Rubin, Barbara Jo
Barbara Jo Rubin
Barbara Jo Rubin overcame polio as a child and prejudice as an adult to become a pioneer in sports. In 1969 Rubin was a member of the charter class of young women seeking work as professional jockeys—no small accomplishment in Thoroughbred racing, long known as the "sport of kings" and a male-only bastion. In the space of just one year of racing, Rubin accomplished several "firsts" and topped it off by becoming the first female jockey to retire from the track.
Though her parents were Floridians—father Robert Rubin ran the Golden Sands Lounge in Miami—Barbara Jo was born in Illinois, during a visit to Rubin's mother's family. The girl grew up in an atmosphere of diversity, describing her family to the New York Post as "a little bit of everything," British, Jewish, German and other ancestral ties. At age six Rubin contracted polio, a scourge of children in the United States from the 1940s into the '50s, when a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk finally conquered the spread of the debilitating disease. Fortunately for Rubin, her case was a mild one; the family doctor recommended sports as therapy for the child's affected knees.
Horses—The Sure Cure
The young girl chose her sport as soon as she saw the 1944 movie National Velvet on television. "From that time on," she told the Post, "I set my heart on riding horses." At that time Robert Rubin ran a gas station and kept a pony on the lot to entertain customers' children. Barbara Jo, however, was the main rider, and as she grew, the girl developed into not only an equestrian but also a horse trader, swapping each consecutive pony for a larger equine. A brief stint as a junior rodeo competitor ended when Rubin took a nasty spill; her mother, Maxine, declared calf-roping and bull-riding off-limits.
A winning rider at horse shows during her teen years, Rubin set her sights on something a little more thrill-packed: racing. While she was a taller than average jockey, Rubin was determined to make her way onto the track. With the encouragement of her father, Rubin—a student at Broward Junior College—left school in 1968 to take a job at Miami's Tropical Park racetrack. Paying dues for Rubin meant hours of daily tasks like mucking out stalls and rubbing down horses before she was permitted a twenty-minute workout with a Thoroughbred. By that summer Rubin was galloping horses in New England, earning three dollars per workout. During those early days, the young athlete caught the eye of a man who went on to become a mentor—trainer Bryan Webb.
The Quest to Be the First
Webb, who was working out of Charles Town, West Virginia, at the time, urged Rubin to apply for a jockey's license. Others were not so supportive. After obtaining her license by the Florida State Racing Commission, Rubin was scheduled to make her professional debut on Webb's horse Stoneland at Tropical Park in January, 1969. But a group of male jockeys protested her presence, and threatened to boycott the track should Rubin be allowed to ride. The pressure forced Rubin's withdrawal, especially after someone threw a brick through the window of a trailer she was using for a changing room. The nineteen-year-old was philosophical about the ruckus: "If I were a boy I'd probably fight this thing too," she told Parade reporter Linda Gutstein. "It's been a man's sport for so long—well, it's traditional. I guess I don't blame them for fighting it."
Instead of provoking further confrontation, Rubin found another way to ride. She left the U.S. for Nassau, Bahamas, where the young woman was welcomed onto the Hobby Horse Hall track. There she posted her first race—and her first win, aboard the heavily favored Fly Away. Following the three-length victory, as George Gipe wrote in his Great American Sports Book, Rubin "galloped triumphantly into the winner's circle, where she was greeted by her parents and a contingent of Miami supporters."
Into the Winner's Circle
Returning to the United States, Rubin took her credentials in West Virginia on February 18, 1969. Four days later, riding Cohesion in Charles Town, she made history as the first woman to win in a pari-mutuel (betting) race on a major U.S. track. (Rubin missed being the first woman to ride a U.S. pari-mutuel by a two weeks; jockey Diane Crump preceded her at Hialeah on February 7.) But that race, and subsequent others, brought out emotions in her competitors and the bettors. "Get married!" shouted one spectator at Aqueduct. "At Pimlico," she told Stan Isaacs in a 1969 Newsday piece, "somebody told me to go home and cook spaghetti. I don't pay any attention. They boo other people."
So Rubin concentrated on riding effective races. The catcalls turned to cheers when the rookie brought home two winners in two days at Aqueduct in March. And while racing, already a dangerous undertaking, did not get any easier, there was more of a sense of acceptance about the young woman. Isaacs described a race in which "the other jocks cut over on Rubin and made it rough for her, not because she is a girl, but because that's the way the game is played." Jockey Angel Cordero commented to Isaacs that if he saw Rubin taking the lead, he would ease his horse in front of her "because that's the way I would do it against everybody. Everybody else thinks of her as a girl. I think of her as a jockey." Rubin won eleven of her first twenty-two starts. Her style, according to Audax Minor of New Yorker, was characterized by "balance, good control and sensitive hands, because of which horses run well for her."
The owner of a stakes-running horse, Picnic Fair, thought enough of Rubin to offer her the mount for the 1969 Kentucky Derby. She would have entered the history books as the first woman to run a Triple Crown race; however, Picnic Fair was scratched from the race. But neither the Derby nor other major races had seen the end of women jockeys. Overcoming tremendous obstacles, Crump, Tuesdee Testa, Robyn Smith, Cheryl White, and Mary Bacon were the riders who, like Rubin, opened the door to athletes such as Julie Krone , who earned $81 million in her career and in 1993 became the first woman to win a Triple Crown race.
|1949||Born November 21, in Highland, Illinois|
|1967||Attended Broward Junior College|
|1968||Worked as an exercise rider, Tropical Park|
|1969||Gained jockey's license, January 15|
|1969||Won first U.S. race, Charles Town, VA, February 22|
|1969||Debut at Pimlico, Baltimore, MD, March 7|
|1969||Debut at Aqueduct, New York, NY, March 14|
|1969||Named to ride in Kentucky Derby (horse withdrawn)|
|1970||Retired from professional racing|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1969||First win, Hobby Horse Hall, Nassau, Bahamas, January 28|
|1969||First woman granted a jockey's license in West Virginia, February 18|
|1969||First woman to win on a U.S. track, February 22.|
|1969||First woman to win at Aqueduct Park, March 14|
|1969||First woman named to ride in Kentucky Derby (horse withdrawn)|
|1970||First woman to retire from professional racing|
|2000||Barbara Jo Rubin Stakes race named in her honor, Charles Town, West Virginia|
As for Rubin, the realities of her own body caught up with her dream of riding. Her height, five-foot-six, made keeping racing weight difficult; Rubin's knees, still sensitive from her bout with polio, did not let her maintain the strength she needed to control a 1,200-lb. Thoroughbred at top speed. Rubin retired from racing in January, 1970. The Barbara Jo Rubin Stakes, run in Charles Town, is named in her honor. "I don't feel I've done anything special," Rubin said to Isaacs in 1969. "I feel I've just been riding a horse, which is all I want to do."
Almanac of Famous People. Gale, 1998.
Gipe, George. The Great American Sports Book. Doubleday, 1978.
Women's Firsts. Gale, 1997.
Connelly, Mary. New York Post (March 22, 1969).
Gutstein, Linda. Parade (March 30, 1969).
Isaacs, Stan. "Barbara Jo: A Girl to Fall in Love With." Newsday (March 20, 1969).
Minor, Audax. New Yorker (March 22, 1969).
Sketch by Susan Salter