Santa Anita race track in Arcadia, Calif. attracts some of the world’s best horses and jockeys. Yet, there are only two full-time women jockeys—compared to about 25 men—who ride there.
27-year-old Australian jockey Kayla Stra is one of the two. Her journey to Santa Anita was a long one and started when she dropped out of school at age 13 to work at a stable with a trainer.
“The animals kind of kept me straight and focused,” Stra said. “When you love something enough, I think it’s enough to save you and keep you going.”
Stra won more than 500 races in Australia before moving to the U.S. in 2007. The move meant racing for more money but also facing stiffer competition.
“I think anywhere you go when you first start, it’s going to be tough to get rides, especially being a female,” Stra said. “I remember when I first started and some people were awful mean to me.”
Gus Headley, a horse trainer and owner who uses Stra as his barn’s main jockey, says she keeps riding at Santa Anita because she wins races.
“I think I have a 25 percent win percentage with her so it doesn’t get much better than that,” Headley said. “These are the best jockeys in America [at Santa Anita].”
Still, there are only two women in the top 100 American-based jockeys by earnings.
“I’d say there’s a big bias. There are guys who won’t use girl or women jockeys,” said Danny Kaplan, who employs Stra to ride the horses he owns. “There probably would be a lot of female jockeys if other people would let them ride races. It’s hard to break into a man’s world.”
Stra said, though, that stereotypes and biases don’t hold her back.
“There’s always going to be a bias about riding females but you just kind of ignore it,” Stra said. “I don’t make a big deal out of being a girl. I’d rather just blend in and be like one of the guys.”
She wants to be like one of the guys and beat them too.