NORTH STAR - Being a female jockey isn’t an easy feat, as any who have managed it will concur, but with drive and determination, women can make it in a ‘man’s world’ of horse racing. Chelsey Keiser, a Versailles High School graduate, decided to follow her life-long dream, despite the odds, she said.
She grew up around horses on her family’s farm with her parents, Mike and Debbie Keiser, and a younger sister, in North Star, helping to raise and train barrel-racing horses, and later thoroughbred horses, she said. Chelsey was an active member of the Versailles FFA during high school, and asserted that FFA certainly shaped who she became as an adult, and her decision to pursue her dreams.
“FFA has helped me tremendously,” Keiser commented. “Dena [Wuebker, Versailles FFA advisor] really helped prepare me and my classmates to make ourselves marketable when we graduated…”
Wuebker said she is “absolutely, very excited” about Chelsey’s successes so far, and cannot wait to see what she accomplishes because she is a “very determined” young woman.
“I am by no means surprised; ever since I’ve known Chelsey, as a freshman in high school, that was the goal, that was the passion she had - to be a jockey,” Wuebker commented. “And she has a wealth of horse knowledge; she has the drive and the determination…I’m just lucky to have had a part in helping to shape that. She’s a feisty girl…She’s pretty intense, and has always been pretty intense. This is a great story about being passionate about something, and following your dreams,” Wuebker said about Chelsey’s journey.
After graduation, Chelsey began attending college to become a nurse, but her “heart wasn’t in it,” and in January of 2011, she moved to Florida to work on a farm galloping horses to ready them for races.
“We’re very proud of her,” Chelsey’s mother, Debbie, said on behalf of herself and Chelsey’s dad. “I thought a college education would be good for her, but her heart just wasn’t in it at that time. All she could think about was riding, and she felt she had to try it. It’s always been a dream of hers, and of course there’s always a risk in everything, but we do support her. It’s something she wanted to try for a long time, and I felt that we have enough regrets in life to not go after it.”
In April 2011, Chelsey moved again, this time to Virginia, where she met a trainer from Maryland. Chelsey was still not racing at this point, but in July, she moved to Maryland to follow the seasonal sport, and began training to be a jockey.
Chelsey competed in her first professional race as a jockey in April of 2013, and has since competed in more than 600 races, winning more than 70 of those, she said. She competed in her first stakes race last fall, which she called a “high achievement.”
“For a win percentage, 10-20 percent is really good - you lose more than you win in this game,” Chelsey, third leading rider in Maryland for the 2013 winter season, said. She’s doing well, but the sport isn’t without its challenges, she said.
“It’s a 24-hour a day, seven-day-a-week job,” Chelsey reported. “There are no vacations, no holidays…I’m really close with my family, but I missed my sister’s high school graduation because of my job. I wouldn’t change it, though.”
The jockey industry is also male-dominated, Chelsey said, and while women are respected in the racing community, they do receive criticism regularly, just like the guys do, she added.
“I get criticized for a lot, and I have to show myself I’m just as strong as the boys,” Chelsey said. “I can take it just like they can. It’s a compliment when someone comes up at the track and tells me I looked like a man out there.”
Traditionally, women haven’t been a large make-up of the sports’ most spot-lighted position - jockeying - but there are more women in the horse racing industry in general, acting as owners, trainers and in various other roles. Julie Krone was the first-ever woman to be inducted in the Hall of Fame for jockeys, and also the first woman jockey to win a Triple Crown race and a Breeder’s Cup race.
The first female jockey to appear in professional racing was Diane Crump in 1969 - which means it took nearly 20 years for a female to really break through the competition and gain serious recognition.
Chelsey Keiser said that jockeying being a male-dominated sport doesn’t intimidate her in the least, rather, it drives her to be better, because she knows she has to compete against males who are generally stronger, since being a jockey requires strong upper body and legs. When one thinks “jockey,” they typically think of a short, thin-framed male, and while women also fit the short and thin frame, they often don’t have the same strength of a similarly-structured male, making it more difficult to compete.
“I’m very competitive, and so it drives me to prove that I’m just as good, if not better, than the boys,” Chelsey stated. “You have to be determined and confident, no matter what you do. I think women are always underestimated, so you have to go out and prove you’re just as good as them, if not better. You have to have confidence - I get criticized every day for everything I do. People can get you down, and say whatever, but it doesn’t get me down because they don’t know anything about me. If you let people get you down with their words, you won’t get anywhere in life.”
Chelsey recommends that other young women interested in the sport keep focused and keep their determination.
“Just being confident and determined has really helped me,” Chelsey noted. “I’ve missed a lot of things in my life because I want this so badly, but it’s all worth it. Sometimes I get frustrated, but then I remember why I’m doing it - for me, and no one else. This is a dream that I wanted to chase.”