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.
Last year, after her ninth season of riding at Suffolk Downs near Boston, New York's Belmont Park, New Jersey's Meadowlands and several lesser tracks, Panas was thinking about hanging it up. "Coming to Texas was sort of my last-ditch effort," she says. "I was thinking after last year, 'I can't pay my rent. I can't do this anymore.' I have friends who'd say, 'I know you love racing, but how much longer are you gonna do this? Maybe it's time to try something else.'"
Instead, she found a Texas agent, showed up at Sam Houston Race Park and won her first race.
"Work's been downhill from there," says agent Steve Renshaw, a nonstop talker whose gold-nugget horseshoe ring, ever-present cell phone and gimme cap seem to be the right tools for the job. After 27 more wins--and $201,000 in earnings--Panas finished seventh in the jockey standings in Houston despite missing the first few weeks of the meet. As the racing moved in April to Lone Star, where much tougher horses, riders and trainers from New Orleans join the Houston crowd, Panas decided to try to extend one of the best stretches in her career.
Here, she's been whipping and chirping home more than her share of long shots while her agent tries to leverage her success onto the backs of better and better mounts.
"A friend of mine, a trainer, saw me win a race a couple of weeks ago, and he said, 'You're riding with confidence. You're riding like you're possessed,'" says Panas, who talks without a bit of defensiveness about her career's ups and down. "I haven't noticed myself doing anything different. I keep trying to find a reason for it and I can't...They'll say, 'She's riding good now.' Like you had trouble with your riding before. I've gotten down to thinking, 'Never mind. Just go on with it.'"
Such are the mysteries of balancing on a powerful 1,000-pound animal and working the subtle, shifting controls. Out of the blue, everything works.
Unlike many of the jockeys, trainers, agents and others who make their living around the barns at Lone Star, Panas was not born to the sport. Growing up in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, about an hour northwest of Boston, she fell for horses at age 8. Her parents, teachers both, bought a modest showhorse for her to ride at 4-H meets and erected a stable on their one-acre farm. "She was so slight then, she had difficulty giving signals to the horse," says her mother, Anne Panas.
Deirdre discovered racing two years later on television. The magnificent Affirmed dueled Alydar to win the 1978 Triple Crown, and Panas became fascinated with 18-year-old jockey sensation Steve Cauthen. "I was thinking, here's a young kid, only eight years older than I was, and he won the Kentucky Derby."
By her 16th birthday, around the time her mother says other 4-H girls were giving up their horses for boys, Panas was getting serious about making horses her life.
Her family had spent summers with relatives in Ireland, and she was well aware of the rich racing tradition there, from the Irish Derby on down. By a lucky break and a few white lies, she landed a job exercising horses for Dermot Weld, a top trainer at the Curragh, the Irish racing center outside Dublin.
"I fibbed a little about my background...'Yeah, yeah, I've ridden thoroughbreds before,'" she recalls. "Actually, I'd never galloped a racehorse in my life. So there I was, working for the leading trainer in Ireland, multimillion-dollar horses in the barn, and I wasn't physically fit to gallop a racehorse. They'd run them across the fields. The first couple I galloped, my stomach was in a knot. I thought I was going to throw up...I remember on the second day, Weld saw the horse doing something with me and said, 'This isn't gonna do. Come see me at lunchtime.' Well, I just didn't go to see him. I wasn't gonna lose that job. He's such a big trainer, he must have forgotten about it, because he let me stay."
Over the next year and half, Panas groomed and galloped horses, cleaned tack, swept the yard and did everything she could to build up the considerable strength it takes to balance and flow on a fast-moving thoroughbred. With no women riding racehorses in Ireland, though, Panas returned to America and became an exercise girl, then an apprentice jockey, a "bug girl," at Delaware Park, in Wilmington.
"She was always a strong, well-rounded rider, but people didn't give her a shot," says Gerry Stanislawzyk, who worked as Panas' agent in Massachusetts and is now a track official at Suffolk Downs.
As a jockey, he says, "Her greatest skill is in her hands. She sits so quiet on a horse. She is a believer that pushing a horse is better than whipping. She'll use the whip, but she doesn't think of it as a big thing. I love watching her ride."
As a person, he says, "If anybody deserves it, she does. If she has some success, she doesn't let it go to her head. She doesn't like comparing herself to people. And when she's been down, let me tell you, she guts it out. I don't think many riders would have gone through what she did at some of the tracks up here."
Some of Panas' best East Coast years came when she was riding in the mid-1990s for the top owner at Suffok Downs. Midway through her best season, after she lost a few races and the owner lost some heavy bets, he dumped her flat, Stanislawzyk recalls. "When you lose the top outfit, you're down and out for a while."
Many of her toughest times with trainers and owners have come when there were bets on the line, says Panas, who as a jockey is forbidden to wager. "I'm in an industry completely supported by gambling. I see the way people react when they gamble and lose. It's pretty nasty. When they win, they love me. I hate that, too. They don't know me as a person. They're only talking through their pockets."
As the highlights of her career, Panas recalls the rush of winning her first race at Belmont--the site of Cauthen's famous neck-and-neck duel on the last leg of the Triple Crown--and riding in the exclusive August meet at Saratoga, some of racing's most hallowed ground.
Mostly, though, there was the grind of finding regular work at the Meadowlands and Monmouth, competitive, regional hubs not unlike Lone Star, where a "clean pants" rider--one with a race or less for the day and no mud clots on his trousers--can watch the season slip away and the credit-card bills blow in.
In a business that is being shrunk a little each year by the spread of casinos and other less sophisticated wagering, mounts seemed to be getting harder and harder to find.
In racing, of course, everyone likes a winner, which is why Panas has been able to get as much work as she has at Lone Star: 66 starts through last weekend.
Trainer Ramon Flores, who is using her regularly, says he never used a female rider before. He started getting interested in Panas after she brought in a few long shots for other trainers in Houston. "I kept watching her. I'd never used girls before. I'm not sexist, but this girl is just a lot better."
Flores says he likes that she'll follow his instructions for a race, then makes good decisions when things don't shape up to plan.
Male riders are often stronger physically, which is why most racing people believe men will always remain comfortably at the top rank of the sport. But in Flores' estimation, "It just doesn't take a lot of strength to ride. You have to be smart, too...She's a real smart rider."
Trainer John Locke says he wants a rider who can "get a horse to relax, to save ground and ask it to run at the proper time...Deirdre can do all those things well."
Taking a break after watching a jockey work one of his horses in the morning haze, Locke says flatly, "It's tough for the ladies. There's a certain number of owners and trainers who aren't gonna use the girls. Off the top, they're ruled out...Really, it's pretty remarkable what she's done. She came totally unknown into Houston. Didn't come with a stable. Didn't have any connections, and she just started winning races. For her to come in here [to Lone Star], into a really tough jockey colony, and start winning races is really remarkable." Panas hasn't won yet for Locke, but, he says, "she's kept them out of trouble and given them good rides."
Trainer Gilbert Ciavaglia, who was found later that morning in his office in one of the back barns, has been in the racing business since 1966. Panas has won two races for him at Lone Star, and he's counting on her to win a few more.
He says his thoughts on female riders are more pragmatic than sexist. In his eyes, there are riders who fit certain horses, each a better match according to their strength and skills.
"I have a lot of young horses that have to have a rider with a lot of patience," he says. "She fits them very well. There are some horses that I think need a strong handler, some of the old geldings, heavy-headed horses that need their heads picked up and a lot of stiff whipping. Not that she couldn't handle them, but I think there are others who fit them better."
Panas shrugs, looking a bit annoyed when this theory is repeated to her in the barn-side cafeteria, where she'll go after the morning work to read the newspapers.
"There is a physical aspect to this," she says, her New England accent blending with a bit of New Jersey. "It requires a tremendous amount of strength to be able to sit a horse and not move at all going 30 miles an hour. It took me a long time to get fit enough. I won't lie; men are stronger, but that doesn't mean a woman can't finesse a horse or outsmart another jockey or get a horse to run. After all, it's horse racing, not jockey racing."
At 5 feet 1 inch and 105 pounds, Panas is the lightest top jockey at the track. She has no problem staying at her weight and doesn't need to fast and tap her strength on race days, as many male jockeys do.
"I'm not gonna put on a fake mustache and try to be tough or tomboyish," she says one night in the jockey's lounge. She wears her dark hair long, pulling it into a ponytail that drops from her helmet "to let people know I'm a girl." At several East Coast tracks, she was known to show up with home-baked chocolate-chip cookies after particularly good wins. "She's a great cook and a helluva pool player," says another former agent, Lisa Stannard, who represented Panas early in her career at Delaware Park.
So far in Texas, the Panas converts are mostly the smaller-scale trainers. All say they like her work ethic, the way she tries on every horse, her habit of coming by every morning before sunrise to see if there's a horse that needs to be "breezed," or exercised. All jockeys are expected to put in the free work (jockeys only get paid to race), but as Ciavaglia says, "Some are more regular than others."
Some mornings, the riding is followed by the sales trip: tooling around with Renshaw in a golf cart, visiting trainers who might be ready to put her on a horse. "I'm kinda quiet, so it's nice to have Steve there to do the talking," she says.
Quiet, yes. Shy or guarded, hardly. "If people don't want to use me, at this point in the game I'm thinking it's their loss," she says of the business and politics at the barns. "I've never had anyone be rude to me, but you just can tell when you talk with them they aren't going to hire a woman. I really don't have time for people who feel that way. Once they do, you aren't gonna change them."
Lately, though, there have been at least a few "maybes," a little more interest and at least one mount from one of the track's big-name trainers. If the "maybes" don't pan out, she probably will continue to have few starts in the big-money stakes races, where some riders with poorer records have ridden much more than her.
Beyond the very tangible issues of riding skills, conditioning and dedication, Panas says there are things she's learned after 10 years of being surprised by long-shot winners and sure-thing losers. It is, after all, horse racing. "It takes good horses to win," she says. "And a lot of luck."
For Panas, the flip side of luck at Lone Star has come on the back of a promising horse named Prado's Trick, whose performance on May 2 showed just how dicey racing can be.
Track handicappers had picked the 3-year-old roan filly to be competitive but out of the money in the eighth race of the night, a $29,000 allowance run at a mile on the turf track. The betting public followed, making the horse a 7-to-1 shot, picked to run behind three others.
Trainer Ciavaglia and Panas had more faith than that in the Texas-bred horse. "We've been very high on her. We're hoping we can win some better races with her, move her into stakes company down the line," Ciavaglia said.
His instructions to Panas were to keep the horse near the leaders, because the turf track hadn't been hosting many come-from-behind wins. As the race unfolded, she had no problem following the plan.
Coming through the final turn, Panas' horse was third, running to the inside and just behind The Real Jewel, one of the favorites. On the leader was Corey Lanerie, the track's leading jockey. Real Jewel's trainer, Steve Asmussen, is running away in the Lone Star standings this year and is ranked third nationally in earnings.
Next to Real Jewel was another horse, and both began to sputter as they approached the top of the stretch.
"I was following the leading jockey and the leading trainer, and they usually go on," Panas said after the race. "But this time, they kinda stopped. I was sitting there on the inside on a lot of horse."
Jockey David Nuesch, who was just behind Panas, must have seen this, because in the split second before Panas moved to go around, he made his move on My Sky Beauty. Nuesch's horse had won by four lengths in its last race at Oaklawn Park and was easily the favorite.
"I got outsmarted a little. He made his move early and kind of looked over as if he kind of got the jump on me as he went by," Panas recalls.
Panas put the whip to Prado's Trick, piling around the stalling front-runners with a move that one track official marveled at for its aggressiveness. She gave chase as the crowd began yelling, sparked into life by a close stretch run. From over a length back, Panas closed to within a nose and was still coming on at the line. But the photo showed Prado's Trick lost literally by a nose.
"What you expect to happen in that situation is the horses in front of you will tire and fan out," Panas explained. "When that happens, you're so smart. You waited. You're so patient. But when you get stuck, it's 'Gollee, you got the horse in trouble.' It happens to every jockey, Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, all of them."
Slumped down in a chair in the racing office the next day, his Vikings cap pulled low over his eyes, Renshaw grumbles, "I wanted that one. She's better than that." It's no comfort to him that the favorite horse won the race or that Prado's Trick did much better than anyone expected under Panas' hands.
Ciavaglia seemed to be taking things better, although he looked glum as he huddled with Panas on the track after the race. "He told me, 'Yeah, you got blocked a little bit. But the horse is still young. She's learning.'"
Panas wanted the win badly, too, but she seems to take the wins and losses with an evenness that comes with the miles, the long, rough ride of a decade in the sport.
"If I think any race is the race, the one that is gonna make or break my career, I'm gonna guarantee it's gonna be a mess," she says. "It means overriding, being too tense. I used to do that earlier in my career. I'm more relaxed about it now. I think I have a tremendous amount of patience. It's hard when you don't win, but after you've survived as long as I have, you realize there will be another race. I've been riding for 10 years, and I'm still here.''
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.