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Hazel Park — Something unusual occurred during the fifth race at Hazel Park Raceway two Saturdays ago.

Three of the eight jockeys in the thoroughbred race were women. Considering only 10 percent (75 of 750) of the registered professional jockeys in the United States are women, this was a true rarity in a sport dominated by men.

The young girls in the stands seemed inspired. But had they been there 24 hours earlier, during Friday night's card, they might have thought differently.

Brittany Vandenberg, Kelly Spanabel and Kim Cecil, the female jockeys, were involved in tough, no-holds-barred races in treacherous conditions during the evening. They looked the part afterward.

"We were covered in mud," said Spanabel, a jockey for the last 31 years. "If you'd seen us, you wouldn't have been able to recognize us. We were mud balls."

Some trainers prefer women jockeys because they are generally lighter and their hands are more delicate, and so they are better able to finesse the horse rather than "bully" it.

But generally, the physical toll simply keeps most women from being jockeys.

"At one time, it (jockey) was rated as one of the 10 most physically demanding jobs in athletics," said Mary Anne Barron, racing secretary at Hazel Park. "It takes a pretty unique individual. It's a God-given talent to ride a racehorse, it really is.

"It's a difficult job. If you come out here to watch the morning training, just the physical labor of exercising them, it's tough.

"Some of the bigger tracks (across the country), you're seeing a lot of women riders but it's been a slow process."

That Spanabel was even racing on this night was incredible. Few athletes in any sport could manage the pain she was experiencing to compete.

She showed her gnarled hand.

"It's broken," said Spanabel, barely able to squeeze the hand. "I fell on it during a race (last week). I just started to ride again and I went down again.

"I'm just coming back from shoulder surgery. I came back in four months. It was supposed to be a year, but my therapist said I'm one of the toughest people she knows.

"I have 31 pins in my knee. I have plates and screws in my ankles. Half of my stomach is gone from a spill I had early in my career.

"You have to love it, I guess."

And that's why Spanabel doesn't anticipate an increase in the number of female jockeys in the United States. Most young girls love horses, she said, not horse racing.

"This sport isn't for everyone," she said. "A lot of young girls go into the show world (equestrian). Not everyone can take it."

Vandenberg is one tough young lady who can. She is 24 and has been riding horses for 20 years.

When Vandenberg was 4, her mother asked her if she wanted to play baseball or keep a pony.

She picked the pony.

"I've played sports all my life and I've always been athletic doing all sorts of different things, but I always came back to the horses," said Vandenberg, who now owns a stable of horses in Windsor with her mother.

"I knew this was the path I wanted to take. There's nothing like it."

The adrenaline of being a jockey, said Vandenberg, can't be matched in any other sport.

"It's hard to even put into words because things happen in a millisecond," she said. "You plan all day for this race and when you get out there, everything happens so fast and you have to be on your toes. You're not relying on just yourself but on an animal, and you hope you guys can come together as a team.

"When you go out there and overcome whatever there is out there, that's what makes it so rewarding. You and the horse. That's the best part of it, the most challenging part."

But that beautiful, powerful, fast, 1,200-pound animal is also the biggest reason there are so few female jockeys.

"It's just a tough sport," Vandenberg said. "It takes a toll physically. They always say with jockeys, it's not if you get hurt, but when you get hurt."

Spanabel remembers when she began racing and the jeers she would hear from male jockeys.

It's gotten better over the years, said Spanabel, "but there's still some prejudice. It is what it is; we just laugh at them and walk off."

Spanabel's daughter, 15, is training to ride and is learning from the same veteran jockeys who taught her mother.

Spanabel has no problem with her daughter getting into the sport.

"When you're on a horse, there's no distinction from a man or woman," she said. "Once you're on the horse, it's all a level playing field.

"That's a lot of power and strength under you. You have to love the animals and then, the adrenaline rush, teaming up with the horse, that's the magical part of it that keeps me going."

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

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Hazel Park Raceway

Where: 1650 East 10 Mile Road, Hazel Park

When: The live thoroughbred meet runs every Friday and Saturday through Sept. 12. Post time for the first race is 7:30 p.m.

Cost: General admission and parking are free; live racing and simulcast programs are $2.

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