desire, effort or ability and everything to do with opportunity, or more precisely, lack of it. A woman trainer loses whatever illusions she may have had when she comes up with a promising colt, only to have the owner give it to a male trainer; or when she gets that rare horse that can run with the best, only to find that the phone doesn't ring with the opportunities that would certainly come to a man under similar conditions.
"The discrimination is the same today as it was 30 years ago," says Sally Ann Bailie, "and it's very powerful."
Bailie, 53, is an intense, sad-eyed woman with long gray hair that hangs down her back almost to her waist. She is sort of the matriarch of the nation's female trainers, a pioneer who has made great inroads but who has been so beaten down in the process that she would discourage other women from following in her footsteps. Until Bailie came along, the only female trainers were women with husbands wealthy enough to indulge their whims or with enough money to run their own stables. Nobody took them very seriously, and nobody considered training a legitimate job for women.
That began to change a bit in 1971, when Hazel Longden, the wife of jockey and trainer Johnny Longden, became the first woman to win a stakes at Santa Anita. In 1977 Bailie became the first woman to win a $100,000 race, taking the New York Empire Stakes with Tequillo Boogie. And in 1980 Mary Lou Tuck really shook the establishment by training the winner of the $400,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, Go West Young Man. Yet, these triumphs are treated more as freak occurrences than accomplishments—"Not bad, for a girl."
Bailie grew up around horses, steeplechasers mostly, in England before coming to the U.S. in 1966. When she took out her New York trainer's license in 1972, the only women on the backstretch locally were exercise girls and hotwalkers, and there weren't a lot of them. After slowly building up her stable and her reputation, Bailie broke through, or so she thought, in 1984, when a horse she trained, the aptly named Win, emerged as one of the nation's best handicap racers.
Win won some of the major New York stakes and closed with such a rush in the 1984 Turf Classic at Belmont that he missed catching the fabled John Henry by only a neck. Bailie expected all sorts of doors to swing open for her. But nothing changed. Instead, she drifted back into the shadows and became tired and bitter. She now trains 12 horses, none of them stars, for four owners.
"I was so tied up with the business that I just never made time for a family," she says. "It was always, 'Gotta get back to the barn.... Gotta get back to the barn.' That's not too satisfying now, especially after what happened with Win. If I had been a man, it would have been different. You know that old dodge about all you need is one good horse and you've got it made? Well, I've proved that wrong many times. It's just a lot of bull."
There is no logical reason why equal opportunity remains so elusive on the backstretch. A woman may need a lot of money to be an owner or special physical skills to be a jockey, but there's nothing to keep her from being a good trainer. Indeed, women have a well-accepted reputation for handling animals better—being kinder, gentler, more patient with them—than men. Prejudice is the obvious explanation. Men have almost exclusive control of the tracks, the breeding farms, the major stables and the racing secretary's offices. A woman trainer has to know, going in, what she's up against.
"Women are not taken seriously," says Carpenter. "This is still a man's world, and a man wants to give his $50,000 yearling to another man—somebody he can slap on the back and take to lunch at his club. Men want to deal with men. I don't hold that against them, either, except it does make it almost impossible for a woman to get a good horse to train."
So far, Carpenter is the only woman who has ever had a horse that hit the board in the Belmont Stakes. She trained Kingpost to a runner-up finish to Risen Star in 1988, but that modest breakthrough didn't exactly change her life.
Like Bailie, Carpenter had no background in racing—no father or husband or boyfriend to help prepare her for the crude living conditions and the chronic heartache. At Southern Mississippi University she triple-majored in psychology, English and sociology. She became a teacher, mainly because it was an acceptable career for a woman, and started working in New Jersey, where she also got hooked on the horse business. She bought a racehorse for $500, named him Sundance Kid and trained him to be a jumper.
In 1973 she and Sundance Kid were out early one morning when the horse missed a jump. She fell to the ground and the horse rolled onto her, his back broken. It was an hour before help arrived. While she was waiting for the 1,000-pound horse to be moved off her, Carpenter made a promise to herself. "I decided that if I got out in one piece, I was going to do something more exciting with my life than teaching," she says. She had a broken collarbone and the horse was put down, but she kept her vow. She started her own stable, named Sundance, in 1974 and got her trainer's license in 1976. In short order she claimed some good horses, was successful enough in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Ohio to move on to Kentucky, and began pointing for the Kentucky Derby.
Now she's the only woman to have trained two Derby starters, Biloxi Indian (finished 12th in the field of 19 in 1984) and Kingpost (14th of 17 in '88), but she also wonders about her future. Like Bailie, she has been married to her career and feels burned out.
"I still want to get a good horse, but I'm just not driven right now," she says. "I've already proved I know how to train a good horse. I don't know what I want to do now, exactly, but I know our only limitation as women trainers is that we don't know what we can do. We didn't have any role models when I began, and there were no precedents set for us. I came in a loner, and I guess I'll go out a loner."
As loners and outsiders, Carpenter and Bailie have done it the hard way, though having a male partner or mate does not guarantee success. Still, if a woman has an association with a man on the track, that can sometimes persuade a skeptical owner to take a chance, or sway a racing secretary to come up with a few extra stalls.
Sally Lundy, 36, for example, isn't hurt by the fact that she's married to Dick Lundy, a respected trainer who handles the horses of Allen Paulson, a big spender at the most prestigious horse auctions. Sally usually has between 15 and 20 horses that she trains for several owners. Nevertheless, she has distanced herself from her husband, literally as well as figuratively. In their thoroughly modern marriage, he works in California and she in New York. The Lundys' long-distance phone bills average around $400 a month, and they see each other when their schedules permit.
While Dick has trained such premier horses as Blushing John and Carr de Naskra, Sally's main claim to fame is that in 1984 she became the first woman to saddle a horse in the Belmont Stakes. Her colt, Minstrel Star, was near the early pace before fading to last in the 11-horse field.
Perhaps the most fortunate woman trainer is Sandy Bruno, 38, who since 1978 has worked for Stephens, the Hall of Fame trainer and winner of a record five consecutive Belmont Stakes, from 1982 through '86. Last May, when Stephens had open-heart surgery, Bruno, together with David Donk, took over the Stephens stable, and the two of them have kept it running smoothly.
"Right now I'm happy being where I am," Bruno says. "Eventually I'd like to go out on my own, but the people with the real good horses are going to go to the top trainers, so I'm probably better off sticking with Woody. I'm sure it would be a lot different being around lesser horses, but I think I would still be happy."
Well, maybe. When Nicola Deegan decided to go into training, her father, Liam Ward, a distinguished Irish jockey whose mounts included Nijinsky and Sir Ivor, told her she was crazy. But Nicola came to the U.S., learned the game under Elliott Burch and married jockey Joe Deegan, also a native of Ireland. Today, she and Joe live in Louisville and offer a package deal: An owner who wants Nicola to train his or her horses also has to agree to use Joe as the jockey. Fortunately, Joe is a decent rider, as he has proved with 24 victories, including three stakes, at the Churchill Downs spring meeting.
Nicola, 24, depends on a a nanny to help with the couple's two children, John, 3, and Pamela, eight months, especially when she has to travel. "It's hard sometimes," says Nicola, "but I always think that everything has a way of sorting itself out. When you do horses and have a family, you don't have much time for anything else, but Joe is a big help. We'd like to go back home someday and have an Irish Derby winner that I trained and Joe rode. We have a team, and if somebody doesn't want to be a part of it, well, that's too bad. Of course, if somebody offered me Sunday Silence, I'd say yes and we'd work the Joe part out later."
Vickie Foley, another Kentucky trainer, has a different approach. She has focused her attention on claiming horses, owned by syndicates of small investors, and her success has brought her notice. In 1988 Foley made a sensational move. Red and White, a sprinter she claimed for $22,500, earned $125,000. That helped make up for the time, earlier in her career, when an owner took a promising colt away from her and gave it to a man.
Now Foley, 33, says that she doesn't sense any discrimination—"I'm treated just like everybody else," she insists—and she flatly predicts that women will be among the national leaders "within the next 20 years," a burst of optimism that calloused veterans would no doubt find touching, albeit unrealistic.
Nobody knows more about sex discrimination among trainers than Bailie, and yet she smiles wistfully when asked why she has stayed for so long in a profession that seems to be such a hopeless cause for women.
"Probably because I'm stupid," she says. "The truth is, I like it. Every day that you get up, it's a new challenge. Whenever I get fed up, I ask myself what else I could possibly do that wouldn't bore me to death. I've gone beyond dreaming, I'm more realistic, but I'd still like to win some races and get another good horse. That is what keeps you going, even if the chances are a million to one."