The Kentucky Derby has, sadly, been dominated by men. The creators were male. The trainers and jockeys have been male. Most of the horses won? You guessed it: male.
Most of that is due to the enforcement of strict gender roles until recent decades. According to TwinSpires guide on Derby’s history, it wasn’t until the 1960s that women were even permitted to take out jockeys’ and trainers’ licenses, much less take part in the country’s most famous race. Indeed, for the earliest Kentucky Derbies, women were not even permitted to be listed as the owner of the record.
However, the times are changing, and women are having an increasingly huge impact on the Kentucky Derby.
The Three Greatest Girls Of The Kentucky Derby
Before we get started discussing the women of the Kentucky Derby, we should first do our due diligence to honor the three victorious Derby fillies.
Regret was regarded as the best of either sex at age two in 1914, and she made her three-year-old debut in the 1915 Derby (a common practice at the time) as an undefeated heavy favorite. As the Triple Crown was not yet recognized as a series, Regret did not compete in the Preakness or Belmont, but continued to win top-level races against males and females as a three-year-old and an older mare.
Genuine Risk qualified for the Kentucky Derby by finishing a good third in the 1980 Grade I Wood Memorial. She pushed her way to the front of the pack at the top of the Churchill Downs stretch and won by a length. “Jenny” next raced in the Preakness, which was one of the most controversial races in turf history; she finished second after apparently being fouled by eventual winner Codex. She finished second in the Belmont to Temperance Hill.
Winning Colors was an Amazonian roan filly who dwarfed many of her male competitors. She first tested males in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, and easily ran gate to wire. It wasn’t quite as easy in the Kentucky Derby, but the result was the same: Winning Colors never gave up the lead. Her greatest victory was also her last; she was third in the Preakness, sixth in the Belmont, and had the misfortune to come up against undefeated champion Personal Ensign in the fall.
Laska Durnell was the owner of Elwood, and she apparently had more faith in the colt than her husband Charles Durnell, who happened to train him, did. Mrs. Durnell chose to nominate Elwood to the 1904 Kentucky Derby without seeking her husband’s permission, which was an extraordinary breach of etiquette at the time.
However, it was richly rewarded, as Elwood, the longest shot in the field, came home victorious. In an odd twist of history, Elwood was also the Derby winner bred by a woman: Mrs. J.B. Prather.
Shelley Riley made history as the first woman to train a horse to place in the Kentucky Derby; her runner-up finish with Casual Lies in 1992 remains the closest a woman has come to training a Derby winner. Casual Lies, whom Riley called “Stanley,” was a bargain-basement $7500 purchase as a yearling, and he became the standout horse of Riley’s career, eventually winning nearly $800,000. Nowadays, Riley spends her time writing fantasy novels, including the Born From Stone series.
Rosie Napravnik came closer than any other female jockey as of 2022 to winning the Kentucky Derby when she finished fifth aboard Mylute in 2013. The duo got third in the Preakness two weeks later, which is also the best performance by a female jockey in the second leg of the Triple Crown.
Napravnik is also the most successful female jockey in the Breeders’ Cup races, having won the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Shanghai Bobby and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Untapable.
Opposite to what many people might think, women had an impact on the Derby. In 1942, for example, 7 of the 8 finishers of the competition were owned by women.
However, despite some progress and an increasing interest in the sport by women, especially in the 70s, there is no woman trainer or jockey who has won the Kentucky Derby yet.
In fact, in almost 150 years of the event, only 6 jockeys women have competed in the Run of Roses. Hope we see a different story in the future and that women conquer more space in this sport run by men.
Author: Lindsay Griffin