Karen Kaiser rode mostly quarter horses back in the 70’s and she has a great interested and sometimes sad story and here it is:
FOTH: Where were you born and where did you grow up and when did you discover a love for horses?
KK: I was born in L.A., Calif. I moved to Atlanta, Ga. at age 8 and grew up there. I started riding my cousins horses when I was four, got my first horse when I was nine (a quarter horse / Morgan cross) and started showing at ten. I bought a yearling Arabian when I was thirteen. I paid 750.00 dollars for him, and paid for him galloping Thoroughbreds on a farm outside of Atlanta after school and weekends. I went top ten in the Nationals in Hunter over Fences when I was sixteen with him.
FOTH: At what point in your life did the idea of becoming a jockey enter your life? Did you at the time realize just how hard that was going to be and what did you parents think of the idea when you told them? Did they ever get to see ride at all?
KK: I saw Secretariat win the Triple Crown when I was thirteen. I was already galloping horses at the time, and I knew that I would be a jockey then. There was a "bush track" Holiday Downs- running races about five miles from where I lived, and I started going there on weekends and riding races. I never thought about how hard it would be, only that that someone would actually PAY ME to get on horses. I would have paid them to let me ride! My parents didn't realize at this point that it wasn't something I wouldn't outgrow. My father had horses from the time he could walk, and loved coming to the races at the "bushes" I got him a job as steward. My parents both got to see me ride there, and saw me win stakes races in Louisiana years later.
FOTH: Now you told me you started riding at bush tracks when you were 12!!! Tell me more about this and for those who don’t know, explain what a “bush” track is and where were some of these tracks located?
KK: Bush tracks were informal races held at training tracks, fair grounds, even dirt track car racing ovals. I rode at bush tracks all over Ga., South Carolina. Fla., Texas and La. Often there were only one or two riders, and the owners or trainers would ride their own horses. I once rode 45 "match races". There was only one other rider and I so all the races were between two horses. People loved to race their horses! I made five dollars a mount. There was no purse money, just people that wanted to give their horses a chance to learn to race. We ALWAYS had a photographer though!
FOTH: Now when you were riding at the “bush” tracks did some male jockeys try and intimidate you and when you were riding did the people that were running these tracks, did they know how old you were or did they look the other way?
KK: Of course there was always a male rider who would try and intimidate you. These bush races were for the most part very informal, and there was no age limit for riders. There was never enough riders, and they weren't about to run anyone off who could hang on and ride! And in very few cases was there a "steward". There were some very rough races, riders who would hit you in the face with a stick, bump you hard, I even had one try to push me off when we were neck and neck. He didn't, and I beat him. I also learned to stand up for myself quickly!
FOTH: So what are your memories of the 6 years that you rode at these “bush” tracks and did you suffer any sort of injuries during this time?
KK: I learned the ropes at the toughest of places. No rules, no back-up other than whomever you were riding for (there were quite a few brawls afterwards). But, I got a lot of experience, toughened up, and had enough crap dished out that by the time I got to the big leagues that I didn’t get intimidated easily. I didn't take any major spills until I was in organized racing. Got dumped a lot, learned how to break babies and gallop the tough ones. Good memories.
FOTH: Now we go to 1978 and you got your jockey license and began to ride at racetracks. How hard was it for you as a female rider to get your license and did you get many people trying to drag you down and not help you with this? What was the hardest part in actually getting your license?
KK: I got my jockey license in Kentucky. You had to ride in schooling races out of the gates with the stewards watching (several). I had quite a bit of experience, so didn't have any trouble getting okayed for a license. Then they watched your first couple of races to make sure you were capable of riding safely. I was riding for a trainer with a small stable, so I wasn't freelancing. That made it easier since my "stable" was mine.
FOTH: So tell me about what you remember about your 1st race. What track was it at and were you very nervous? Where did you finish and did any of the male jocks give you any crap that day?
KK: My first race I ran third on a mare named Mamita Bar. She was a lunatic, and would throw you before every race. She was a nightmare to ride, and that I finished alive was enough for me! I was nervous; it was very different from the bush tracks. I was at a quarter horse track outside of Louisville, Ky. That ran for a few years. For the life of me I can't remember the name! I rode three races, a third, fourth and fifth. None of the riders gave me a hard time there, but none of the valets would take any of the female riders tack. There were about five of us. They put us in a closet in the back to change our clothes. The second race I rode was a 660 that started IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TURN. That was nuts, as the horses broke into the turn. Talk about piling up! They didn't do that for long.
FOTH: So tell me about your 1st win. What track was that at and did you win by a lot and what was it like jogging the horse back to get your picture taken?
KK: Our next racetrack was Pompano Park, Fla. My first race there (my fourth race ever) was a turn race at 770 yards. It was on a horse named El Batman who my trainer had claimed for $1500.00 in Kentucky. It was his first time around a turn, and boy was he tough to get around that turn! He won easily, and actually broke the world record for the distance. The stewards said a $1500.00 horse couldn't run that fast, and threw out his time. His next race there he broke the 700 yard record! (one of the only tracks to run that distance). I went on to win over 30 races on him, and was never beaten from the five hole in around a turn. I rode him in the first quarter horse race ever on the turf (Beulah Park) in Ohio. We ran third. I also won my first stakes race around a turn on him (Del Rio, Tx.) He taught me more than any other horse, and had the biggest heart a horse could have.
FOTH: Did the jocks get you good after the race and did you know it was coming and did you ever get to return the favor one day?
KK: Yes they did! I didn't know it was coming, I thought because there were only a couple girls riding there that they wouldn't. But they did, many congratulations and good will. It was a great feeling, and one that never went away. I got to return the favor many, many times. The smiles were always huge. Elizabeth Taylor was there that day, she came to the jocks room and chatted and signed autographs and helmets. My trainer said if I won he would ask her to get in the picture. He lied, but it was still an awful good day.
FOTH: Now you also told me you rode quarter horses. Please explain what is the biggest difference is in riding them as opposed to regular horse races.
KK: It is a regular race! Have you forgotten the first ever million dollar race was a quarter horse race? Quarter horses race from 220 yards (an eighth of a mile) to 870 yards (ten yards shy of a half a mile). Quarter horses and Thoroughbreds raced against each other at mixed meets in 870 yard races. It was the only distance the two breeds met. The biggest difference is quarter horses are "drag racers ". It is all about getting them out of the gates" on top". Did you know that quarter horses can go from zero to 40 in a tenth of a second from a standing start? On a thoroughbred the start wasn't nearly as important as you had much further to run. I remember riding at Los Alamitos in California. They had a jockey challenge day- top t.b. jockeys against top q.h. jockeys. Willie Shoemaker was there, and rode a quarter horse for the first time. He came back in the jock room and said never again! He was a sweetheart. That was the last year he rode.
FOTH: What are some of the quarter horse tracks that you rode and did you pretty much have to change your style of racing to ride at these tracks? Looking back do you regret riding at any of these quarter horse tracks as it looks to be very dangerous?
KK: I rode in Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Calif, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Minnesota and Michigan. In Texas in the 70's and into the 80's racing wasn't pari-mutuel -meaning there was no betting. We use to go into Mexico where they would sell "Calcuttas". Each entry was auctioned to the highest bidder. Long shots would bring the least, favorites the most. All the money for each race was put into a winner take all Calcutta "purse". They easily reached into the thousands. Often the purse money was only a few hundred, so if a trainer or owner bought his own horse you could make several thousand dollars above the purse money. Racing can be dangerous anywhere and I have no regrets. I saw and was involved with many changes, including getting safety rails, safer surfaces, and safer helmets. When I started there were no vests, and many tracks had no cameras in a turn race to name just a few.
One race I rode at Delta Downs- there was a new header the guy who holds your horse in the starting gates) that day who had never tied a flipping rig ( a type of halter that ties a horse down and keeps him from flipping over backwards). He didn't tie a slip knot, and my horse made one jump out and somersaulted upside down, throwing me about 40 ft. It knocked all the wind out of me and broke several fingers. I layed in the dirt and pointed my broke finger at him and whizzed out I would kill him when I got my breath back. He climbed down, crawled over the fence and ran to his car. He never came back.
FOTH: Did you suffer any injuries while riding in quarter horse races?
KK: Oh my yes. I broke ribs, collar bones, back, ankles, fingers, ruptured spleen, and broken tailbone. Twenty five years of breaking babies, teaching yearlings the basics, riding countless first timers, schooling races and freelancing (which meant getting on a lot of horses you weren't familiar with. And this was quarter horses and thoroughbreds.
FOTH: So take me through what it was like the 1st say 5 years you were as a jockey. Do you think during this time you were treated fairly or did you have to go through a bunch of crap whether it be from male jockeys, male trainers, fans at the track etc?
KK: Since the first ten years I rode for the same stable of high class horses, even though I didn't ride as many as a freelance rider my horse almost always ran very well. I started picking up other horses quickly, and I won my first futurity in Nebraska- the Iowa Breeders futurity. It was a pickup. In an earlier race this trainer had a horse that was a known "flipper", meaning he was more likely than not to turn upside down in the gates. He flipped with their regular rider, and hurt him. When they brought him back to the paddock to get another rider, no one would get on him. His name was "Fiddley Quick". My trainer was standing there and yelled "Karen will ride him!" News to me, but I took a deep breath and agreed. When we got to the gates the starter told me that as soon as I went in he would "kick them" meaning let them out immediately. They didn't even close the tailgate! I won the race (he was a real long shot) and he took the rider off his futurity horse and put me on. I won that, too. I learned that a trainer appreciated you taking a risk, and picked up many good horses by riding one that everyone else was afraid of getting hurt on.
FOTH: Did you at any time every get into a serious argument with a male jockey and if so please details?
KK: Yes. Especially in the earlier years, many times if a rider had a bad race he would pick a fight with the jockey he considered the weakest-me. I remember the first time a rider flew into me after a race (even though I had done nothing wrong). He used words I had never heard, nor had ANYONE ever talked to me that way. I was speechless, and left the jock room without a word. Back at the barn I cried, and my trainer told me if I didn't stand up for myself he would kick the sh*t out of me himself. It never happened again. I learned that if I did something in a race (interfere or bump another horse) to do my best to keep me horse straight and ride fairly and safely. Apologize if you were at fault, but if I wasn't I stood my ground and took no crap from anyone, ever. I soon got a reputation as someone not to accost. I taught many of the girls coming up behind me how to stand up for themselves- not just to riders, but trainers, owners, clerk of scales, starters and every other male on the backside of the track.
FOTH: I know back in the 70’s there wasn’t a lot of female riders. What some of the other female jockeys that you rode with?
KK: Sandra Kite-she was at Pompano Park when I first started and boy, was she tough. She looked out for me, and wouldn't let any of the guys pick on me. And they ALL respected her. I saw her throw punches with the best of them.
Theresa Powers- she was riding T.B.s mostly and was already riding when I started. She was a rider I knew and a real sweetheart.
Ruby Pellerin- she rode (that I know of) starting in the 70's- good rider and a real beauty. There were several other girls who rode briefly and unfortunately I cannot remember their full names. These were the earliest; there were quite a few that came along in the eighties- Kim Stover, Tami Purcell, and Jerri Nichols. At one time at Delta we had nine different female riders.
FOTH; I know you must have went through a lot of crap back then. Tell me some of the things that you had to go through and did it get easier with time?
KK: I rode at nearly all the non-pari-mutuel racetracks in Texas in the late seventies and eighties. Border towns- DelRio, Laredo, Weatherford, Manor Downs, and many others. There were no "female" jockey quarters and often had to change clothes in the back of a horse trailer or a car. Many times there were few English speaking riders, and most of the racing staff simply wanted me to go away. I can remember one weekend at Del Rio, I rode out onto the track for a stakes race and a fan yelled" can't no girl win this race!) Johnnie Goodman, a world class trainer who won multiple world championships, and trained the only Triple Crown Quarter horse yelled back "this one can!" I won it in a three way photo finish, went on to win the futurity and another stakes race that weekend. I think I ran the fastest time of the year in one of the stakes on Comet's Breeze, another mare I won over 30 races on, mostly championship races. Those were the only three horses I rode that weekend. The early years were definitely the toughest, but as I said earlier I was riding for a stable that had high class horses. It earned respect easier because I might not ride a lot, but more often than not we were winning. Most trainers at that time said they would never ride a girl. But after you consistently beat them, it was funny how quick they would come around. I was the first female jockey for a whole lot of trainers. By the time I started freelancing- riding for anyone with an open mount in a race, I had already been riding for ten years. I didn't have problems" being a girl" anytime after that.
FOTH: How many stake races did you win in your career?
KK: Never kept count. The first was in 1980, the last was the next to the last race I rode at Delta, for a trainer that I rode for over ten years. It was the Quarter Horse Juvenile Chanpionship.
FOTH: You rode for 19 years. What are some of the highlights of your career and some of the lowest points of your career?
KK: I won stakes on many tracks, often being the only female riding. I set track records, made leading rider during the mixed meet at Delta (I beat Tami Purcell) we were 1st and 2nd. I won the biggest Derby in La. (the Firecracker) twice; I won on Thoroughbreds for over fifteen years, including stakes wins. I won stakes all over Texas and other states and rode some incredible horses. Every win was a good one, and I like to think I rode as hard on my stakes horses as I did on a 99-1 non winners of two races in the pouring down rain at midnight. For about fifteen dollars. I knew some of racings great ones, trainers, riders and owners. I was privileged to ride for many of them. The last year I rode I had the highest win percentage of all the riders at Delta Downs.
The lowest points were the tough spills, when all your hard work over the winter months breaking horses to ride in the spring went out the window because you were down and out. Losing big stables because of an injury was tough, although I was fortunate to have many loyal owners and trainers. When I came back, I got my stables back.
FOTH: What led to you retiring and when you did, did you miss riding much? Did you know when you rode your last race that it was going to be your last race?
KK: Health issues led to my retirement. I was diagnosed with leukemia in 1992, and at the time there was no treatment. They gave me a year to live. I was hospitalized for two months, and had to move back to Ga. I got into an experimental chemo program in April of 1992, and in Sept. a trainer who had 125 babies called and asked was I ready to ride yet. I was, and won my second Firecracker for him in 1993. The cancer came back in 1997. I finished the meet at Delta, had a great meet and headed back to Ga. for another six months of chemotherapy. I knew that it would be my last year of riding given the strict diet and hard work of being a jockey. I walked away happy with my final year of riding and ready to go to another chapter of my life.
FOTH: What advice would you give to a young girl that wants to become a jockey?
KK: Have a backup plan. Even if you make a career of it, few riders ride more than 20 years. You have to be able to do something else, and many older riders continue to ride long after they shouldn't because of their lack of other skills. Save your money. Look out for your fellow riders first and foremost. You will need them to do the same for you one day.
FOTH: Do you follow the sport much at all and what are some things you think should or could be done to bring back some of the sport’s popularity?
KK: Not so much anymore. I miss the horses more than anything, just being around them. I don't know how to show people the heart of racing- one horse with a big heart that won't let another beat him, that will give every ounce of his or her strength to be the first under the wire. That's the real heartbeat of racing, these beautiful, amazing strong animals with a will to win.
FOTH: What were some of the tracks that you rode at back in the day and were there one or more that you really wanted to ride at, but never got the chance to?
KK: I rode at Pompano Park, Beulah Park, Quad City Downs, Evangeline Downs, Los Alamitos, Raton Park, Ruidoso Downs, Sunland Park, Shreveport , New Orleans, Shakopee, Minn. somewhere in Michigan, Nebraska, River Downs, San Antonio, Houston, Weatherford, Uvalde, Del Rio, Laredo, Manor Downs, and a handful of other tracks I can't remember the names of in Texas. There were a lot.
I was a quarter horse rider first. I rode thoroughbreds because if I did I could stay in one place year round. Delta ran both breeds, and it paid the bills. I had a racehorse breaking and training center (and lay- ups), and had seventy five horses at my farm at any one time. So I got the chance to ride at nearly every major racetrack (and every minor!) one over the course of twenty years.
FOTH: I am sure you had your share of naysayers back in the day. How did it feel to shut them up ha ha?
KK: It wasn't so much shutting them up as having those same people asking you to ride for them. That was the best feeling. I think nearly everyone figured out it wasn't your sex; it was your grit, determination and talent that decided whether or not you were a good rider.
FOTH: Did you ever ride a horse that was 99-1 or more to your knowledge to a win?
KK: Many, many times.
FOTH: Kathy I am out of questions. Thumbs up for the interview is there anything you would like to add or say to wrap this up?
KK: Yes, I'm Karen. :) To any of you who would like to make racing your career- pay your dues, learn your craft before you try to get your license, look out for your fellow riders, keep your horses straight and give every mount your best effort. Smile for your win pictures, save your money and have a backup plan. I always thought that getting to do what you loved and getting paid for it was the best gift I could have asked for. Good luck, and may you ride fast horses!
Thought of one other incident that might be worth remembering- if you look under the top ten sports frauds of all time # 2 is Sylvester Carmouche's " fog race" at Delta Downs in Jan. 1990. He was on a long shot that won the race by 29 lengths- I believe it was a mile race. The fog was the worst we had ever seen, and neither the crowd, the cameras nor the stewards could make out ANY of the horses. I rode the race. It was believes that Sylvester pulled up his horse right out of the gates, waited until he heard the horses coming around the last turn and kicked his horse into gear. He miscalculated how far around the turn we were, and started off too early, hence the 29 length win. It was never conclusively decided, but he was barred from racing for ten years. He still maintains he won the race. What do you guys think?
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