By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On a Saturday afternoon in late April, 10,200 horse racing fans have gathered in the tan stucco grandstand at Lone Star Park. They're moistening in the warming sun, ordering beers with their Grand Prairie dogs, queuing up to invest in the ninth race, the $300,000 Texas Mile, which is filled with classy stakes horses trained and ridden by some of the most successful horsemen in the land.
Nobody is here to see Brother Julius run in the eighth.
Track handicappers and the betting public have picked the chestnut-colored colt to finish well out of the money in the $29,000 allowance race, which on an ordinary day would be a featured event, but today is just the race before the race everyone really wants to watch.
An inexperienced 3-year-old who fell down in the stretch last year and fractured a leg, Brother Julius is going off at 17-1. His rider, Deirdre Panas, has been working against long odds as well. After kicking around tracks in New Jersey and Massachusetts for much of her 10-year career, she's found herself in Texas, where female jockeys have had little success.
In this race, a six-furlong sprint, some of the track's top jockeys--meet-leading Corey Lanerie, Tony Lovato and Roman Chapa--head to the gate on the favorites. Panas and Brother Julius will start from the No. 12 position, well to the outside. Her strategy in the short, speed-oriented race is rather obvious. Brother Julius needs to make a sharp break at the start. Panas doesn't want to be left at the gate. The 33-year-old jockey has been on Brother Julius before; she rode him to a win against lesser horses in early April, and she is pretty sure he will give her what she wants.
As the gates fly open, Brother Julius' lime-colored number jumps as he digs for the lead. In track-speak, he's a live horse. As he reaches the front of the 14-horse field, Panas eases him toward the rail and settles him into second place, two lengths back.
Panas considers herself a controlled, finesse rider, someone whose job is to "quietly but strongly move with the horse to get him to run faster." On Brother Julius, she relaxes and lets the horse run, neither quickening him nor holding him, reining him with enough pressure to let him continue the fast pace he has chosen on his own.
At three furlongs, or three-eighths of a mile, her horse motors past the early front-runner, the fast-tiring Cherokee Sauce, and finds himself two lengths ahead at the top of the stretch. He switches leads for a fresh leg in. "I asked him how much he had going down the lane, and he just drew off," Panas says after her wide-smiling trip through the winner's circle. "I was very happy to win. I think he earned some respect."
His rider is trying to get a little more of that, too.
With 11 wins in four weeks, Panas is tied for sixth in the Lone Star Park jockey standings, despite riding in fewer races than any other jockey in the top 10. Finishing in the money 45 percent of the time, her horses have won $202,693, of which a jockey usually takes 10 percent.
Not even a third of the way through the meet, she has broken Lone Star's single-season record for first-place finishes by a woman rider--a record set at a terribly low bar. Women jockeys, or "chicks with sticks," as one Lone Star official calls them, are hardly a novelty in U.S. thoroughbred racing. Ten of the 54 jockeys racing in the early weeks of this season at Lone Star were women. But just as the women have only one rider, Belmont Stakes winner and Hall of Fame denizen Julie Krone, to look to as someone who could stand up to the men, they have little to boast about in the first four full seasons of racing in the Grand Prairie lowlands.
For the first time, a woman jockey is threatening to hold onto one of the top seven or eight slots in the riders' standings, where the paydays are fat and frequent enough to make a solid living. So far, only the men have had enough wins and stakes-race finishes to be driving $30,000 pickups, which from the back lot appear to be the jockeys' off-track ride of choice.
The story unfolding around Panas this season--a story with much left to the future--can't avoid the blunt matter of a woman's chances in this male-dominated sport, "the woman thing," as Panas puts it. There are steep challenges for a female jockey operating in a place where the most successful trainers and owners have never put a woman on their high-dollar stock.
There are more subtle chapters that go beyond gender, though, to things even some hard-case chauvinists around the place might admire. There's Panas' unshakable devotion to racing, her game struggle in a job where winning begets winning and a dry spell can easily become a two-year drought. In racing, from two-bit tracks to the Triple Crown, everyone gets a taste of the "bad trip," the "rough ride," a bit of "bad racing luck." It's what you do next that counts.