Women in Racing: Pens Mightier Than Swords

by | 10.21.2014 | 4:38pm
Dr. Maryjean Wall, multiple Eclipse Award-winning writer

There may be places on the racetrack where women are still outnumbered, but the press box is no longer one of them. In fact, the glass-fronted rooms usually occupying a spot near the announcers' booth are increasingly (in some places predominately) occupied by female writers, photographers, broadcasters, and public relations agents.

It wasn't always this way. In fact, just a few decades ago there were almost no women in the press corps. After her 35-year career writing for the Lexington Herald-Leader, together with three Eclipse Awards and two Pulitzer Prize nominations, many are quick to call Maryjean Wall the female turf writing trailblazer. Wall says she's not the very first woman to write about racing (in fact, she said there was another in the early 1800s who used to write about the sport under her brother's name), but admits she did break down a few barriers. She was the first woman to be accepted to the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association—after a long wait.

Wall started off quite literally without a pot to pee in—when she began work at Keeneland, there was one bathroom and no lock. She had to ask a fellow turfwriter to guard the door for her. In those days, it was far less common to see women on the track or in the barns, but Wall said it wasn't the horsemen who treated her differently—it was usually track management.

Wall recalled being prohibited from entering jockeys' rooms in several places, not so much because of riders' objections, but due to concerns of track officials about the propriety of her presence there.

“I had no burning desire to get into jockeys' rooms, believe me, but it was the idea of fairness,” Wall said, remembering one publicity officer's justification that 'he wouldn't want his wife' in such a place. After several years of watching her male competitors get scoops for their sports columns out of trips to the jockeys' quarters, Wall began losing patience with the trend.

The jockeys' rooms weren't the only places she met with resistance. After a few years with the Herald-Leader, Wall was asked to cover the Belmont Stakes and was asked for a copy of her clippings before the track would grant her a press pass—not a typical request of a full-time newspaper employee, and one she believed was made simply because she was female.

“You just can't imagine what it was like. You had to really want to do the job,” said Wall. “You had to be good at what you did, or you weren't going to last, because they were just waiting to find fault with you.

“I knew horses, and those men who were sports writers didn't know horses. I could understand the animal, and that helped me a lot.”

Although she worked particularly hard to leave any hint of emotion out of her writing to avoid criticism, Wall had fallen in love with the horse as a child in Canada, where she took dressage lessons as a teenager and spouted racing trivia to her riding coach.

That love for the animal was the same motivation that pushed Jane Goldstein, another early female presence in the press box. Goldstein told the Thoroughbred of California magazine in 1979 that she had originally wanted to be a turfwriter, but a Daily Racing Form columnist informed a teenaged Goldstein that the publication didn't hire women. Instead, she set her sights on being a publicity writer, working a circuit of the country's best tracks in the 1960s. At that time, it was an uphill battle at some facilities. When she worked at Fair Grounds, Goldstein was told she had to vacate the press box every day by noon, when the reporters began to arrive, since management didn't want women in there during the race day. She would finish her notes on the steps outside the press room or borrow a typewriter in the general offices.

“It was scary for me,” Goldstein admitted (ironically, to the Form) in 1985. “I was working around horsemen who had been my heroes. But everybody was wonderful. Even those who were supposed to have been gruff were great to me. If it hadn't been for everyone being so nice to me then, I wouldn't have stayed with it for so long.”

Goldstein eventually became the head of publicity at Santa Anita Park, the first woman to hold such a position, and kept the job for 22 years.

These days, female turfwriters say the playing field is much more even.

Amy Zimmerman in the broadcast booth for the Eclipse Awards

Amy Zimmerman in the broadcast booth for the Eclipse Awards

“I've never, ever felt that it was anything but normal to be a woman in this profession,” said Amy Zimmerman, award-winning executive producer at HRTV. Zimmerman started off at the Thoroughbred of California magazine just two years after it published the profile on Goldstein. “I'm really fortunate that there are a lot of incredible women like Jane that paved the way for me.

“When I came along, the press box door was open. All I did was walk through it. They're the ones who broke it down.”

Jennie Rees, lauded veteran reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal, agreed.

“I can count on less than one hand the number of times I thought that if I had been a man [I would have been treated differently],” said Rees. “What I found was that in horse racing, if the trainers thought you were trying to learn, they were willing to help you.

“In 1985 I met my husband [trainer Pat Dupuy]… the more we were together, the more I was hanging around his stable. People see you out there working with the horses in the morning, and I think they think you get the big picture.”

(Rees, ironically, wasn't interested in covering racing at all originally. She convinced her editors to let her take over for a departing colleague at the paper because she wanted to cover the new CBA basketball team that was coming to Louisville. The team collapsed after a couple of seasons, and 21 years later, she is one of the paper's two full time racing writers.)

Zimmerman believes that at least in the world of television, it might actually be easier to be a woman cutting a path in a sport desperate to expand its fan base. But it all comes down to having the talent.

“I'm kind of gender-neutral. I don't care if you're a man, a woman, or a billy goat—if you can do the job, that's great,” she said. “I never look at myself as a woman in a job, and I'm really shocked when other people do.”

BC or Bust 2014 logoIn addition to raising awareness about female contributions to the sport and industry, our series Women in Racing also serves as a reminder that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  As part of the Paulick Report's annual Breeders' Cup or Bust fundraising efforts, please consider a donation to Breeders' Cup Charities. Your contribution can help fund the cure via City of Hope. Thank you!

 

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