By Dan Ross
Given the current snail's pace at which the gender gap is meaningfully shrinking, it'll take more than 250 years for women to reach professional parity with men–just two-and-a-half short centuries, for those who think in blocks.
That was the daunting statistic which set the stage at the beginning of the inaugural Horse Racing Women's Summit at Santa Anita Thursday, a two-day event designed to nurture the abilities of women already involved in the sport and engender new talent to follow after the sport's current batch of female leaders.
And what was the over-arching takeaway? Greater mutual support among the sport's female participants, and the fostering of a culture of mentorship among male leaders towards their female peers.
In a panel titled “Thriving Through Challenges,” Dora Delgado, executive vice president and chief racing officer of the Breeders' Cup, described the business that she entered in 1983 as a lot of Khaki and blue blazer-clad men sitting around the boardroom table resistant to change.
“And that hasn't changed much since,” said Delgado, adding that, despite her credentials—she was anointed last year on the Sports Business Journal's prestigious “game changer” list, for example—she still feels the need to prove her qualifications “over and over and over again.”
Part of the problem is nepotism, she and others said.
The Kentucky Blueblood aristocracy, it “runs deep,” Delgado said. “If you're not born to it, it takes a bit of work to get accepted.” That cycle needs to be disrupted, she added.
“'This guy's really great—I play golf with him. He's got a son who needs a job. Where can we fit him in?'” said Delgado, rhetorically replaying what she described as familiar conversations across racetrack boardrooms.
Dora's response? “Nowhere.”
Christa Marrillia, vice president and chief marketing officer at Keeneland, detailed the female dress code for employees at the track when she first joined in 2003, which excluded open-toed shoes and pants.
While those restrictions have since lifted, changing the work-place culture for women in the sport has proven tougher, she said.
“I would sleep with my cell-phone by my pillow,” explained Marrillia, describing herself as a workaholic who never took breaks—a common refrain among the presenters, all of whom described the challenges of maintaining a healthy work-home life balance, especially those with families and children.
What changed Marrillia's attitude, she said, was witnessing her behavior rub off on her team, some of them young mothers. “I was like, 'wow, I'm creating a bad thing here.'”
She has since altered the culture for her employees at Keeneland, she said, for the better. “I do feel like we're at a tipping point,” she added, about the role of women in the game.
“I'm still really good at my job, but I'm not going to miss the birthday parties. I'm going to sleep,” she said. “I'm not going to answer an email at two in the morning.”
Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer at 1/ST RACING, discussed the importance of male higher-ups in the sport championing their female peers.
Benson told the story of how, when on a work call, two men proceeded to disparage her, mistakenly thinking they were muted.
“Then Aidan found out about it and called all their bosses,” she said, referring to Aidan Butler, 1/ST RACING's chief operating officer.
There's also the honey-pot approach.
“What my boss finds interesting, I find fascinating,” joked Rikki Tanenbaum, 1/ST GAMING's newly minted chief commercial officer and president.
The afternoon was broken into two panels, the latter of which turned their gaze inwards towards matters of integrity—or what Del Mar Thoroughbred Club board member, Marie Moretti, called “intentional integrity.”
A key area of focus appeared to be the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA), designed to provide parity in the metering out of offenses, among many other things.
“You will know what you're going to get,” said Moretti, advocating the Act's uniform rules, if not only to improve public perception of the sport. “Perception is reality in the modern world.”
Optics was a common theme. “I couldn't even get my horsey girlfriends to the track—they thought it was a cruel sport,” said Bo Derek, saying that when she took over as a California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) commissioner, the industry was in the state of flux due to problems associated with drug misuse, whip abuse and the ill-fated switch to synthetic tracks.
“I'm really encouraged. The fanbase is up, the gaming is good,” said Derek, about the current state of California's racing industry.
“I don't think it's something we can be quiet about any more,” said Shannon Kelly, executive director of the Jockey Club's Safety Net Foundation, zeroing in on the public's growing awareness towards the vast human involvement in the sport.
“What other industry has to have a charity for its workers in times of need?” Kelly said, highlighting the number of food distribution centers that feed the nation's backstretches.
All panelists advocated for financial self-sustainability to fund each aspect of the industry, from racehorse aftercare to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
“If you're entering into the sport,” said Kelly, “you should be aware of the costs that are associated with `putting on the show.'”
The earlier panel looked outwards, each of the four speakers tasked with marketing and growing the sport to a world not forged upon racing's gristmill.
“We've all got one goal but we're all coming at it from different ways,” said Jodie Vella Gregory, director of the office of innovation at 1/ST RACING.
“Everyone in here has an idea,” she added. “We should all be taking to one another.”
Taking aim at horse racing's natural impulse to quickly bin new ideas if they fail to immediately take off, she extolled the virtues of perseverance, pointing to the evolution of the Pegasus World Cup—what originated a big-pot attraction first and foremost, but which has transformed into something of a place-holder on the social calendar.
That, and “we need to expand outside the bounds of our community,” Vella Gregory said.
Running with that theme, Lindsay Schanzer, senior producer at NBC Sports, warned of another of racing's bad habits: Leaning into its more insular, arcane traits, sometimes at the expense of new potential fans.
That's why NBC Sports has focused on the story-telling aspects of its race-day coverage, said Schanzer, pointing to its recent fond embrace of things like the jockey cam.
“We really want to put the people on the horses' backs as best we can,” said Schanzer, before making a plug. “If you ever have stories that we don't know of, please reach out to us.”
The other two panelists discussed the role of newer ventures, like FanDuel, as a means of funneling new blood towards racing.
“It's never been that way before—it's never been that easy,” said Shona Rotondo, head of marketing at My Racehorse US, about the accessibility of the racehorse ownership program, with its quick online sign-up process. “We want to sell everyone on the emotion of the game.”
Given the summit's remit, it seems only fitting the event's inaugural leadership award went to a long-time industry mainstay, Jane Goldstein.
Said Amy Zimmerman, when introducing the award, “She found an opening into the sport she loved through the publicity offices of several racetracks. She was always the first one done with her work. It wasn't that she was super quick but, you see, women weren't allowed in the press box after 12. Yes, that's also true. During racing, the press box was exclusive to men.
“After almost four decades,” Zimmerman said, “I'm still often asked the ridiculous question: `what's it like being a woman in racing?' When I was hired, I never thought about it, because Jane Goldstein was the one who hired me. Jane was the one who answered that question. The one who waged that battle to open the door. And then she held it open with class, so all of us could walk through it.”
Goldstein received a standing ovation.