Death threats. Conspiracy. Revenge. Full-scale investigations. Male chauvinism. Exposé. Mafia involvement.
Though it was perhaps inevitable in the Age of Watergate, the sensational and all-too-familiar catchwords being bandied about Pimlico Race Course last week were worse than unsubstantiated. Indeed, as used in the case of Karin Yarosh, a 20-year-old apprentice jockey who was critically injured in a fall during a race at the Baltimore track on April 8, the dark whisperings made an unfortunate accident unseemly.
Regrettable as it was, however, the Pimlico controversy focused attention on the plight of the woman jockey. In fact, Karin Yarosh's struggle to succeed and the circumstances that led up—and in some ways contributed—to her mishap lend new currency to another old bugaboo word that still applies to thoroughbred racing: prejudice.
When Diane Crump first broke the sex barrier at Hialeah way back on Feb. 7, 1969 she seemed to loose a veritable stampede of eager "jockettes" who, with pigtails flying and accompanied by choruses of wolf whistles, won miles of cutesy headlines like "Go-diva, go!" After a few attempts to "boycott the broads," some sneering asides ("What's next? Topless go-go riders?") and a lot of grumbling about job security and the risks of matching muscles with the weaker sex, male jockeys gradually acquiesced to such promotional frippery as the "Jack 'n Jill Handicap."
Today female jockeys are no longer news. Nor is the grudging acceptance they have won from most of their male counterparts. But make no mistake; if anything, the instant notoriety that greeted the women's break from the starting gate seven years ago has obscured the fact that by and large they have been languishing somewhere in the backstretch ever since. (There are notable exceptions; Denise Boudrot is one of the leading riders in New England.) And acceptance does not mean approval; in many instances it simply means that the men do not regard the ladies as a threat.
How can they be, complains Belinda Cole, one of three women currently riding at Chicago's Sportsman's Park, when "just finding somebody to give you a start is half the battle? There are tons of exercise girls who would love to be riders but no one will give them a start." Echoing a common lament, she adds, "As a rider I find my trouble in getting mounts stems from the owners. Many times they insist on a 'strong rider' "—the stock euphemism for no sidesaddlers need apply.
The going is slow for other reasons as well. Jennifer Rowland, the top female rider on the Maryland circuit, says, "There's still a problem with a lot of the horses. Trainers don't want girls and they give you horses going off form as a last-ditch operation, a last attempt to get a purse. We get a large percentage of sore horses and rogues or horses that have gone sour."
The race in which Karin Yarosh was injured was in fact made up of a dozen questionable horses who had never won. Along with Jennifer Rowland, she was one of four women jockeys who went off in a field that included six inexperienced riders. Starting on the inside, Karin kept her mount, a 4-year-old filly named Cione, on the rail. Lying sixth as she neared the half-mile pole, Karin was passed on the outside by No Beef, ridden by another apprentice jockey, Barry Sasser. As Sasser moved into the turn, Patrol Judge Richard Friedman, who was watching from his stand 25 yards away, barked into his headset, "The six horse coming in tight on the one."
At that moment Cione bumped No Beef's hindquarter, bounced off the rail and fell, throwing Karin into the path of Rowland's horse, which unavoidably trampled her. When Friedman rushed to her assistance, she was still conscious moaning, "Please help me, help me." Rushed to Sinai Hospital with a hoof-print under her right arm, she was in surgery for nearly five hours. Her gallbladder and two-thirds of her liver were removed. Also suffering six broken ribs and a perforated lung, she received 37 pints of blood, much of it contributed by jockeys and track employees.
Though No Beef, who finished third, was disqualified for interfering with Cione, the next day the Pimlico stewards, after studying the films with a group of 20 jockeys, ruled that Sasser was blameless. Chief Steward J. Fred Colwill explained, "The boy made every effort to keep from bothering the other horse."
And so the matter rested until the next morning when the Washington Post, in an interview with Anneliese Castrenze, Karin's mother, reported that the stricken girl had been receiving "death threats" from other jockeys. "I hope it was an accident," the mother said, "because she's been getting threats for three weeks from the boys, saying, 'We're going to drop you!' " Later, the mother also said that after one recent race "a man in a black Continental yelled at her, 'We're going to get you...the Mafia.' I told her I thought it was just someone who had bet against her."
"I wouldn't try to drop anybody for any damn $300 in purse money," says Sasser, a 23-year-old from Pensacola, Fla. "I was trying to stay out and give her a shot. I was taking a chance of myself going down. And, believe me, I don't have anything against girl jocks. They do better than some of the boys. Hell, my agent's a girl and she's the best one 1 ever had." The accident also reopened the old argument that in a crisis a mere slip of a girl hasn't the strength to manage a 1,000-pound animal going full charge. Jockey Tony Agnello was the most outspoken: "There's a bunch of them [women] riding out there who are a menace," he said. "Their reflexes are slow. There aren't a handful of girls in the whole country who can ride a little bit."
After the spill Karin's 17-year-old brother Charlie, who works as a groom at Pimlico, produced a penciled note that he said his sister had scribbled before being put under heavy sedation at the hospital. In part the shaky script asked, "Did the other jocks say he did it on purpose, too?"
Veteran riders like Bill Passmore, George Cusimano and Herberto Hinojosa not only excused Sasser, they also told how they had repeatedly advised the pixieish blonde to mend her rambunctious ways and take fewer chances. "Karin had this bad habit," Passmore said. "She'd get on the rail and run up behind you and holler at you to move. We all told her that you just can't go through a wall of horses that way but she'd keep trying. And that was her problem. That little girl tried too hard to win, that's all. And unfortunately, I guess she mistook our advice for a threat. It's sad but everybody knew that it was just a matter of time until she went down."
Time was a commodity that Karin Yarosh could not spare. Hooked on horses from the day her stepfather Charles Castrenze, a chef at the Holiday Inn in Aberdeen, Md., first took her to the track as a toddler, she began working weekends at Laurel Race Course during her senior year in high school. She was painfully aware that the boy jockeys were getting all the best breaks, and she often said, "Is it a crime that I was born a girl?"
Striving to show her grit and daring, she played football with the stableboys, drove cars and motorcycles at breakneck speeds and once, on a dare, climbed to the precarious upper reaches of the Laurel water tower. "Karin's tough," says her stocky brother Charlie. "I never get her angry anymore because the last time I did she hit me in the mouth and chipped my tooth."
Charles Lewis, a trainer who held Karin's contract when she first became an apprentice, says, "She's a fighter, a real fighter. Trouble was, she had a little success sneaking through on the rail and she kept trying to repeat it no matter what. The little girl is in a sense a thrill seeker, a little bit of a daredevil. That's not all bad in racing but it tended to get her into places she shouldn't be. She believed she had set up a little fear in these riders, which can be good psychology if exercised with discretion. But discretion was not her way."
A deeply religious girl who donates 25% of all her earnings to Joan of Arc Church in Aberdeen, Karin has been hustling her own mounts of late, saying, "God is my agent." Two weeks before her spill she reiterated her goal in life to a friend. "My dream," she said, "is to have people accept me as a jockey and forget that I'm a girl."
Jennifer Rowland, for one, is sensitive to the competitive climate in thoroughbred racing that impels young girls like Karin to try to live up to some supposedly manly standard. "Karin's absolutely fearless," says Jennifer, "but she also can be reckless. That's why some of the guys asked me to talk to her. We almost had a bad wreck ourselves once and I got mad at her, really mad. I tried to impress on her that she couldn't go through holes that didn't exist. She wants to win so badly that she gets excited and loses her awareness. When I told her that just a few days before her accident, she apologized and said, 'Yeah, you're right, I'm going to kill myself someday if I don't watch out.' "
Jennifer, who has suffered several injuries including two separated shoulders and three broken collarbones in her five-year career, suggests that the one reason Karin is so daring is "because she hasn't been hurt that much. You know, she didn't have the memory of a painful experience, that little trigger that says, 'No, don't do that.' "
Still in critical condition at week's end, Karin Yarosh has had her painful experience. The hope is that she will be able to profit from it by riding again.
Karin Yarosh got caught in a tight squeeze between the rail and Barry Sasser's mount.
LAST MONTH YAROSH MADE IT TO THE WINNER'S CIRCLE AT PIMLICO ON NAILS STAR