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All-Female Race Doesn't Pass Test

September 29, 2000|BILL CHRISTINE

Jim McIngvale, the free-wheeling furniture salesman, was willing to put up $300,000 to sponsor a race at his hometown track, Sam Houston Race Park, but there was one stipulation: All of the jockeys had to be women.

At first blush, Bob Bork, general manager of the Texas track, thought McIngvale's brainstorm might fly. But the more horsemen Bork canvassed, the less he liked the idea.

"We've agreed to disagree," McIngvale said Thursday, after the $550,000 Texan Juvenile, scheduled for Dec. 2, had been reduced to $150,000, a drop of $50,000 from last year's running. The track will put up all of the purse, and McIngvale will save his $300,000 for another day.

McIngvale, whose Gallery Furniture in Houston grew from a $5,000 investment in 1981 to a company doing more than $100 million in annual sales, thought he was on to something. McIngvale helped build Gallery with the promise that furniture would be delivered the same day it was picked out, and with outlandish TV commercials that featured the owner himself in pitchman's clothing. As a result, they call McIngvale "Mattress Mac" around Houston.

Actually, a race with all-female jockeys is not new. When Bill Veeck, the same impresario who sent Eddie Gaedel, at 3-foot-7, to bat for the St. Louis Browns in 1951, ran Suffolk Downs in Boston 30 years ago, he staged the Lady Godiva Purse for women riders. Other tracks have aped the idea, and since then there have been more runnings of "Powderpuff Derbies" than the Kentucky Derby. But no one's ever run a $550,000 race and said that only women could ride.

"It would have been the (third) richest race for a 2-year-old this year," said McIngvale, alluding to the two juvenile stakes at the Breeders' Cup that are worth $1-million each.

McIngvale said that he got the idea when he was watching the Olympics on TV.

"I saw Brandi Chastain playing soccer, and I remembered all the publicity she got for the sport," he said. "Look at what the Williams sisters are doing for tennis. When the Racing Hall of Fame had its induction this summer, who was the only (inductee) that got their picture on the front page of USA Today? (Jockey) Julie Krone, that's who."

McIngvale said that he was told by track officials that some horsemen might not run their horses--even for $550,000--if they were forced to hire female jockeys.

"We trust them (as exercise riders) with our horses in the mornings," he said. "Why aren't they good enough to ride them in the races?"

Sam Houston executives are treading lightly with their turndown of McIngvale's $300,000. Many of his horses are stabled at the track, and Gallery Furniture signage is prominent at the plant. Also, the female-jockey issue remains an awkward situation.

"Jim McIngvale has been an invaluable sponsor," said Martha Claussen, a spokeswoman for Sam Houston. "He's an asset, and he's a man of vision. But when (Bork) talked to many of the horsemen, they didn't share Jim's enthusiasm for this concept. The response wasn't as positive as we would have liked."

In 1968, Penny Ann Early, in from California, wanted to ride in a race at Churchill Downs. She was named on a horse for the last race on the card, triggering a jockey boycott. When the official programs were printed, Early's name was the only jockey listed. All the other horses in the race had blanks in the spaces where the riders' names would be. The trainer of the horse Early was to ride caved in and replaced her with a man. Racing has come out of its cave--Krone won 3,542 races and numerous women have won more than 1,000--but the truth is, Sam Houston would have lost some horses if their trainers were required to switch to female riders.

McIngvale is serious about this equality thing. He came into racing in 1996 waving money with both fists and spent $1.27 million on the first five horses he bought. But in two years a high percentage of the McIngvale horses had been injured, wins were scarce and the owner replaced the renowned Nick Zito as his principal trainer. The horses eventually went to Laura Wohlers, who is McIngvale's sister-in-law.

"I didn't fire Nick," McIngvale said then. "I fired Gulfstream Park, because that's where he was stabled, and that's where many of the breakdowns came. A woman trainer makes sense. Women don't have the testosterone levels and the egos that male trainers have."

Horse Racing Notes

Martin Pedroza passed David Flores Thursday as the winningest jockey in the history of the Los Angeles County Fair. Pedroza's win aboard Colonial Warrior in the third race gave him a career total of 289, one more than Flores, who has had two wins while riding sparinglythis meet. Flores is scheduled to ride Immense Variety Saturday at Fairplex in the $100,000 Pomona Derby. . . . This Tune Can Hum, winner of the Foothill Stakes on opening day, returned Thursday to win the $50,000 Governor's Cup Handicap. . . . The California Horse Racing Board has filed another complaint against a trainer who had a horse test positive for morphine in June at Hollywood Park. Jesus Mendoza will have a hearing before the Santa Anita stewards after the illegal painkiller was found in the urine of Golden General following a second-place finish as the 8-5 favorite in an allowance race on June 23.

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