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The reality series Jockeys was pitched as a series that would depict racing life like it really is. Folks in the industry were excited about the show's potential. But it soon became clear that its success would depend on how much drama it could squeeze from its main characters. The show was marketed with the tag line, "To win it all, you have to risk it all." The danger of racing was made explicit: "It's the most dangerous two minutes in sports!" A series of spills and ambulances were highlighted in the opening credits.
Stra was approached about being one of the featured riders and agreed right off. "They asked me if I wanted to be on TV," she said. "And I thought, well, it will help to pay the bills." Stra was ranked much closer to zero than hero, but it was apparent from the start that she was chosen not just for being an underdog, but also for her "womanly" traits. Her fan mail reflected an appreciation for something other than her racing form. "Smoking hot jockey," was one of the less insightful comments on a YouTube video. Stra shrugs and says it's the nature of celebrity. She seems neither inspired nor offended at how her looks have played into her story. "I wasn't looking to be a star; I thought it might help me get better horses," she said. Not surprisingly, once the show aired, Stra began getting noticed at the racetrack.
But the program satisfied almost nobody. Track fans didn't fall for the re-recorded race narration that sounded like a Hardy Boys program. ("Can Mike hang on?! Here comes Alex!") And newcomers to the sport didn't take to Jimmy the Hat, professional tout, who offered viewers insider wisdom like, "People come out here to gamble."
From the start, Stra was getting as much camera time as riders with far higher profiles. Usually introduced with some variation of "the new girl," Stra was one of two female riders featured, and, in the beginning, the more regularly featured one. The first few episodes reveal her as a plucky underdog. In one scene, a trainer gently chides her as he tries to keep up with her while walking to the paddock area. "If there was a walking race around here, you'd be in first place," he said, teasingly. "Not funny," she responded, without even a hint of levity. Reflecting back, Stra says, "They saw me as some kind of out-of nowhere long shot. I never saw myself that way."
The producers also made feints toward Stra a sex symbol with a seductive promotional photo and shots of her exercising scantily clad. But she poisoned the well on that angle, too, saying on camera, "Winning a race is better than sex." Her first-person speeches to the camera were terse and not very revealing; the manufactured drama in her storyline ("Will Kayla ever win?") was pumped up with a completely depressing montage of her getting beat in about eight races in a row. Neither the producers nor Stra did a very compelling job of turning her into a rooting interest. And so, by the end of the first season, Stra's face in the opening credits was replaced by other jockeys. Her storyline, thinned out considerably, began testing her out as sort of a villain. "I hated the way they edited the show," she said. "I stopped watching it."
Meanwhile, the other female rider, Chantal Sutherland, was rushed to the front of the narrative. Not a single episode missed the pretty Canadian rider with her boyfriend in the jockey's room, having heart-to-heart talks about their future and starting a family. During those episodes, we saw Stra in a bar with some guy we weren't introduced to, and then she committed a race violation and had her horse disqualified. In the show's second and final season, Stra fumed about unequal conditions for women riders, and then got teased by fellow riders for being thin-skinned about it.
Ultimately, she got hung out to dry by the jockey community and the show's producers, who clearly found her to be a bit more (or less) than they expected. Before the show had been officially cancelled, Stra was gone from the narrative — and Southern California.
Kayla Stra does not like to play the gender angle. Numerous interlocutors have explored that path, but she insists that it hasn't been much of a factor in her development. But while her talent may not necessarily be tied to her gender, her career prospects unfortunately may be.
Relatively speaking, the history of professional female jockeys is a short one. It was 1969 when Diana Crump took a mount at Hialeah Park and became the first woman to ride in a major race in the country. A couple decades later, New York-based rider Julie Krone hurdled more barriers by becoming the first woman to win a Triple Crown race.
Discrimination against woman riders in Australia lasted longer, but also vanished quicker. The Aussies restricted female riders to "ladies-only" races until 1980. Jockey Bill Smith rode throughout the mid-20th century but only because she kept her real identity as a woman secret. But since then, the continent has worked to make up for lost time. In Victoria, 17 percent of the riders are women with only 10 percent of the mounts, according to AllWomenSport.com, and female jockeys are starting to win big races and big purses.