Lee Alexander started riding races in 1974 and retired in 2006 and this is her story:
FOTH: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
LEE: I'm pretty much going to skip over childhood. I'm a California girl, my dad was a trainer, and I had a one track mind centered on horses. Especially horse racing.
FOTH: What sort of girl were you growing up and what did you want to be when you were growing up?
LEE: I had a one track mind. Horses and horse racing. Fortunately, my dad was an owner and trainer. That made it easy for me to get involved early.
FOTH: At what point in your life did horses enter your life and what did you think of horse racing the 1st time you saw a live horse race?
LEE: Horses have been a part of my life always. Watching races was pretty common place because dad owned as well as trained horses. I still get tears in my eyes watching an especially good race. I knew I wanted to be a jockey from an early age, but can't remember exactly when the idea entered my head. Naturally, I had to start at the bottom even tho I was working for my father. He believed that everyone should know every aspect of the business they were in.
FOTH: So how long did you exercise horses before you took out your jockey license and did anybody teach you how to ride and what was some advice you were given back then?
LEE: Several years. I got start when I was pretty young because I could go to the track with dad and exercise his horses. After a while a few other guys started giving me horses too. Several exercise riders and jockeys helped me out. Terry especially. I'd been riding since dad got me a welsh stallion when I was 2, but race horses was a whole different game. Terry taught me to bridge my reins so the horse pulls against his own neck rather than my arms and got me over my nerves about the starting gate. Stuff like that. I worked out a lot in order to be strong enough. Riding takes a certain amount of endurance. I was fortunate enough to have a natural sense of timing so it was easier to gallop a colt at the correct speed.
FOTH: So what was your 1st job on a racetrack or farm and at that time did you know you wanted to be a jockey?
LEE: The first time he let me exercise a few horses it was such a big thrill. It meant I'd reached the last stepping stone before racing! I was about 14 at the time, so spent several years in that position. Soon other trainers started giving me a horse now and then. Bob Rap had a big bay colt who ran away with everyone, and a friend suggested he try me. Soon I had that one regularly. More followed. The hardest thing for me was my age caused me to wait longer than I wished.
FOTH: So looking back what was the hardest thing about actually becoming a jockey and was being a jockey while you were riding what you thought it was going to be?
LEE: The hardest thing I can think of right now is being a girl. If there were any other girls riding when I started I never met or heard about them. There were a very few exercising horses, but, as far as I know, no jockeys. If it weren't for dad I'd never have gotten rides. A few maybe, but not many. As time went by more people gave me horses.
FOTH: What did your parents think of you being a jockey?
LEE: My father panicked whenever I handed a horse or rode. He thought I was too casual and maybe even a bit careless. He threw coffee at me after races many times while yelling at me for taking too many risks. My mother has never been to the track and was terrified if I brought a horse within 10 feet of her. I have a photo of her twisting up her shirt tail in anxiety because there was a sweet little yearling filly in the photo.
FOTH: Looking back do you think you were treated pretty fairly as a jockey?
LEE: The first thing my father did was yell at me about being a "pinhead", his term for jockeys. Mostly he was very nervous about it. He always thought I was careless. Yes, for the most part I'd say so. Being a girl made it a bit harder to get rides. The other riders were really helpful when I was just getting started, and friendly to.
FOTH: What tracks did you ride at and did you have a favorite?
LEE: I'm not going to even try to list the tracks. There were a lot of them. My favorite was Santa Anita. It was kind of like my home track. Mostly I was in California, but took two horses back east when they were 3 year olds. I did not care much for Hollywood Park. It was nice to spend down time training at Pomona fairgrounds, Hollywood Park, Churchill Downs, LaMesa Park, a whole bunch of them. Sometimes I'd wake up in the morning and ask dad "where are we today?"
FOTH: When you were riding did you ride with many female jockeys or was it mostly male jockeys?
LEE: I'm not sure if there were any other women riders when I began. I never met or even heard about any. Naturally, there was no place for a woman to change clothes. A bathroom had to do. It's only recently since I'm retired that I've started getting to know a few of the girls.
FOTH: How well did you get along with the other jockeys?
LEE: Not a big problem. Mostly I got along with the other riders, but during a race we were all determined to win and very competitive.
FOTH: Tell me what you remember about your 1st race. What track it at and where did you finish? Were you nervous at all in the jock’s room and during the post parade etc?
Alexander: My first race was at Santa Anita on one of dad's fillys, Sum Day Flowers. I was so nervous and unsure of where I should be and what I should be doing before the race. Once we were riding up to the gate I calmed down. It was terribly exciting for the filly and me both. She was nervous in the gate, but burst out and pulled through the early part of the race, which was for maiden fillys. She settled into 4th place until we got to the stretch and I goosed her a little once. She shot into the lead and won with daylight. She lost her maiden and I lost my bug our first time. There was no jocks room for girls. I had to change in the ladies room.
FOTH: Did the jockey’s get you good after the race and did you know it was coming?
LEE: They couldn't do the usual bit because we didn't share the jockey’s room, but they got me really good. So good that the rest of my career I rode a saddle with florescent orange cat paw prints across the seat. They painted a cat's paws and used a string to encourage it to walk across my saddle. Of course, they had to wait until later to get into my tack. I got a laugh out of it.
FOTH: Looking back what some of your favorite moments as a jockey?
LEE: I bought a 2 year old colt from Kentucky whom my brother gave the barn name Savage. I put him in my brother's name so I could ride him myself. Every race on him was breathtaking. We almost made it to the Kentucky Derby, but shortly before the race he came up with a pulled suspensory ligament. If not for that I'd have been the first girl to ride in the derby. I was so sure he would go home a Triple Crown winner. Things got even better after I got a few horses of my own. I registered them in my brother's name so I could ride them. I had a favorite, and my best experience was the first time we won a grade 1 stakes race at Del Mar. He wouldn't settle down in the gate and I was afraid he would tire himself, then I couldn't hold him back in the race. He simply wasn't responding, so he was the front runner from start to finish. Later I learned that was his running style, so I'd just let him run his race because there was more horse under me at the finish than I needed.
FOTH: Did you have a favorite horse that you ever rode?
LEE: Yes. Savage Kitten, the colt I was just talking about. He was like a live electric wire. All energy. I understand that racing is a big money business but for me it was always about the horses. I also loved riding Bob's horse, Ali's Baby. He was a big boy and would almost pull you out of the saddle. He was a good honest horse but nothing to write home about. Snappy Doc Joe was another one I loved to ride. And Sum Day Flowers.
FOTH: What was it like jogging a horse back to the winner’s circle?
LEE: I was always glad the winner's circle was mostly about the horse, because it just made me feel shy. Proud of the athlete under me, but a bit embarrassed by all the attention. Most of the horses loved it. Some would pose or dance happily and just generally show off.
FOTH: When you were riding did you get big crowds at the tracks you were riding at?
LEE: I didn't pay a lot of attention to the crowds, but it mostly depended on the race and what track it was at. The bigger tracks and the more prestigious races drew much bigger crowds than a fairground or the smaller tracks.
FOTH: Please share a funny jockey story that you remember?
LEE: Now that's a tough one. Ok. I'll have to tell you one I wasn't witness to. My colt's sire was in the Kentucky Derby and was well on his way to winning when his rider misjudged the finish line and started pulling him up, letting another horse pass him right before the finish. Bill said he'd never live that down. He's gone now, but I guess I can make his story lives on. He later became a hall of fame jockey. The funniest thing I can think of right now was when Savage, my favorite, had been retired due to an injury. I was home at the time. My brother got drunk one night and wasn't up to helping me feed. His friend, Ron, offered to help so I told him to feed the mares and I'd take care of the boys. Ron obviously didn't know a mare from a stud because he walked right into the first stall which belonged to Savage. Fortunately, there was a tree in the paddock. Ron was up the tree screaming for help while Savage ran circles around the tree trying to get ahold of him. I had a good laugh while catching the horse so Ron could escape.
FOTH: Do you still follow racing at all?
LEE: I still follow racing, although I have to do so online until I move. There's no track here. I keep hoping for a Triple Crown horse again because there hasn't been one in my youngest son's lifetime and I want him to see a horse win all 3 races. I kind of didn't want it to be California Chrome, though, because he's not real well bred. I have to wonder if he will get any decent colts.
FOTH: Where do you see horse racing in say 5 years from now?
LEE: What I hope to see, and it seems to be coming about a little at a time, is stiffer drug penalties and more humane treatment of the horses. There are now many groups offering retirement or retraining of race horses. A few states are cracking down on drugs, and another state is limiting use of the crop. Obviously, I pay little attention to the business end of racing and more to the treatment of the horses. I'd love to see horses starting as 3 year olds rather than 2 year olds, and the best races held when they're 4. That probably will never happen.
FOTH: What advice would you give to a young girl who wanted to become a jockey?
LEE: To any girl who wants to race I'd advise starting early using a racing saddle regardless of what type of horse she has. Learn to stand in the irons on a running horse. You have to get used to that before you can even exercise a race horse. As soon as she is old enough she should take any work she can get at the track even if it's only cleaning stalls. Make it known she wants to ride and get all the tips she can from jockeys and exercise riders. They can be very helpful because the better she rides the safer it is for everyone.
FOTH: Alexander I am out of questions. Anything you want to say to wrap this up?
LEE: That's about it. I just had the first of a series of shots in my spine today and the anesthesia is still wearing off, so I hope I didn't mess this up too bad and best of luck with your website Chris.
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