An unsung pioneer finds a new passion

Updated: May 13, 2000, 12:50 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Kathy Kusner says she's not a crusader. Yet, she states this while taking a momentary break from her latest crusade.

It was 32 years ago when Kusner fought the system to become the first female to be licensed to ride in recognized flat races. Today, the 60-year-old, still pained by the racial discrimination she saw while growing up in the South, is battling to give inner-city African American kids a better life. Shy and self-effacing, she can say what she wants. She champions good causes, then and now.

Just ask any of the kids who have taken part in her project, Horses in the Hood, a non-profit organization that gives underprivileged kids in the Watts section of Los Angeles a chance to get some fresh air while riding and bonding with horses. Or ask Julie Krone, or any other female jockey aware of the struggles Kusner had to put up with to break into the sport and pave the way for generations of women to come.

"She's a remarkable and accomplished woman with a kind heart," Krone said. "I am so grateful for everything she did for me and so many other female riders."

Of course that didn't matter to the stuffed shirts at the Maryland Racing Commission in 1968 when Kusner applied for a jockey's license. She was already an accomplished horsewoman, having just been part of the United States Equestrian Team that finished fourth at the Olympic Games in Mexico City.

But women supposedly too weak to handle a headstrong, powerful thoroughbred,were for all practical purposes banned from being jockeys. Some would ride in "Powder Puff Derbies," gimmicky non-betting races held from time to time at tracks or at hunt meets. Years earlier, a woman named Judy Johnson rode in a few steeplechase races at Pimlico during World War II, while so many male jockeys were overseas in combat.

Amazingly, even Johnson wasn't on her side.

"I really believe her best shot is to ride in steeplechase races, like I did," Johnson said. "On the flat, she would find it very tough."

The stewards agreed, twice denying Kusner's application to become a jockey. They ruled: "We find from the evidence that the applicant lacks sufficient strength to control a mount and for this reason would create hazardous racing conditions for other jockeys if application were granted."

To Kusner, the ruling was not just nonsense, it was unacceptable and obvious discrimination. She took her case to the courts, where it was ruled that a racing commission could not deny someone a license based solely on their sex.

"I was already 28 then and past the age when I could get an apprentice weight allowance," she said. "I knew that the chance to be a jockey was going to pass me by if I didn't do something. I knew the whole thing was going to be a pain in the neck, but I decided it was something I really wanted to do."

Typically, she says it was no big deal.

"I don't hear much from other female jockeys but there's no reason to," she said. "It's not necessary and that's not the reason I did it. It's not like it was winning the right to vote or getting civil rights amendments passed. Those are important issues, a lot more important than a girl getting a license to be a jockey. I was just doing something I was interested in doing."

Though the first female to hold a jockey's license, Kusner was not the first to ride in a flat race. That honor goes to Diane Crump, who was able to get her license thanks to Kusner's court victory. Kusner's jockey career was temporarily put on hold when she broke her leg in a spill at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. She was sidelined about eight months before getting a chance to ride in a race.

Kusner accepted her first mount in 1969, winning one race that year from 13 tries. Though she had broken down the doors, women riders never quite gained acceptance in that era. Kusner retired in the mid-1970's after winning only a handful of races.

Her on-racetrack career has been filled with still more highlights and firsts. With the U.S. Equestrian Team, she won a silver medal in the 1972 Olympics at Munich. A year later, she got her license to fly Learjets and was reportedly the only women to hold such a license at the time. In the ensuing years, she's run in several marathons and ultra marathons, given riding clinics and has been used in court cases as an expert witness in matters involving equine issues.

But it is Horses in the Hood that puts the spring in her step these days. She founded the program after an African American friend questioned her as to why there were so few blacks in the horse show world. The question brought back some unpleasant memories.

"I grew up in Virginia in the 1950's and I saw segregation firsthand," Kusner said. "The grooms with the show horses or race horses were all black and they couldn't even go into restaurants with the rest of us. In the show world, they couldn't show a horse with the rest of us. It was something that was so seriously unfair. These were realities that made quite a powerful impression on me."

Back then, she wanted to tell her black friends how sorry she was. But she's done something better by devoting a large part of her life to doing something positive for African American children.

Children involved with the program go to a horsey day camp for a five-day stretch. Their tuition is paid by "Horse in the Hood", which also buys them a pair of paddock boots. They ride, they learn to brush a horse, put on tack and are responsible for cleaning out the stalls. The idea is to show them there is something else out there besides the mean streets of Watts.

"The kids seem to love it," Kusner said. "All the reactions I have gotten have been very positive."

Yet the day camp is not enough for Kusner. Her dream is to build an equestrian center smack in the middle of Watts, so that the kids don't have to be shuttled out of their own neighborhood to ride and can do more than go five days to a day camp. She has her sights set on five acres in Watts, but needs funding to raise the $2 million it will take to buy it.

Knowing Kusner, it will be done. Though still a bit shy, she faces each task with dogged perseverance and gets what she wants. Don't all crusaders?

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

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