LAUREL -- A few curious onlookers watched as Diane Crump put a saddle on Heavenly Wish in the Laurel Race Course paddock yesterday.
The scene presented an interesting contrast to the historic day nearly 22 years ago, when Crump was on the threshold of changing the face of racing. When she entered the Hialeah Race Course paddock on Feb. 7, 1969 -- about to become the first woman to ride in a pari-mutuel race in North America -- the eyes of the racing world were fixed upon her.
"People told me it was the largest paddock crowd since the Swaps-Nashua match race [in 1955]," she said.
Crump, 42, has surfaced in Maryland as the trainer of a small stable. It has been more than five years since she rode the last race of a 17-year career, four years since her divorce from Kentucky-based trainer Don Divine and several meals since she could have "made weight."
Now, determined to launch a new career in racing, she trains a small stable of horses at the Middleburg Training Center in Virginia, where she lives. Except for 5-year-old Heavenly Wish, whom she claimed last fall as a future broodmare prospect for a new client, her outfit comprises horses too young or too cheap to compete in Maryland.
She said people still remember -- "not a lot of people, but always someone" -- and ask about her two legacies: Not only was she the first woman to ride in a pari-mutuel race, but she also was the first to ride in the Kentucky Derby.
The first barrier was the most difficult to break. Jean Chalk, a Maryland steward, was a jockey in Kentucky in the fall of 1968 when Penny Ann Early tried to break the all-male line at Churchill Downs.
"But there was a boycott, so she didn't ride," Chalk said. "It was unheard of for a woman to ride against boys, even at that late date. There were some nasty things said against them riding.
"But Diane turned out to be a good, solid rider. And she didn't take any bull from the guys."
Despite tremendous opposition from male riders, sentiment built enough in the next several months to allow Crump to become the first female to ride. "Finished 10th," she said. Then, smiling, she added: "Beat two horses."
Less than 15 months later, millions watched on national television as she went to the gate aboard Fathom in the 1970 Kentucky Derby. Fathom, an outsider as part of the mutuel field in the Derby, "had some speed," Crump recalled, "but he didn't want to go the distance." Fathom finished 15th among 17.
Only one other female since has ridden in the Derby: Patricia Cooksey, who rode So Vague to an 11th-place finish in 1984. Cooksey is also the only female rider in Preakness history (Tajawa, sixth in 1985).
Since Crump and others laid the groundwork in the early 1970s, female riders and trainers have gained more acceptance. Julie Krone, the all-time victory and earnings leader among female jockeys, is one of the most sought-after riders in New York and New Jersey. Her abilities have determined her success; gender is an unmitigating factor.
Although female riders constitute a solid minority at tracks such as Penn National and Charles Town, things are tougher where more money is at stake. In Southern California, a woman never has been among the leaders.
In Maryland, Andrea Seefeldt has been the only female to make an impact over the past two years. She finished 12th in victories last year.
"Maryland is tough, although I'm sure it was harder for her [Crump] back then," Seefeldt said. "When you're a girl and make a mistake, it's more amplified. People are quicker to be critical.
"To make it as a girl rider, you've got to have perseverance, ability and an iron will. Julie has it, and she [Crump] apparently had it."
Heavenly Wish wound up sixth in the seventh race yesterday. In her prior start, on Jan. 4 at Laurel, she finished fourth.
Crump had named Seefeldt to ride in the Jan. 4 race, but she was injured. So Crump used Mary Wiley as a substitute.
Because she's a girl?
"Well," Crump said, "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't."