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Smith, Robyn (1942—)

Smith, Robyn (1942—)

American jockey who was the first woman to win a stakes race. Name variations: Melody Dawn Miller; Caroline Smith; Robyn Caroline Smith; Robyn Astaire. Born Melody Dawn Miller in San Francisco, California, on August 14, 1942; daughter of Constance Miller; married Fred Astaire (the actor and dancer), in 1980 (died 1987).

Robyn Smith, the most famous woman jockey in the United States during the 1970s, has been reluctant to divulge details about her past. Rather, she constructed a personal history which included being the daughter of a wealthy lumberman, losing her parents when she was quite young, growing up in Hawaii, graduating from Stanford University, and signing a movie contract with MGM Studios, in order to hide the reality of a troubled family life. Reliable information shows that Smith was born in San Francisco, California, on August 14, 1942, one of five children of Constance Miller , who named her Melody Dawn. "It was a very painful delivery," said Miller. "She weighed nine pounds, six ounces. I almost lost my life giving birth to her." From early infancy, Smith's family life was chaotic. The headstrong, prickly Constance Miller married four times and moved often. When Smith was still quite young, her mother's health failed, and the household was temporarily scattered. Smith was placed for adoption by the Oregon Protective Society in the home of prosperous lumberman Orville L. Smith and his wife. She was there for some time. "They had a shyster lawyer put through these bogus adoption papers," claimed Miller, "and there was money exchanged between the Smiths and the Protective Society. They thought they could buy her soul." Angry at this placement, Constance (then known as Constance Palm) brought a court action with the help of Catholic Charities in 1947 to have the adoption set aside. This action was denied by a Morrow County court before that decision was overturned by the state supreme court. Justice George Rossman ordered that Smith be returned to her mother and then placed in a foster home through Catholic Charities; his reasoning was that children should be put in homes of the same religious background. It became a landmark case in the state of Oregon.

The victory was hollow for Constance. Catholic Charities was intent on keeping mother and daughter separated. "If anyone ever got a raw deal, it was this mother," Miller wrote Bill Mulflur, sports editor of the Oregon Journal. "These holier-than-thou Catholics go to Mass every morning and then talk about their neighbors all week long. What hypocrisy!" Smith spent portions of the following years in and out of foster homes, and was again separated from her family during high school. (For one seven-year period, mother and daughter did not meet.) Because of a severe asthma condition that required hospitalization, Smith did not graduate from high school until 1961, when she was 19. By then, she was living with five other foster girls in the home of Frank and Hazel Kucero. But Smith had kept in touch with the Orville Smith family; after completing school she avoided her own family (she would eventually cease contact with her mother and siblings) and moved to Seattle to be with the Smiths, beginning to call herself Caroline Smith. She did not remain long with them, however, and eventually enrolled in the acting workshop at Columbia Pictures in Hollywood.

During this period, according to Smith, she dated a man who had a horse under the tutelage of Bruce Headley, a trainer at Santa Anita. Through this contact, she obtained a job galloping Headley's horses. "Thank God it was dark those mornings and nobody really saw what I looked like on a horse," said Smith. "After I'd been working for Bruce for about four months, he got his first look at me galloping a colt one morning. 'You don't know too much about working a horse, do you?' he said. I admitted I didn't, but he stuck with me and I gradually learned what I was doing."

Then Kathy Kusner made headlines when she went to court in Maryland and won the right to ride in races, and Smith set out to become a professional jockey. She faced many obstacles. While most jockeys start training in childhood, Smith had only begun developing the reflexes and skills needed to be an expert rider when she was in her 20s. Her physical size (5'7" and 125 lbs.) was also a strike against her, since most jockeys are only 5' tall. And even though she received her jockey's license in 1969—track officials felt a female jockey would attract spectators—Smith quickly discovered that gender prejudice in the male-dominated arena of horseracing would hinder her entry into the races, even after she proved herself.

On April 5, 1969, Smith rode in her first race at Golden Gate Park near San Francisco. She finished second. She went on to ride in 40 races on the California country fair circuit. Owners were leery of placing her on their mounts, so Smith left the West Coast for the New York area, hoping for an opportunity. "I decided that if I was going to make it in racing," she said, "it was going to be first cabin or not at all." She finally got her break when the owner of the horse Exotic Bird agreed to let her race at the prestigious Aqueduct track in Queens on December 5, 1969. Exotic Bird had not demonstrated remarkable speed in the past, but Smith managed a fifth-place finish in a close race.

Her accomplishment did not result in well-deserved recognition from owners and trainers, who continued to shun her as a jockey. While most experienced male jockeys race more than 1,000 times in a year, Smith raced less than 100, mostly on mediocre horses. "The better Robyn gets, the more jealous others get," said noted jockey Eddie Arcaro. In the early 1970s, she proved her skill and tenacity by winning 18–20% of her races against horses with better records. Along with her races, she won the admiration of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who owned a top stable and was chair of the New York Racing Association. She became a regular rider for him. On March 1, 1973, she was the first woman jockey to win a stakes race, riding North Sea to victory in the $27,450 Paumanok Handicap at the Aqueduct.

Although she was racing at the most prestigious tracks by 1975, Smith chose to retire that year. In 1980, she married acting legend Fred Astaire, 42 years her senior, who, as the owner of several champions, shared her love for horse racing. They settled down in Beverly Hills, where she continued to live after Astaire's death in 1987.

sources:

Haney, Lynn. The Lady is a Jock. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1973. Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1976. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1976.

Sherrow, Victoria. Encyclopedia of Women and Sports. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1996.

suggested reading:

Brown, Fern G. Racing Against the Odds: Robyn C. Smith. Raintree Editions of Children's Press, 1976.

Elizabeth Shostak , freelance writer, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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