By Arnie Leshin
There were many historical happens in the eventful year of 1969, but 19-year-old Barbara Jo Rubin had the saddle all to herself. She slipped in among the other feats that occurred … Man on the Moon, Woodstock, Amazin’ Mets win World Series, unpopular Charles Manson trial, and confusing Chapaquidick drowning to name some.
But Rubin was prepared to make history of her own, to become the first woman to break the gender gap in a professional sport designated exclusively for the men. It was January 15th to be exact, and she was scheduled to ride a horse in the third race at the old Tropical Park in Miami, and the male jockeys revolted.
“So I gave up my mount,” she said. “The other jockeys were just so nasty, and I was just so young. I had a little trailer to dress in behind the jocks’ room and someone threw a rock through the window. Before that, they were rapping on the window and then running away. I was upset, but I wanted to ride”
For better or for worse, this was also the final day of the Tropical Park season. And so a few days later, Rubin got her first mounts at a racetrack at Nassau in the Bahamas. Everything went off smooth, no problems from the other jockeys, and she now became the first woman to ride in a parimutuel race.
“Because I was riding,” she said, “there was a record crowd there that day. In my first race, I was up on a filly named Flyaway, who went off at 1-5 only because someone wanted a souvenir ticket. I won gong away and no one cashed in their ticket.”
It was by accident that the Miami youngster even got to ride.
“When I was 6,” she said, “I had polio. I had it behind both knees. And when I was able to leave the hospital after a few months, the doctors advised English horse racing because it would stretch the muscles. I took to it, and about three years later, I was training horses and showing them for people.”
At 12, she grew into the sport. It was different, difficult, and she took to it, match racing for horse owner/trainer Dick Warman, and winning most of the races, she said, because she was a better rider than most of the guys.
“Then I worked at Tropical Park,” she said, “and under trainer Red Harper. My family was into horse racing, my cousins had horses with him, and I worked from 5 in the morning to 6at night, for free.”
She cleaned the stalls, worked the horses, pony the horses. Her pay was simply to get on one horse a day. That was her reward, that was what she wanted.
That was good, but there were also problems that existed, and when the stewards wouldn’t grant her an apprentice jockey’s license, the American Civil Liberties Union took up her cause, and after several months of hassle, got her a license from the Florida Racing Commission. That was good, a stepping stone for Rubin, a welcome aboard.
“But it was also a whole big deal that wasn’t easy,” she said. “I had to go through a bunch of tests that the boys didn’t have to go through. I had to show them I could break from the gate without falling. I had to do a workout.”
But she did fine. She had the support of her family and friends, workers at the tracks. She went on to win seven of her first 10 races after her debut in the Bahamas. Then came a successful run at Charleston, W.Va., in which she became the first woman to win at a major North America track. She also raced in Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, Rhode Island, even in Mexico.
She was now a coast-to-coast celebrity, appearing on the Ed Sullivan, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin television shows.
But it didn’t last long, it was over in fact in less than a year. She said the hassles continued and some of the track people weren’t all that nice.
“I mean,” she said, “that I was treated different than the other jockeys, the guys. I was even ignored sometimes, so as to get me upset I figured. Plus, I was getting injuries from getting bad mounts. I broke my pelvis, cracked my knee, had blood clots. It was just one thing after another, and I just didn’t want to deal with it anymore. And to be honest, I didn’t know if I was giving up a good thing or a bad thing.”
Except for one thing. She added that she didn’t want to give up being with the the horses.
In 1982, she was breaking in thoroughbreds at the track in Ocala. I contacted her and drove up to see her. She said it was her final time at a racetrack. She said there were memories both good and bad, but she was happy with the experiences she shared.True, her racing career didn’t last long, but her courage, determination, and ability alone was enough to pave the way for other women to ride horses, some even on the race track. Yes, Rubin certainly made her place in history.
Now I tracked her down again. She was now Barbara Jo Warman, married to the man who let her match-race his horses while in Miami. They were living in the Loxahatchee area of West Palm Beach on a five-acre ranch. But neither one of them strayed from the horses. Among her chores were training her husband’s horses, provide riding lessons, and also running a horse carriage business for weddings and other special occasions and events.
Said Rubin: “I guess you can say it was a great ride, and my husband Dick agrees, especially if you want to count it as a part of history of the sport. But the challenge of it all was far from easy, even in riding the horses. Some were easy to handle, some were problems.”
But, none she added, were ever a problem as much as some of the people who tried to keep me off of them.
Yes, they tried, but none could keep Barbara Jo from racing to history.
The Warmans have two children, a boy and a girl, but only the boy, now 23, races horses, and credits his mom for showing him the way. His sister is 19 and engaged to be married, and that’s not horsing around.