Kathy Mayo Sorensen

Kathy is a retired jockey that I got in touch with thanks to somebody being nice enough to supply her email address. Here is an email interview I recently did with her.

FOTH: Where were you born and where did you grow up? What sort of girl were you growing up?

Kathy: I was born in Redwood City, CA, and grew up in Santa Rosa, CA. I was a tomboy and loved animals, especially horses. I just loved being outside, riding my bike, climbing trees, and playing out in the fields behind our house.

FOTH: Did you have any brothers or sisters and were you interested in horses at a young age?

KATHY: I am the youngest of 5 kids, three sisters and one brother. I was fortunate to get my first pony when I was 7, but had always wanted a horse or a pony.

FOTH: What event or events led to you becoming a jockey? Did anybody try and discourage you?

Kathy: When I was about 7, my Mom took us to the Sonoma County Fair. I remember watching the horses in the paddock, and just dying to get on the other side of the fence to be near the action. Then the riders came out in their bright colors and I was transfixed. When the horses left the starting gate, and ran by the grandstands, I knew that I wanted to be a jockey. When I was 11, we moved to a house with no room for horses, and we had to give up our ponies. It was really hard on me, I really missed being around them, and I wasn't very happy. A friend of my Mom's decided that he wanted to buy me a pony for my 12th birthday. My Mom said it was OK, but I needed to find a place to keep her, and find a way to support her. I found out that I could board her at the fairgrounds. During the off-season, they rented stalls out to anyone, so I found myself on the backside, with lots of trainers that raced but didn't have stalls at Golden Gate or Bay Meadows. My pony turned out to be a little bit on the wild side, and one day, as she was rearing and leaping through the barn area with me on her back, a trainer asked me if I wanted to get on some horses for him. He said he had a couple in his barn that acted like my pony, and he thought I would do well with them. So, he took me to the tack store, and bought me a helmet, which I paid back by galloping horses. My Mom was totally supportive, and all the trainers around back then were encouraging. Of course, I was only 12, so I was a long way from realizing my dream, but it was a great start. I learned all about taking care of racehorses from the ground up, grooming, cleaning stalls, ponying, and of course, galloping.

FOTH: Tell me what you can remember about your 1st race?

Kathy: I rode my first race at Stampede Park in Calgary. It was night racing, and late in the season, November I think. The track would freeze at night, and melt into soupy slop during the day, and it stayed that way through the races. I ran third, but it flashed by so quickly, I don't remember much of it. I do know I was hooked! I came from off the pace, so I was pretty muddy!

FOTH: Tell me what you can remember about your 1st win.

Kathy: My first winner was at Calgary on my third mount. His name was "My Man Moe", and he was about 17-1. I remember looking at the form and seeing the only good race on it was in the slop, so I was really hopeful. We came from off the pace and won by a length or two. I was absolutely covered in mud, all but my eyes and teeth. It was the last race of the night, so there weren't a ton of riders left in the room to paint me. I was the only girl at the meet, and basically, I just got dragged into a hot shower, so it wasn't too bad. I got lucky with that- I have seen much worse!

FOTH: How long did you ride for and what tracks did you ride at and did you have a favorite track to ride at?

Kathy: I rode for 14 years, and I won 1026 races. I started at Stampede Park, then rode in Boston at Suffolk Downs. I then rode in northern California, on the fairs, and Los Alamitos. Also rode at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields. I went up north where there are more opportunities for female riders, and rode at Portland Meadows, Les Bois Park occasionally, Emerald Downs, Hastings Park, Playfair, and some of the Oregon and Washington fair tracks. My favorite track to ride was probably Santa Rosa, on the California fair circuit. It is my hometown, and where I got on my first racehorse.

FOTH: Was it hard for you being a female jockey back then and it get easier or harder as time when by?

Kathy: It was not hard getting started in Calgary, but it was tougher in California. The biggest asset I had at any time in my career was a great agent. I started with Dennis Higgins in Canada, and he was great. In Portland, I started with a guy named Nelson Maxwell, and he got me off to a good start there. When I rode in Spokane, I had Jim Sorensen, who was an awesome agent and coach too. He and I really hit it off, and we are married now, have been for 15 years. It got easier to be a female rider as time went on, but more because I became a better rider as I got more experience, not because it was a more girl oriented business. There are definitely prejudices out there, but really, it isn't about being a good "female rider," it is all about being a good rider, period. And if you get results, you will get better horses to ride. Even trainers who are dead set against using a girl will use you if you win.

FOTH: Looking back, do you think you were a good apprentice rider?

Kathy: I think as an apprentice, I was not very polished, but not very many bugs are. But the horses ran for me, and I tried to get them into position to win. There is a learning curve, and you can't learn to ride without doing it. Watching films helps, and listening to others whom are successful helps, but you have to do it to get good at it.

FOTH: What injuries did you have over the years and what was the worst one?

Kathy: I had a few minor injuries during most of my career; a couple of broken ribs, a broken fibula, a broken bone in my hand. In the last race I rode, I suffered the worst of all my injuries. The horse I was on bolted through the inside rail, which was a 3" steel pipe. When he hit it, I was catapulted into the rail, pelvis first, then I wrapped around it, and hit the upright support post with my back. It was quite a spectacular crash, and the doctors and EMT's didn't think I would survive. Fortunately, I did, and after 2 days, I was stable enough to be operated on. In a 12 hour surgery, I had a 5 level spinal fusion, and my pelvis got put back togethe with three plates. My injuries were a broken shoulder blade, shattered pelvis, separated spine, multiple fractures of 8 ribs, several disks were shattered, punctured lung, bruised kidney, and a concussion. I was in the hospital for a month, but I had a pretty good recovery. I was expected to have some paralysis, and I was blessed to be able to walk. I still have a lot of back and pelvis pain, and some nerve damage, but I am able to do a lot of things, including pleasure riding.

FOTH: Did you have a favorite horse or trainer that you liked to ride for?

Kathy: I had so many favorite horses, it is hard to narrow it down. One of them was Mercury's Song. He was just a real hard knocking claimer, but he was quick, and had a great personality. Another of my faves was Knight Cover, he was the Oregon Bred horse of the year, two or three years. I set a 6 furlong track record on him, and won a bunch of stakes on him too. When they retired him, the owners gave him to me, and now he is just hanging out around our place. He paid his dues, and is a really kind horse to be around. Doozi Floozi was another hard trying mare that I liked to ride. As far as a favorite trainer, there were many of those too. I had some guys that really stuck with me and put me on a lot of really nice horses. I wouldn't want to name one, and leave anyone out. There are so many neat people in the racing business. I just am very fortunate to have met them and worked with them.

FOTH: Do you still follow the sport at all and do any female riders impress you nowadays?

Kathy: I follow the local scene a bit, just check up on my friends, but I haven't been out to the races in a while. I like watching the big races on TV, the Triple Crown, and the Breeder's Cup too. I am not watching enough to have noticed any hot newcomers, male or female.

FOTH: Do you think another female will win a Triple Crown Race?

Kathy: If the stars are in line! I hope some lucky girl gets a break and gets a shot at the big time. There is no reason why it couldn't happen...

FOTH: Looking back do you have many regrets about what you did?

Kathy: I really wanted to travel more, and do a sort of cross country race riding tour. I would have liked to visit a lot of tracks and ridden a race or two at each one. Especially places like Saratoga, Churchill Downs, and Hialeah. My biggest regret is that I got hurt and couldn't do that. I also wanted to win a $100,000 race, but at least I ran third in one. I wish I could have ridden on the grass more too! But, really, I accomplished a lot. In 1996, I was the leading female rider in the nation. I did it by riding only 3 days a week too, not as much racing as is available in other parts of the country. I won over 1000 races too. I rode some awesome horses and really loved doing it.

FOTH: If some girl came up to you and wanted to be a jockey, what advice would you give her?

Kathy: Don't start before you are ready. Watch films. Ask questions. Work twice as hard as you think you need to. Work out, lift weights, be fit. You can't be too strong. Remember, you can only make a first impression once. Keep your head on straight, and know that you are accountable for how you act all the time, not just when you are at the track. Learn when to keep quiet. People like a rider who will listen a lot more than someone who already knows it all. You have to want it really badly, but it is so worth it!

FOTH: Was being a jockey harder or easier than you thought it would be?

Kathy: It was both. Much harder when I started, much easier after I got established. It is a sport of "what have you done for me lately" and when you are rolling, the good horses just find you, and that is really cool.

FOTH: If you could change some things about the sport what would they be and why?

Kathy: I would like to see fewer two year olds racing, because I think there would be fewer breakdowns, and more older horses racing in the long run. A lot of people would have to be willing to spend more money without the opportunity to make it back as quickly, but it would be better for the horses. I also would like to see safety rails installed at all racetracks, for the safety of the horses and riders.

FOTH: How long did you ride for and what do you remember about your last race and did you know it was going to be your last race?

Kathy: I rode for 14 years. My last race was in January of 1998, and I remember coming out of the gate, and my horse lugging in, and me standing up on him trying to correct him. The next thing I remember is laying on the ground, surrounded by people and unable to move. My horse had bolted through the inside rail, and when he hit it, he flipped over it and I was catapulted into the rail. It didn't give, because it was a 3" steel pipe. I had no idea it was going to be my last race, but as it turned out, it was.

FOTH: What are some hobbies and things you like to do?

Kathy: After I got hurt I took some classes, and became an OSU Master Gardener, and so I do a lot of gardening, as my pain level allows. Also, I do as much trail riding as I can. The horses are still very much a part of my life, and I love being around them. I love to travel too.

FOTH: Do you still have any nagging injuries from your riding days?

Kathy: Yes, my big spill left its mark on me for sure. I have a spinal fusion, so there are two rods and 12 screws in my back. My pelvis has 3 plates in it, with 6 screws each I think. Both of those injuries still hurt, especially when it is cold and wet, or if I do too much. Also, have an old ankle injury that flares up once in a while. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to do all that I can do; the doctors thought I would have some paralysis from the separated spine.

FOTH: Did you get many injuries and what was the worst one?

Kathy: Other than the big spill at the end of my career, I didn't have anything too serious. I broke a couple of ribs when a horse spooked in a race. Turned out he was going blind, and the lights of the fair had startled him. And I broke a bone in my hand when a horse stumbled on a poorly applied bandage in a morning workout. Nothing as bad as the last one though, which also broke a bunch of ribs, my shoulder blade, punctured a lung, etc. If I told you about all this before, sorry for being redundant, I have been answering the questions over a long period of time and don't remember everything I have already written about!

FOTH: Do you have any last words?

Kathy: Thanks for interviewing me for your website. I think it is really a neat thing that you have done, and you have put a lot of time and effort into it. I would like to thank all of the owners, trainers, and fans who supported me over the years; I couldn't have done it without them.

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