Several months into her new job as vice president of racing operations, someone drew Jill Byrne's attention to something unusual about the management structure at Colonial Downs: an awful lot of top spots at the Virginia racetrack's recent meet were filled by women.
“It's funny — I look at it as yes, it's a dominant female thing, but I think the era of hiring people because of or not because of gender is finally maybe waning a little bit,” said Byrne. “I never felt I didn't get a job because I'm female. I always felt I earned my position based on what my qualifications are. You can say that, but it's still true that women in this industry aren't necessarily in the high-level positions.”
Byrne is, to her knowledge, one of the few women to hold her position in the United States. The renowned Allison De Luca came north from Florida to serve as racing secretary, and when the track needed a head outrider, De Luca contacted fellow Tampa Bay Downs regular Sandra Kaster to fill the position. The general manager at the New Kent property, vice president of human resources for Colonial Downs Group, vice president of legal – all women. The position of equine medical director for the Virginia Racing Commission is held by Dr. Ada Caruthers, and a large percentage of the racing office under De Luca is also female. And, on the track's biggest race card, jockey Forest Boyce won the Virginia Oaks.
Byrne said in her experience, it's unusual to find so many women at the top, at the same racetrack, at the same time. There was no plan for it to end up this way, despite track ownership's Rosie the Riveter theme in its historical horse racing (HHR) parlors. Rather, Byrne was hired and told to find the best people she could for the other racing positions. In her case, she believes Colonial Downs ownership was willing to give her a shot at running racing operations because she had all the right ingredients in her resume, even if she hadn't actually held this exact position before.
“I feel I have absolutely earned every bit of my role here,” she said. “I respect Peninsula Pacific for recognizing I was the right person for this job. You need someone who not only understands a live race meet from an operations standpoint, but someone who's a horseman and a promoter.
“I feel the support of the horsemen who are really grateful to have someone who has grown up on the racetrack and understands what their needs are. Don Roberson, a trainer back here, was saying one day, 'I don't think I've ever seen an executive down in the barn mucking stalls.' I was doing that. I fix boards. You do what you have to do to get things done.”
Now that Colonial's first race meet under new management has come to a close, Byrne will turn her attention to operations at the track's off-track betting facilities. One thing she noticed at the historical horse racing parlor at Colonial, and others elsewhere, is a gender disparity at the HHR machines.
“One thing that was told to me and I didn't know before but man I see it now, the demographic at the gaming emporiums is very skewed to female,” she said. “If you go over there it's probably 70/30, which is great.”
For some of the other women on the Colonial management team, it didn't seem so out of the ordinary to find themselves in a female-dominated group. Dr. Ada Caruthers, Virginia Racing Commission equine medical director, said the gender gap in the veterinary world isn't nearly as large as it is in track management.
“We have more females than male here at Colonial,” she said. “We have more females than males in vet school now. I can't say as I've ever thought about it. I think it's just whoever's available.”
Caruthers has been with the track on and off since it first opened in 1997. She has worked both in regulatory practice and private sporthorse practice throughout that time focusing on hunter/jumpers.
Similarly, head outrider Sandy Kaster said it's not so uncommon to see female outriders, though she admitted there aren't as many who hold the position of head outrider.
“I've been doing it almost 20 years. My dad was an outrider for 33 years in Maryland,” said Kaster. “I love it. It's a thrill, catching a loose horse, and my horses work hard for me.
“I have a million people who come up and say, 'I love your job. I can't believe you get to ride horses all day!' and we do, but it's a long day – a 10-hour day in the saddle. You have to really love what you do, to do this.”
Over in the racing office, Allison De Luca said she's seen a considerable shift in gender equality during her career. De Luca isn't the only woman to have held the job of racing secretary at a commercial track (there's also Georganne Hale and Jenny Bowman), but she is thought to be the first, having accepted her initial job at Sportsman's Park in 1987.
De Luca was philosophical about the role of gender in her career trajectory. While she was very aware of the barriers that needed breaking to get where she is now, she didn't conflate those barriers with her own belief in her ability to do the job.
“I started out in the office doing whatever I could,” she remembered. “Every time a new job would come open in the office, I would try to do it. Anything I hadn't done before, I would try to do. That's really what you have to do to work your way up.”
One of her tasks was managing the registration book, a big heavy log in which trainers had to handwrite each horse's owner, silks description, etc. when entering races. Keeping up with the book was tedious, and it was considered the task of the lowest person on the totem pole of the racing office.
“I noticed every time a new guy got hired, he didn't have to deal with the registration book,” she said. “He'd be a patrol judge. Finally I told them, Look, either I get the next patrol judge job or I can't do this anymore. So I was patrol judge, then I was paddock judge. Then I became the assistant racing secretary. When I first started, I got jobs by default because nobody else wanted it. And that was ok because I got it. It's like anything else, once you get your first job in that field, you're fine. It's getting the first one.”
In her early days, De Luca said “the crew” – the group of judges and assistants in the racing office were nearly all male. Now, it's more evenly split and if anything, the crew she brought with her from Tampa Bay was predominantly female.
“I have to say this – the crews where I have been racing secretary, those guys have been on board,” she said. “I felt no resentment. And without your crew, you're absolutely nothing. You can't do everything yourself.”
For De Luca, rising to the top in a man's world is all about quiet confidence in herself.
“I never worried that I was a woman,” she said. “I do think that women in general in the world don't get treated equally. I believe that, I do. But I never took on that attitude. In my own mind, I never worried that I couldn't do it. Now once you get the job you worry about whether you can really do it, but I never worried about not being able to get the job. I think everybody should look at things like that – you shouldn't let it stand in the way of anything. It's a crutch, to say that.”
And when success comes, De Luca said – pay it forward.
“I can tell you I've gotten paid less than a man for the same job. I know I have,” she said. “It's not out in the open, but I know it. And that's not right. But you get more confident with every job. You speak up more. You try to speak up for people.”
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