Washington women breaking down barriers in horse racing

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AUBURN, Wash. -- Women are few and far between in horse racing, but some locals are working to break down barriers in the sport.

Jennifer Whitaker has been working as an exercise rider since she was 20 years old and has spent nearly the last two decades jockeying for Howard Belvoir. Each morning she rides 20 to 35 horses.

"She does a lot of work and a lot of miles," said Belvoir. "A lot of miles."

Belvoir started as a groom in 1957 and has been in the industry ever since.

"Most trainers won't ride a girl," he said. "They just think they are weaker on the line."

He's seen times change but still acknowledges there is a bias embedded in the sport.

"It's always going to be there. It's never going to close."

Whitaker is the only female jockey this season at Emerald Downs.

"When you're out there you're the same, you're doing the same job," said Whitaker. "Somebody may treat you different but you're doing the same job as they are so I don't look at it any different or being (in the) minority."

That's something horse trainer Kay Penny Cooper can relate to. Thoroughbred training has been in her family for generations.

"It's a male-dominated field and we have put our foot in the door and proved to society that we're equal and we can do it -- bottom line -- just like any others," she said. "There are people who won't put you on horses because you're a female. They think you're weaker but like I said it's not always about the strength -- sometimes it's about getting a horse to run without strong-arming them."

That trust between trainer and jockey is key.

"I think if you're a winning combination, you're a winning combination," said horse trainer Sharon Ross.

She knows exactly what a trainer looks for in a jockey.

"Patience, good hands, a good clock in their head, a sense of timing," she said. "Can't be too chilly where you're a little timid about going through a hole up the rail or the starting gate."

While these trainers don't let gender factor into their decision making, there is one undeniable fact for those who do.

"Go check them out and see if I'm riding at the same percentages as another guy," said Whitaker. "There's no difference."

The difference is that she's winning races.

Entering the 2019 season, she's on pace to become only the tenth rider in Emerald Downs history to have 500 career wins.

"It's awesome -- you know -- there's nothing like winning races."

Those victories on and off the field make it all worth it.

Jennifer Whitaker is the only female jockey to have ever won the Long Acres Mile -- back in 2008.

Kay Penny Cooper has won more Long Acres races than any other trainer -- male or female -- with five to her name.

Sharon Ross is the only trainer to have won back-to-back Long Acres Miles.

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