The scene starts lightheartedly enough. Kayla Stra waltzes into the men's locker room to watch the instant replay of one of her races with a fellow male jockey. But as they're joking around, some of the half-naked jockeys changing nearby grow perturbed by her presence. "Kayla, the girls' jock room is that way," says one jockey, pointing. Stra complains that the girls' room doesn't have the constant replay channel like the mens'. But the male jockeys aren't having it, and report her to the stewards.
Frustrated, Stra writes a note and tacks it to a bulletin board. "Fuck you winying [sp] little bitches who think that I have nothing better to do than come into the 'jockeys'' room & stare at you! I am a professional & have absolutely no interest in interrupting you from your job. You do that yourself by going out of your way to make a big deal of it. GROW UP!"
The male jockeys who read it are in disbelief. One calls her a bitch. Another says that if he sees her ... and motions that he'll smack her.
It could be a scene from 1969, the year in which the first woman jockey competed at a North American racetrack. But it was a scene from 2009 — a reality show, actually, called Jockeys that aired on the Animal Planet channel. Australian-born Stra was one of two female jockeys featured on the now-cancelled show, which highlighted the plight of jockeys at the Santa Anita track in Los Angeles County.
Initially, the petite, dark-haired 25-year-old Stra was cast as a sex symbol. There are scenes of her jogging around the track in a tight tank top and tiny shorts. Her publicity photo cast her in a half-hearted Jane Russell pose.
But as the show wore on, it became clear that Stra's personality wasn't jibing with the sexy girl-next-door. Scenes like the one in the male jock room ended up making her look out of place. "Being in this industry as a female is tough," she tells the camera. "Girls want to do it just as good as the boys and they're going to make them prove it. I don't think they want to give it to anybody easy."
Forget that Stra was a competitive rider in her native Australia and had won more than 500 races. At Santa Anita, Stra was struggling. And being a female made things doubly hard. While she hoped the reality show would help raise her profile, it didn't lead to the success she was looking for. Her fellow female cast-mate, however, successfully parlayed her good looks into a semi-naked photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, a web site featuring glossy glamour shots, and a gig as a spokesperson for a cosmetics company. So last year, Stra left Los Angeles and came to the Bay Area. The newest rider at Golden Gate Fields, whose summer season opened August 25, is now focusing on what she does best: ride. And she's continuing to beat the odds despite long ones against her.
"She certainly has a chance to succeed at Golden Gate," said her agent, Ron Freitas. "I wouldn't have taken her on as a client if I didn't believe it. But I also think she could have made it in LA as well if she had stayed there. She'll land on her feet wherever she goes. But why did she come to Northern California, then? Simple, she came here because it gave her the best chance to win."
In a world dominated by male athletes despite the plethora of women who ride horses, Stra highlights the decades-long struggle that women jockeys face. Racing alongside their male counterparts, female jockeys often face prejudice that prevents them from getting picked to ride top horses. It's an unfortunate catch-22 situation where they can't win without good horses, but aren't given good horses without wins.
So Stra's working her way up the hard way — one race at a time.
Like a lot of young girls, Kayla Stra grew up fascinated by horses. But, as for a lot of girls, carrying that interest into a career has proven more difficult.
She grew up in Adelaide, Australia, where as an eight-year-old she talked her divorced parents into buying her a pony. She spent her free time riding him in the dwindling countryside around the South Australian capital city. When she was in school, Stra thought about riding, and when she was riding, she forgot about school.
By age thirteen, Stra was failing her classes and falling in with a tough crowd. These days, she nonchalantly points to trouble at home, drugs, and a loathing for school. "I love horses, I hated people," she recalled. She dropped out of school about the same time that she discovered her paternal grandfather had been a jockey. "It was his dream, but he didn't get to do it for long," she said, somewhat cryptically.
By the end of her first teenage year, Stra had left home and was spending nights with friends and days at the track. The rest of her education was done with trainers, grooms, and fellow riders. Too young to do anything but clean stalls and exercise horses for the regular riders, Stra made herself a mascot and foundling.
Within a couple of years, she was allowed to race at a unique Aussie tradition called "picnic races." A combination fashion show and horse race — think of the Kentucky Derby with beer instead of mint juleps — picnic races take place in fields and fairgrounds, with horses often running on patches of dirt. In the crowd are beer kegs and girls wearing silky dresses. Into that scene came a girl also wearing silks — but on top of a racehorse.