Sandy Schleiffers first mount wasn’t a Thoroughbred. It wasn’t even a horse. It was a goat named Billie that she regularly rode around the Olympia, Wash., horse ranch managed by her stepfather, Don Kelley.
The little girl on the goat, who now is a lecturer in the Computer Science Department at Colorado State University, went on to become one of the nation’s first female jockeys in the late 1960s. Historically, she is the first licensed female jockey to ride and win in Arizona and Colorado, and the first female to be admitted to the prestigious Jockey’s Guild. Schleiffers’ role in racing history is about to be recognized, along with the achievements of other women who broke into the male-dominated field of Thoroughbred racing.
The Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, Ky., is launching the "Women in Racing" exhibit on Oct. 15. The exhibit, which runs through Dec. 31, includes women pioneers in the roles of breeders, owners, jockeys and equine sportswriters and photographers. In addition to Schleiffers, who has loaned her first "jockette" license for display, the exhibit will acknowledge the achievements of individuals such as Penny Chenery, owner of Derby winners Riva Ridge (1972) and Secretariat (1973); Donna Ward, co-trainer of filly Beautiful Pleasure; and jockeys Diane Crump and Julie Krone, who had successful careers in the 1980s and 1990s.
"I am truly honored by, and appreciative of, the Kentucky Derby Museum’s recognition of women’s contributions to Thoroughbred racing," Schleiffers said. "My racing career spanned some 7 ½ years. I feel that it was the best time of my life, it was a dream come true, and more. In a nutshell, it was the best of times and sometimes the worst of times, but regardless, I wouldn’t trade my racing career nor the part I played in the history of the sport of kings for anything."
"I guess I always knew that someday someone would do something to honor women in racing, but I didn’t know when or where of if I would be a part of that honor. I cannot put into words the joy and excitement I feel as I prepare to fly to Kentucky for the opening of the exhibit."
Schleiffers rode her first race at a bush track in Las Vegas in the mid-1960s. Bush tracks didn’t require a license to ride and in order to get a license, which was fortunate since in order to do so, jockeys had to be male. The Kathy Kusner case in early 1968 made gender discrimination illegal in Thoroughbred racing. This landmark case made it possible for Schleiffers to approach the stewards at the Santa Anita racetrack and ask to qualify for a jockey’s license, which she did in 1968. But it was at the Turf Paradise track in Phoenix, Ariz., a few months later, in March of 1969, when she entered her first professional race and became the first female jockey to ride and win in that state. The same year, she also became the first female licensed jockey to ride and win at a Colorado track and the first female jockey to be admitted to the prestigious Jockey’s Guild.
Schleiffers rode continuously throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada until late 1976, when she was forced to take six months off due to injuries and decided to return to college. She completed her bachelor’s in 1978, from California Polytechnic State Pomona, Calif., her master’s in 1979 from Washington State and her Ph.D. in 1985 from Texas Women’s University.
Schleiffers has been teaching in the Computer Science Department at Colorado State University since 1986. She is the author of a statistical software program (Post-Hoc Analyses for Non-Parametric Statistics) which is still in use at Texas Women’s University. She is also the co-author of the programming textbook "Programming in True BASIC (Brooks, Cole). Further, she wrote the forward for the Scooter Davidson book, "Great Women in the Sport of Kings" (Syracuse University Press, 1999), which was the inspiration for the new exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum.
Schleiffers will also participate on a panel of female jockeys, trainers and owners for a "Women in Racing Seminar" from 7-9 p.m. Nov. 16 at the museum.
The Kentucky Derby Museum is located at Gate 1 of Churchill Downs. The Museum is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. on Sunday.
For more information about the exhibit and the seminar, call Laura Payne at the Kentucky Derby Museum at (502) 637-1111.