To look at Barbara Jo Rubin these days, with her fast and frequent smile and easy-going manner, it’s hard to imagine the hardships she faced as a professional rider more than 40 years ago.
Now 64 years old, Rubin was just 19 who shook off the taunts from fans and the prejudice of her fellow male riders to become the first woman to win a pari-mutuel race at a recognized track.
It happened on the evening of Feb. 22, 1969 at Charles Town in West Virginia on a horse named Cohesian, who covered 6 ½ furlongs in 1:20 1/5 for trainer Bryan Webb and owner D. Forrest Lawson.
“It was quite exciting that day,” said Rubin, who is back in Baltimore to compete in the Lady Legends for the Cure IV, a pari-mutuel race bringing together eight retired pioneer female riders, which takes place on Friday at Pimlico.
“Actually, it was night racing. I worked all day here at Pimlico and then we went to Charles Town to ride that night. I fell asleep because I was so tired. They woke me up, I went out and rode my race, and then slept the whole way home. It was exciting. It was cold, though, very cold, but it was an exciting race.”
Rubin’s husband and biggest promoter, Gordie Gubin, carries around reproductions of the winner’s circle photo from that race, a framed version of which hangs outside the Pimlico office of Georganne Hale, the Director of Racing and Racing Secretary for the Maryland Jockey Club.
There are just over a dozen people in the picture, including one young boy standing directly next to the horse that Rubin never saw before, or since.
“People were trying to jump the fence to get into the photo,” she said. “To this day, we don’t know who he is.”
Rubin’s debut was supposed to come on Jan. 15, 1969 at Tropical Park in Florida on a horse trained by Webb. Fans threw rocks at her trailer, even breaking a window, and male jockeys refused to compete against her and threatened to boycott other races until Webb, under pressure, was forced to replace her. As a result, Diane Crump became the first female to ride in a race, on Feb. 7, 1969 at Hialeah.
Rubin, who won 11 of her first 22 mounts, including the first female to win in New York on March 14, 1969 at Aqueduct, enjoyed a bit of celebrity after her initial victory, appearing on popular television programs “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “To Tell The Truth.”
She was the first woman named to ride in the Kentucky Derby, but her mount, Picnic Fair, was scratched prior the race. Crump in 1970 became the first to compete in the Run for the Roses.
Still, Rubin faced prejudice at the racetrack. Male riders deliberately cut her off during races, and in at least once case, at Waterford Park in West Virginia, purposely hit her with their whips.
Few, low-quality mounts and injuries forced Rubin from riding professionally in January 1970 after winning 22 of 89 races. Now living in Troy, Ill., she and Gubin have 30 stalls on a farm where she works with dressage horses.
Rubin is one of five original participants in the Lady Legends event, along with Patti Cooksey, who won 2,137 career races and is one of only two women to ride in the Derby and Preakness; Mary Russ-Tortora, the first female to win a Grade 1 race; Cheryl White, the first African-American female rider; and Jennifer Rowland-Small, the leading pioneer woman rider in Maryland in the 1970s.
“It’s the only time we get together with all the girls, the old legends,” Rubin said. “We have a ball, talking about everything. It’s wonderful.”
Rubin, Crump and those who followed paved the way for later generations of female riders, such as Julie Krone, who was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2000, and Rosie Napravnik, who ranks among the leading jockeys – male or female – in wins and purses won this year.
“I love seeing the girls do well,” Rubin said. “I always had said, if you really wanted to do it, you could. You have to work hard. Actually, we had do work a lot harder than the boys, because we were always watched a lot more.
“The women do just as well as the men. It takes a lot of finesse with the horses. The women have a special touch with the horses, I think. They get along with a lot of the nervous horses, and they’re very good riders.”