Donna Barton Brothers looked back on her career as a jockey and her time spent as a commentator for NBC during a keynote address at Thorofan's annual awards brunch on Saturday in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Despite having learned to read with the Daily Racing Form when she was six, Brothers said she initially did not plan to follow her mother, brother, and sister into the profession of race riding. Although Brothers' mother, Patti Barton, was one of the first women to be licensed as a jockey in the late 1960s, Brothers thought being a jockey would be a “boring” choice.
“Before she was 19 years old, she had been a bull rider on a rodeo circuit, a trick rider, and a semi truck driver and she'd been a card dealer in Las Vegas,” said Brothers. “I grew up in this household and thought I wanted to do something exciting with my life like be a politician or a lawyer. Luckily, I broadened my perspective.
“I grew up thinking it would be easy and quickly learned it wasn't easy.”
Barton's record for winningest female rider stood until several years after her retirement in the 1980s. Brothers never equaled her mother's win record, finishing her career with 1,171 victories, making her the second leading female jockey on track at the time.
Brothers spent 12 years in the saddle, during which time she continued her mother's tradition of paving the way for female riders. Brothers won six graded stakes in her career, including the Grade 2 Sapling and G2 Schuylerville. It was a second-place ride that one audience member asked her to recall, however: her trip in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Juvenile aboard Hennessy, who she said was her favorite horse despite his energetic personality.
Brothers and Hennessy were edged at the finish of the race by rivals Mike Smith and Unbridled's Song, who Brothers didn't even recognize at first as they came up on the inside rail.
Earlier in the card, Brothers remembered colleague Julie Krone had finished second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint on Mr. Greeley at 31-1 and had been upset with the result.
“I was like, ‘Julie, you should be happy. 31-1 and that horse ran a huge race!' and she said, ‘Well I'm not happy, I didn't win,'” Brothers remembered. “So I get back to the jocks' room after the Juvenile and Julie goes, ‘Are ya happy?'”
Brothers said her eventual career as a horseback commentator on NBC proved just as surprisingly challenging as her jockey career. She started out on camera as a track analyst for Fair Grounds and Churchill Downs before accepting a gig with NBC Sports, which eventually bloomed into her current role, in which she interviews winning riders on horseback and produces features helping fans understand the jockey's perspective on race day.
“They don't coach you. They don't say like, ‘Here, why don't you ask this?' or ‘Why don't you ask that?' They just say, ‘You're going to play this role, go out and do it,'” she said.
Brothers realized in her early days, she was asking jockeys and trainers fairly tame, nonspecific questions after big wins. As she took time to hone her craft, she realized the key to a good interview is asking a question that was specific to the subject's experience of a big moment.
“When you ask someone a question that's only applicable to them, it makes them drop down out of their head into their heart, and hopefully that's what comes through,” she said.
Despite her unique vantage point from horseback on the Belmont track, Brothers' professional responsibilities made it difficult for her to get the full experience of the 2015 Triple Crown, won by American Pharoah.
“Nobody wants to know my emotion after that race, they want to know what Victor Espinoza's feeling right now,” said Brothers.
Brothers later talked to her brother and sister and found out each had burst into tears while watching the finish of the Belmont Stakes on television.
“I felt like I got robbed of that because I didn't get to have that emotion. I've wanted to see this for as long as everybody else and I just didn't get to have that experience.”
Brothers kept thinking through Belmont Saturday and Sunday morning that she had missed her chance for happy tears. It wasn't until she got out of the shower Sunday morning that she could finally decompress and “burst out crying.”
“If you've ever wondered if we still feel it like you do, the answer is yes,” she said. “We just have to hold it back.”
Brothers also used her time at the podium to speak out on the issue of the jockey scale of weights, an issue that has drawn much debate and speculation in recent years. Although Brothers never struggled to maintain her own weight, she did witness other riders engaging in unhealthy behavior to make weight. That doesn't mean she thinks the scale of weights should be raised, however.
“For years I thought, it's not fair for me to have an opinion on this because the first race I rode, I weighed 98 pounds,” she said. “We don't have a shortage of jockeys. We might have a lot of people who are not naturally 110 pounds and are trying to fit into these little white pants, but we've never had a shortage of people who can fit into the little white pants. To raise the scale of weights, at the end of the day, would be unfair to the horse because the horse is the one who suffers if you put more weight on him.”
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