by Bob Gates
On May 16, 1969, 19-year-old, Barbara Jo Rubin became the first female jockey to win a race at Assiniboia Downs. It's hard to believe, but a half century has passed since Barbara Jo's record-setting performance.
Miss Rubin was a young jockey struggling to break into the male dominated profession of riding thoroughbred racehorses. She was attractive and a very talented saddlesmith who was causing quite a fuss in Florida during the winter of 1968/69. Her fledgling riding career was making all sorts of waves. She was quickly becoming horse racing's rising star, but she was having trouble getting the opportunity to ride thoroughbred horses on a recognized racetrack.
Barbara Jo's backstory is the stuff from which movies are made. Consider her timeline:
December 1968: A Dade County circuit court judge ordered the Florida State Racing Commission to issue Miss Rubin a licence or show cause why it couldn't.
January 1969: The Commission issued Rubin a license and she accepted a mount in the third race at Florida's Tropical Park for January 15. Tropical Park jockeys however, threatened to boycott if she was permitted to ride. Rubin's agent, trainer Brian Webb (who held her 3-year contract) relented and agreed under tremendous pressure to withdraw her from the race.
January 16, 1969: Tropical Park stewards fine the jockeys responsible for the delay in the start of the third race $100 each for " failing to fulfill their engagements."
February 1969: The Florida State Racing Commission unanimously upheld the fines levied by Tropical Park.
February 22, 1969: Barbara Jo Rubin won her first race at Charles Town Park aboard her mount Cohesian.
March 1969: Barbara Jo Rubin became the first woman to ride a horse on a New York track and won on Brave Galaxy at Aqueduct.
By the spring of 1969, Barbara Jo had attained celebrity status. After receiving her license, she won seven of her first 12 races. She appeared on Ed Sullivan, CBC's Front Page Challenge, Kraft Music Hall and the Merv Griffin Show.
The setting couldn't have been any better, opening day for the 1969 season at Assiniboia Downs was approaching and the track was poised to kick-off its twelfth season. General Manager, Scotty Kennedy had been on the lookout for a promotion, something special that the Downs could use to excite its local fan base. At the same time, the Barbara Jo Rubin "experience" was in full bloom in the "Excited" States.
In May 1969 Jack Hardy announced that Barbara Jo Rubin was coming to the Downs to ride on May 16 and May 17. She was to have six mounts, three on each day, including one in the first race of the 56-day meet.
Like this year's Kentucky Derby, there were all kinds of opinions, some informed and others that were just chauvinistic, on the subject of female jockeys. Barbara Jo did have supporters though.
Jack Hardy, Downs' owner - "My attitude towards girl riders is reflected by the fact we are bringing Barbara Jo Rubin here."
Bob Watt, trainer - " I think they're alright. If the girl is capable of riding a horse. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it."
Don Gray, trainer and former steward - "I think if they prove they have the ability to ride. I see nothing wrong with it."
The stage was set for the Florida native's debut at the Downs. It was opening day, her mount in the first race was fittingly a mare and it was Ladies Day at the track to boot. A crowd of 5,400 saw Rubin guide Maureen Deb down the lane, winning by a couple of lengths and paying $11.20, $5.40 and $3.40 across the board.
The catcalls disappeared, as the well-wishers crowded around the old brick winners' enclosure. On this day, the soft-spoken, pigtailed young lady from Mirmar, Florida was the ultimate heroine. She had five other mounts left in her two-day stay in Winnipeg and no one really cared that this was her only victory. Barbara Jo's visit to the Downs was a resounding success and well-worth the rumoured $1,000 appearance fee.
- First female jockey to receive a licence on the North American continent.
- First female jockey to score a victory on a recognized U.S. racetrack.
- First female jockey to win a race at a recognized pari-mutuel track in Canada.
- First female jockey to ride in a race at Assiniboia Downs and first female jockey to win a race at the Downs.
A knee injury forced Barbara Jo into an early retirement in January 1970. Rubin's lifetime stats saw her finish with 22 wins, 10 seconds and 10 thirds from 89 starts.
50 Years ago! Time flies, doesn’t it? Happy 50th Barbara Jo!
We've come a long way.