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Back in the states, however, female jockeys still face discrimination. "They say that women jockeys aren't strong enough," said Stra's agent, Ron Freitas. "And that's what they've been saying since the first female rider probably put on the silks." He says that the prejudice against women riders has been on Stra's back since she arrived.
Oddly, prejudice against female jockeys is more pronounced on the seemingly open-minded West Coast, according to Sam Spear, the éminence grise of Golden Gate Fields who hosts a radio show on the weekends. "California of all places," he said, shaking his head. "This is the last holdout on women riders. Back east you see a number of females running, but out here trainers are still kind of spooked. They're convinced that the women aren't strong enough."
Things are starting to change, however. "It's a lot more acceptable for trainers to use a woman rider than back in the day," said Los Angeles-based filmmaker Jason Neff, whose recent documentary, Jock the Movie, tells the story of women's tough ride into the Sport of Kings. "People realize that you don't just need to muscle a horse into position, that there is real benefit to the more psychological, instinctual touch that women bring to the sport. The fact that women weren't thought of as strong enough is giving way to the realization that maybe they are better at communicating with the horses and that can be as powerful as a pair of really strong arms."
Stra says that the constant focus on strong jockeys misses the point. Wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, it's obvious that she is built to hold on. Her shoulders are strong and her arms are muscular as well. What Stra holds up, however, are her hands: "I think I'm better than most of the guys when it comes to feel. It means when I climb on, I use my hands at first to see how the horse is feeling. If the horse is feeling energetic, I get the vibe in my hands. If they aren't feeling like running, I get that, too."
Others are starting to see Stra's potential as well. "The only thing you can realistically ask a jockey to do is give you a chance to win," said her trainer, Bruce Dillenbeck. "Kayla does that. I can't expect to win every race, but she will give you all she's got anytime I have picked her. I love how competitive she is. I don't know why more trainers don't use her, but I'm certainly going to continue to. ... I'm not going to say 'no' to somebody who has the kind of talent Kayla has."
Kayla Stra has gone from being a minor celebrity losing races in public to being competitive in obscurity. After two years of getting nowhere down south, she's now getting second- and third-place finishes at Golden Gate Fields. As a result, she's finally catching the eye of the local racing community. "Kayla has run some really good races here," said the track's Sam Spear. "I think that she has what it takes to be a top-notch rider."
Still, it's not yet clear that Stra has mastered the calculus of her move. She says she enjoys being a role model, but one has to wonder whether you can inspire from a racehorse at a track that barely draws flies. Attendance at Golden Gate has sunk proportionate to the rest of the industry, and it never was a very big track. Years ago, the track stopped publishing the turnstile count, knowing that a losing proposition has a way of scaring off those with money in their pockets. Except for Sunday dollar days, the rows of empty seats stacked in consecutive empty sections speaks to one seriously passed over spectator event. The newspaper coverage has shrunk to the minimum, while TV time has completely disappeared.
But Stra's presence on the field has been noteworthy, even if rookie players don't realize from the newspaper listing that the rider listed as "K. Stra" is a woman. She's now getting plenty of mounts, and a large percentage of them on the board means that she's starting to be the sort of rider who patrons are willing to trust their money on — regardless of gender. And on the closing week at Golden Gate Fields this past spring, it was easy to see why.
With just two furlongs to go, Stra had established a two-length lead. But her horse's form showed little ability to drive the field, and she risked burning him out early. To the few hundred fans who rushed to the rail, the only question was whether she could hang on.
But with every stride, it became clear that she wouldn't. Her gelding was gassed, and two favorites, one from the inside and one from the outside, passed her down the stretch. Usually that's when a horse that sets the pace disappears. But the newest jockey in the East Bay asked her horse the question and her mount answered with a rush back into the scrum. With a half-dozen other horses charging late to get on the board, Stra stuck it out and hung on for third place.