Sylvia Harris is a woman who knows what it is like to be down on her luck. She has been there again and again in her life. She also knows what it is like to achieve her dreams. In late 2007 Harris, who had harbored a lifelong goal of becoming a professional jockey, won her first thoroughbred race. At the age of forty she made horse-racing history as one of the oldest rookie jockeys in the sport and only the second African-American woman to win a thoroughbred race. In doing so, she overcame twenty years of adversity that included bouts with manic depression, difficult personal relationships, and a period of homelessness. "Human triumph," Harris said of her win, in a 2008 interview with the New York Times. "That's what it comes down to." Indeed, Harris's story is nothing short of amazing.
Harris was born in Frankfurt, Germany, to Edward Harris Sr. and Evaliene Harris, both of whom served in the U.S. Army. Raised in Santa Rosa, California, Sylvia Harris was a star athlete in track and field and gymnastics, setting many records in her hometown. From a young age she was "animal crazy," developing a fondness for horses while visiting Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows with her father, according to an interview with the Web site Female on the Horse. "I remember leaning over the fence and watching them run," Harris told reporter Jason Schandler in Bloodhorse.com in 2008. "I was enthralled."
Harris aspired to become a jockey, but her parents discouraged a career in horse racing as an impractical goal for an African-American woman. Instead she enrolled in Santa Rosa Junior College, considering veterinary medicine as an occupation. Within two years, however, Harris became pregnant with her first child and needed to support her new family as a single mother.
When Harris was nineteen year old, her parents divorced. The event triggered the first of many episodes of manic depression, which would progressively grow worse. Staying up for days on end writing poetry, she began to experience delusions and eventually was hospitalized. Over the following years, she went through alternating periods of mania and stability, culminating in a major breakdown in 1995 while she was living in Virginia with her father. She spent three months at Western State Hospital, a psychiatric institution in Staunton, and lost custody of her children.
By 1999, with her illness under control with medication, Harris was living in Florida. Hoping to make a fresh start, she enrolled at Full Sail Academy, a music, design, film, and entertainment school located in Winter Park. But it seemed that the deck was stacked against her. One day Harris's car was stolen. With no transportation to get to work, she lost her job. With no income to pay the rent, she was soon evicted from her apartment. She ended up homeless, sleeping in abandoned cars or on the streets of Orlando and eating in soup kitchens. She had hit rock bottom. As Harris told the New York Times, "I had no idea how I was going to get my life back together."
Harris saw a glimmer of hope when she met a minister at a Florida homeless shelter. When he asked her what she wanted to do with her life, Harris recalled her childhood dream and told him that she would like to work with horses. By the end of the day, the minister had arranged for Harris to go to Ocala, Florida, the center of the state's thoroughbred breeding industry. She soon found work at a local training center, grooming and galloping horses and cleaning stalls. In a 2008 interview with Associated Press sportswriter Andrew Seligman, which appeared in USA Today, she recalled that the work "reawakened all of the childhood memories and wants and dreams, and loving animals and wanting to be around horses."
Still, Harris continued to harbor dreams of becoming a jockey, even though she was now well into her thirties. While working at Ocala Breeders' Sales Company, she met a jockey who told her he had not started riding until age thirty-seven, and he had won his first race at age forty-two. Harris decided that her goal was not out of reach yet.
In 2005 she spotted a classified ad for a small racetrack in Saskatchewan, Canada, that was looking for jockeys. She answered the ad and drove to Marquis Downs in Saskatoon to find work. Once she arrived, however, she discovered that the papers she needed in order to work in Canada had not been completed by her sponsor, and she would have to drive to the U.S. consulate in Detroit, Michigan, in order to do so. Not only that, she would need some $3,000 in order to get matters straightened out—money she did not have and could not get.
With less than a hundred dollars in her pocket, Harris began driving south, first through Minneapolis and then on to Chicago, where some of the most competitive horse-racing tracks in the United States are located. Once again, Harris started over, finding employment galloping horses in local stables while working toward getting her jockey's license.
Harris had difficulty finding mounts, as few trainers seemed willing to take a chance on an inexperienced female jockey who was pushing forty. In August of 2007 she finally landed her first thoroughbred race at Arlington Park outside of Chicago, finishing third. Then, a few months later, Harris met trainer Charlie Bettis at Hawthorne Race Course, earning occasional mounts from him.
Harris's big break would come on November 7, when Bettis offered to put her on Wildwood Pegasus, a four-year-old gelding who suffered from arthritic knees. No other jockey would ride the horse, fearing injury. But Harris seized the opportunity, and she and the horse finished third that day. Encouraged, Bettis kept her in the saddle, and Wildwood Pegasus won his next start on December 1 by seven-and-a-half lengths. The victory made Harris the second African-American woman ever to win a thoroughbred race—the first was Cheryl White in the 1970s—and the first to do so in Chicago. Harris went on to take two more firsts that season, and steady work has followed.
After her historic win, Harris told Bloodhorse.com, "It was a dream come true, a dream that took 30 years to fulfill. I'm 40 now and my prayers were finally answered." Harris's inspirational story has brought her much media attention. In early 2008 she was profiled in the New York Times, and she later appeared on Good Morning America, the Today Show, and Inside Edition. Having achieved her own dream, she also became involved with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, so that she could help make the dreams of others come true, too.
At a Glance …
Born in 1967(?) in Frankfurt, Germany; daughter of Edward Harris Sr. and Evaliene Harris; children: Atlanta, Rory, Toshi. Religion: Buddhist. Education: Santa Rosa Junior College.
Career: Worked at stables and training facilities in California, Florida, Virginia, and Illinois, grooming and galloping horses and cleaning stalls; became professional jockey in 2007.
New York Times, January 9, 2008.
USA Today, January 17, 2008.
Schandler, Jason, "Harris' Long Climb to the Top," January 7, 2008, http://racing.bloodhorse.com/article/43022.htm (accessed July 21, 2008).
"Sylvia Harris," interview, Female on the Horse, http://www.femalejockeys.com/Sylvia.html (accessed July 21, 2008).
—Deborah A. Ring
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