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Robyn Smith, Trailblazing Jockey July 31, 1972

Robyn Smith doesn't like doing things halfway. When she became a
jockey in 1969, she wanted to be not only the best female jockey
but also the best jockey, period. Of winning, she said, "Nothing
makes me happier." It didn't matter that no other woman had gone
where she wanted to go. It didn't matter that the media wanted
to focus on her appearance (she looked like a fashion model)
rather than how she rode. If anything, the challenges she faced
as a "girl" jockey appealed to her love of competition. Despite
the difficulty she had getting respect, an agent and mounts, by
'72 she was the top American-born jockey--of either gender--at
Aqueduct Racetrack, where her winning percentage that year was
second only to Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero's.

On Jan. 1, 1973, at Santa Anita, Smith was preparing for her
first mount of the year when a friend introduced her to Fred
Astaire, 46 years her senior. Astaire asked whether he should
put money on her horse, Exciting Devorcee, and Smith assured him
it was a bad idea. He paid no heed, and when the horse beat
Willie Shoemaker's mount by a nose, Smith had won her first race
at Santa Anita, Astaire had won his wager on a long shot, and
the seeds of a great romance had been planted. "I used to kid
him and say, 'Oh, you fell in love with me when I won that
race,'" says Robyn. In '80 she became Robyn Smith Astaire, and
within four months she had left the horse racing circuit to
spend more time with her new husband and because Fred was
concerned for her safety.

When Fred died in 1987, Robyn wondered what was next. Although
she has tenaciously, and at times controversially, tried to
control the use of her husband's image--her efforts helped lead
to the recent passage of a California law limiting the use of
deceased celebrities' likenesses--she still needed to satisfy
her own competitive urges. "I didn't know what I was going to do
with the rest of my life because I'd always been active," says
Robyn. "I'm not one to sit home and eat potato chips and watch
soap operas." After getting career counseling, she decided to
become a helicopter pilot, and flying became her new passion.
She started in choppers, worked her way up to jets and now works
as a corporate pilot. Though she claims nothing will ever take
the place of riding thoroughbreds, flying comes close. "All I
did was substitute more horsepower by switching from
thoroughbred racehorses to big turbine engines," says Robyn, 55,
who has not remarried. "I love to go fast. I love that force,
whether it's out of a gate or in the air."

--Deborah Moss



"I used to kid him," she says of Fred Astaire. "'You fell in
love with me when I won that race.'"