For Seefeldt, just being in saddle is success enough


May 11, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

Her horse finished a resounding last in the Kentucky Derby last weekend: 16 lengths behind next-to-last. "Doesn't matter," Andrea Seefeldt said. Her horse could well finish last again today in the Pimlico Special. But again: doesn't matter.

That she just has a ride in these races, that her name is there in the program with Day, Stevens and the others, that she has come far enough to be there -- that is what matters. If you don't understand, you don't know the story.

You don't know she failed the first time she tried to make it as a jockey, winding up as a secretary in Donald Trump's empire. You don't know she has endured a crushed vertebra, a broken-in-three-places pelvis, a torn kidney.

You don't know she eschews an agent and books her own rides, a daunting task. You don't know she won more than $1 million in purses in 1989 and 1990 but still faces the hardscrabble lot of a woman in a sport given to men.

"It's like I'm under a microscope," she said the other day at Pimlico. "If I make a mistake, it's amplified. A lot of the owners are really good. Some still have a problem putting me on a horse."

So, it shouldn't be difficult to understand why finishing a distant last in the Derby was irrelevant, or why finishing last in the Special today -- she is on a competent horse, Reputed Testamony, but the field is tough -- wouldn't cost her a moment's sleep.

"The people, the noise, the aura, being there with the best trainers, jockeys and horses -- it's like I've made it to the top of my profession," Seefeldt said. "It's like I have arrived."

Of course, arrival is a relative measure for women jockeys. Seefeldt, 28, usually finishes between eighth and 12th in the standings at Pimlico and Laurel. The best trainers rarely give her a chance to ride their horses. "I make do with the small outfits," she said. "So, in a sense, I haven't really been accepted."

But let's not miss the basic point: She has indeed arrived. Only four women in the country won $1 million last year. Last weekend she became only the third woman, and the first from Maryland, to ride in the Derby.

"A lot of hard work is finally paying off," she said. "When I made the Derby, people probably said, 'Who's she?' But now that it's two weeks in a row [with the Special today], maybe people will say, 'Hmm, maybe there's something to this girl.' "

We shouldn't begrudge her the burst of pride. In a couple of weeks, she will celebrate the 10th anniversary of her first ride, but it took her eight years to begin collecting pleasant memories. "I've a paid a lot of dues," she said.

She paid them first at Pimlico a decade ago but caused so little stir that she moved on to Penn National, a smaller stage. There she passed four years with little success. Her career was going nowhere.

"I kind of gave up, accepted defeat," she said. "I basically told myself after I failed at Pimlico that [Penn National] was as good as I was going to be."

Discouraged, she got married in 1986, quit riding, moved to New Jersey and got a secretarial job at Trump Plaza resort-casino in Atlantic City.

"Then one day I looked around and I was living in a different state, had a different name and wasn't doing what I wanted," she said. "It was like I'd been in a trance. Basically, I married the wrong man."

She got divorced, moved home and began riding again. Fresher, wiser, she began doing better. But on the morning of a day she was to ride six races for the first time, a horse fell on her in the starting gate, making a mess of her pelvis. "I'm lucky I'm walking today," she said.

She faced a decision. She could quit again, maybe go back to school; the daughter of college professors, she'd been an honors student at South River High School in Anne Arundel County. But she wanted to ride. "It's just what I love," she said.

So she rehabbed broken bones and got back on her horses. That was two years ago. Soon after, she began acting as her own agent. It's no life for the lazy. She works the barns in the mornings, chatting up trainers and owners, securing rides -- a tough, competitive business. After sleeping 15 minutes at noon, she rides in the afternoon.

"I do twice the work," she said, "but I enjoy it. Being an agent is how I got the Derby ride. I knew the owner, and when I heard [the jockey] had other commitments, I called. [Being an agent] is what I'm going to do when I quit riding."

This is not the time to quit, though. In the last two years she has won two-thirds of her career earnings. She isn't the best rider in Maryland, but she has come a long way from bombing at Penn National.

"I'm stronger, in better shape and think more," she said. "But what really made me a better rider was riding with Kent [Desormeaux]. I learned so much."

Her success has helped her pass perhaps the biggest challenge of all: acceptance in the jockeys' room. "I'm one of the boys now," she said. Still, few believed her late last week when she told them she was going to the Derby.

"They said: 'Going to the Derby? Have a nice time,' like I was just going to see it," she said. "But I said, 'No, I'm really going. I mean to ride.' "

Her horse, Forty Something, ran second through the three-quarter pole. That the rest of the race was a disaster just didn't matter. How could it? Honestly, how could it?

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