Diane Crump: Horse-Crazy Girl Who Revolutionized Thoroughbred Racing

Historic horse race in 1969 that changed the rules.
Riding Bridle ‘N Bit in the 7th race at Hialeah Park on February 7, 1969, Diane Crump (center) smashed through the barriers that kept women from participating in the sport of thoroughbred racing.

Until the 1960s, gender discrimination was a proud fact of life in the male-only world of thoroughbred horse racing in the United States. Females could not be licensed as jockeys. But a gutsy, 5-foot tall, 104 pound slip of a woman named Diane Crump changed all that at Florida’s Hialeah Park in 1969.

As a kid, Crump loved animals. Growing up in the Florida’s Gulf Coast Pinellas County as the eldest of four children, her family often found injured ducks, seagulls and, once, even a pelican Crump had rescued, recuperating in their basement.

Racing silks and gender controversy
The very idea of a woman wearing racing silks was anathema to most of the die-hard male horse racing community.

But more than anything, Crump grew up horse-crazy. Her dream was born with a carnival pony ride in her native Connecticut. For her seventh birthday, her parents gave her riding lessons at a nearby stable. When family moved to Florida in her middle-school years, Crump continued to ride, eventually getting a job at a local farm where, she soon discovered, half the horses on the farm were racehorses.

Exercise rider
From there she found her way to Tampa Bay Downs where she worked as an exercise rider, caring for foals and helping break yearlings for the farm’s owner.

Under Florida law, Crump got her license to gallop horses at 16. Against her parents’ wishes, she enrolled in night school and earned her high school diploma early so she could go to Miami, where the horses she had worked with on the farm were slated to race.

But Diane Crump discovered thoroughbred racing at a time when women were barred from holding jockeys’ licenses. If anything, that made her want to be a jockey even more. As she later recalled, “I guess that’s what happens when you’re told you can’t, right?”

Disgruntled male crowd greets first female thoroughbred jockey
Walking toward her historic ride in 1969, the diminutive Crump was protected by police from a largely disgruntled crowd of male racing fans.

Women Need Not Apply
The first woman to apply for — and be denied — a jockey’s license was U.S. Olympian Equestrian Team rider Kathy Kusner in 1967. Women’s applications were routinely rejected by racing’s bureaucracy on the grounds they were unqualified due to “physical limitations” and “emotional instability.” Kusner sued. And after a year-long court fight, a judge citing the 1964 Civil Rights Act ruled the Maryland Racing Commission had to certify her. But in a cruel twist of fate, she was sidelined after being thrown from a horse who then rolled over her in a jumping competition at Madison Square Garden, suffering a fractured leg that required nine months of rehabilitation.

The next year, with Penny Ann Early slotted to ride at Churchill Downs, male jockeys boycotted by backing out of the races. And early in 1969, when Barbara Jo Rubin was to ride, jockeys in Florida threatened a boycott and hurled rocks at the trailer used for her dressing room; she was replaced by a male jockey so the race could go on. Finally, the Florida Racing Commission, tired of all the male drama over a woman riding, convened the end of January and voted to stiffen penalties against any jockey who refused to ride.

Mud-spattered jockey who broke thorough horse racing's gender barrier
A mud-spattered Crump smiles in triumph after her first race that opened the door for other women to become jockeys

Making History on Bridle n’ Bit
The door for Diane Crump to make history in 1969 as the first woman to compete with men in a pari-mutuel race had opened … and she walked right through. At age 21, she was a 50-to-1 shot riding a three-year-old colt named Bridle n’ Bit. The horse was owned by the trainer’s wife, who insisted Crump ride. According to the trainer, his wife told him in no uncertain terms, “Put the girl on or I’ll get another trainer.”

Crump fought her way through popping flashbulbs and jeering crowds to a small office — the only space available for a female to change. No matter. She donned her silks in the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association office and entered the paddock to cheers, boos and catcalls. “Why don’t you stay home and do the cooking?” one man called.

Black and white photos from the day of the race show a petite woman standing shoulder high to the security guards surrounding her as she approached the saddling area at Hialeah Park amid hecklers and a dubious crowd of 5,000 — almost all male — jostling for a look at the woman who just wanted to ride.

Trampling the old rules
As the horses made their way way to the track, the bugler changed the call to post from the traditional “Boots and Saddles” to “Smile for Me, My Diane.” Decked out in red and white silks, Diane Crump climbed aboard a finely-tuned thoroughbred, exploded out of the gate in a sanctioned competition against men, and set fire to centuries of horseracing’s rules.

Bridle N’ Bit finished 10th out of 12, splattering himself and Crump with mud. Immediately surrounded by waiting reporters, she told them, “I think I did okay for the first time.” One fan was heard to say of the race, “Well, she got back alive.”

While her horse didn’t win that day, Crump earned a far more important prize: the right to compete in her chosen field. Just over a year later, on May 2, 1970, after 95 years and 1,055 all-male entrants, Diane Crump shattered tradition again by becoming the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby.

Kentucky Derby horse
Crump with her Kentucky Derby mount named Fathom.

“A Gal in the Derby?”
After Crump’s first ride when she “did okay,” more women began to race. By 1970, 10 women had won their races, proving they could do it. Which might not seem like such a big thing … unless you had your heart set on riding in the big one: the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. It was simply not done. Unheard of. Or, as one sports reporter wrote, “A gal in the Derby? Next thing you know they’ll be playing second base for the Dodgers.”

But there WAS a gal in the Derby. Crump rode a chestnut thoroughbred named Fathom in a 17-horse field against Hall-of-Fame jockeys like Angel Cordero, Bill Shoemaker and Bill Hartack , finishing 15th. But far from being disappointed, Crump told reporters, “He was in the thick of things for most of the race. None of us are disappointed. The horse did try.”

End of an Era
Diane Crump spent her life working racetracks with her trainer husband, raising a daughter who spent hours at dozens of different barns, traveling the seasonal racing circuits, and getting divorced before reinventing herself.

She ended her racing career in 1985 and took a job as a farm trainer in Lexington, Kentucky. With her daughter about to start school, she needed to settle in one place. She worked that job for almost four years. Then, almost 20 years after making racing history at Hialeah, Crump was crushed by a horse in Northern Virginia.

While breaking horses as a free-lancer, she took one of her own, a two-year-old colt with a habit of rearing up, out for a run. Sure enough, while on a hill at the training center, he reared up and fell backwards, bending Crump’s foot back and breaking her ankle before landing on her, resulting in a compound leg fracture. Crump waited an endless 45 minutes for an ambulance. Her first operation took three hours; the second one took four hours, leaving her with a pin in her ankle and bone grafts and a rod in her leg.

Diane Crump and family in 2010
Diane Crump (right) with her daughter, Della, and granddaughter Farah.

Diane Crump Equine Sales, Inc.
Eventually realizing she could no longer ride, Diane Crump gave up the work she cherished in 1999 and settled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She also realized she had to figure out a way to make a living without riding when horses were all she knew. She looked into horse shows and explored the sport of foxhunting. But after meeting people who sold show horses for a living, she realized she could put her long experience to use matching people with horses. As the founder of Diane Crump Equine Sales, Inc., her daily routine became much the same as that of a local real estate agent. But instead of taking clients to see homes, she took them to see horses while scouting new listings for her business.

“I Just Wanted to Live My Dream”
Today, Diane Crump no longer rides because of the residual effects of countless injuries sustained during her career. But she has no regrets. Her career spanned 17 years, earning her over $1 million. As she liked to tell reporters, “I never felt like a pioneer or a trailblazer. I just wanted to live my dream, and I most certainly did.”

What more could a horse-crazy 13-year-old girl ask for?

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