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Before long, Stra began winning. Soon she had an agent and a handful of mounts at Australia's legally sanctioned racetracks. And there was no shortage of racing; the country's 330 tracks make it the nation with more racing places than anywhere in the world, but the purses are small and the profile is on the low end. The only star of Antipodes' racing that has rated a thought in American minds was Phar Lap, a champion thoroughbred from the 1920s that died shortly after his only Northern Hemisphere race, a second-place finish in Tijuana.
Stra spent five years riding throughout her native land, racking up wins in a variety of races and eventually shedding her apprentice bug (a weight allowance given to novices and noted with a large asterisk in the racing form). Between 2001 and 2006, she won without any allowance at all. She earned every dime battling equal weight with the boys.
Stra describes Australia as a place where her apprenticeship skills were given a thorough workout. "It's where I learned to be a horseman," she said. "I had a trainer who taught me to be a good listener, how to keep a good seat on a horse." As a teenager and a female, however, she didn't feel particularly welcome in the jockey community. It's a zero-sum game, because if a new rider is any good, other riders lose out on mounts and money. "The one woman jockey wouldn't talk with me," Stra said.
Eventually, the young jockey decided she was ready to leave behind some of her country's parochialism and start anew. So, at age 23, Stra moved to Orange County, where some of her maternal family members lived. Only this time she would be building a new life in the teeth of the most competitive class of jockeys in the world, and on television, for everyone else to watch.
Santa Anita Park is the biggest racetrack west of Kentucky in terms of purses and reputation — at least it has been for the last seventy years. Triple Crown winners, Hall of Fame trainers and riders, the 1984 Olympic Games, and movie stars have called it home. The story of Seabiscuit largely takes place there, and back in the day when the glitterati of Hollywood needed a place to winter, the flags atop the Arcadia track beckoned. The Marx Brothers spent A Day at the Races there, and everyone from Bing Crosby to Alex Trebek has owned thoroughbreds that have run the track.
But the new millennium has been a bummer for the industry in general and for Santa Anita in particular. Attendance there has dropped by about one-third from what it was a generation ago, and that was a generation past its peak. Many complain that the racing experience isn't fast enough. People wanting to wager look for more action than nine races dragged out over six hours. The few tracks that have prospered have become "racinos," an amalgam of slot machines, poker tables, and, for those who want to breathe fresh air for a minute or two, racing.
In 2006, serious talks began about closing the legendary track, and while it has received a stay of execution, by the end of this year, the expanding Westfield Mall will swallow a portion of the track's now superfluous parking lot. But the purses at Santa Anita are still among the highest in racing, so it still draws the best riders, which drew the attention of the TV network Animal Planet.
Meanwhile, Kayla Stra had arrived in Southern California but was failing to get many mounts at Santa Anita. "I was frustrated, I just wanted a chance," she said. But with hundreds of riders with flashier résumés wanting the same thing, it could hardly have been a surprise that Stra was far back in line. "I had a good record in Australia, and all I would get was an occasional sixty-to-one shot."
It can be a vicious circle around the oval. Trainers look for the rider who is going to give them the best chance to win. Since jockeys earn a cut of the purse if they win, it serves their interest to hop on the best horse offered. Without an established agent to get her aboard, Stra wasn't getting offered anything other than leftovers. Her name couldn't even be found on the first page of the jockey standings at the Southern California track, and her winning percentage of 4 percent translated into more frustration. "I don't know if it because I was a girl, or because they didn't know me. They must have said, 'Oh, here's this little girl from Australia. We don't know her and we don't know if she's any good.'"
It took months before Stra brought home her first winner, Flying Bearcat, at Hollywood Park, and that didn't do much other than get her a few more exercise rides in the morning. "They said I would just have to wait," said Stra, pausing and then twisting her mouth into a kind of sardonic smile. "I'm not too good at waiting." In her second year at Santa Anita, however, the waiting would end.