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It's been 41 years, but for Diane Crump, it doesn't seem that long ago. The sights and sounds remain fresh in her mind. Even now, she can hear the roar from the jam-packed grandstand and feel her pulse quicken as if she were still aboard Fathom, a 3-year-old chestnut colt in the post parade for the 96th running of the Kentucky Derby.
Crump, 61, and the owner of an equine sales business in Virginia, first broke through the gates of what had been a men's-only club on Feb. 7, 1969, when she became the first woman to ride a race at a pari-mutuel outlet in North America, Florida's Hialeah Park.
Then, on May 2, 1970, a little more than a year after her historic debut, she took her place at Churchill Downs and, at 21, became a player in thoroughbred racing's grandest event.
As it happened, her horse, Fathom, finished 15th in the field of 17, well behind the winner, Dust Commander, but Crump's victory that day was unmatched. No woman jockey had ever raced in the Derby before that, and only four (Patricia Cooksey, 1984; Andrea Seefeldt, 1991; Julie Krone, 1992 and 1995; and Rosemary Homeister, 2003) have done it since. On Saturday, Rosie Napravnik, riding Louisiana Derby winner Pants On Fire, will be the sixth woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby.
Crump recently sat down with espnW and reminisced about that history-making day:
espnW: What do you remember most about that race?
Diane Crump: Just the thrill of being there, the excitement of it all. The thing about Louisville in the spring, it's the essence of the Derby. There's probably not another state, but especially [not] a city that gets as caught up in something as Louisville and Kentucky get in the Derby. People talk about it all over the world. ... So at the wire, yes, it was a thrill. Would it have been more exciting if you knew you had a really good shot? Of course! But on the other hand, the fact that you're there, you get a chance to participate. Actually, he [Fathom] wasn't bred to go that far, but he ran [well].
espnW: You were in a good spot along the rail early, right?
DC: Yes. I was right up there like the horse had a fighting chance. Even though he didn't get anything, it was probably one of the best races that he'd ever run. He gave it everything he had. It's almost like he felt the excitement himself. He was a nice horse, he wasn't a great horse, but he was a nice horse. The fact that he tried that hard and kept me in contention so much of the way at least it made me feel I was a real part of it.
espnW: At the time, did you think about being the first woman jockey in Derby history?
DC: This is the strange thing. Through my entire career and my life in general, I never think like that. That's not the way I am. When you do something you love so much, you don't even think of that. As a kid coming up around the track, coming up on a farm that actually let me do things, I never gave it a second thought. For years, I was the only woman I saw on the backside.
In those days, it was Sunshine Park [now Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, Fla.]. I was the only kid there. A couple of the old guys around there who were trainers, they'd let me sit in the back seat and they'd throw orange blankets over me and smuggle me into the track. That's how I came up.
espnW: Where did that passion come from?
DC: We moved to Florida [from Connecticut] when I was 12 and we lived in suburbia; there wasn't a horse anywhere in the vicinity. I don't know. I just believe God gives you a gift and that gift is what you love. And if you follow that gift, then you'll live your dream.
espnW: Did your passion help you gain acceptance?
DC: I think that came because I was so low key. I didn't expect anything. I didn't ever do it for any reason other than the love of doing it. And I learned as I went. ... If I got bucked off, I got back on and figured out how I needed to stay on. If I got run off with, I figured out, "that didn't work, I better try something else." ... I came up the hard way, the ground up, from not knowing anything. I did not have family that got me involved. I think that helped a little bit as far as people seeing that I wasn't just some trainer's kid or some jockey's kid. I had nothing to do with the horse community at all, but I just loved it. That part was kind of cool.
espnW: Does anything else stand out in your memory from that first Saturday of May in 1970?
DC: I won the opening race on the Derby Day card [she rallied Right Sean for a nose win in a 6-furlong race] and I did finish fourth [on Tanzanite] in the 2-year-old filly stakes race [the 5-furlong Debutante]. I did have a good day. That kind of crowd, that kind of atmosphere, it was pretty awesome. Winning a race on that day was pretty awesome. I remember a lot of great things. Going to post and warming up, them playing "My Old Kentucky Home," just all the thoughts and feelings that go through your head at that time. At that point, you're thinking, "Hey, there's always a chance." That's what life gives us every single day. It was a chance.