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An unsung pioneer finds a new passion

5/13/2000

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?