Second of a three part series.
The Bluegrass Region of Kentucky is the Great Mecca of the horseracing world and Karin had long felt drawn to it. And now, as restless young jockey in search of a quest, was there a better place for her to continue her journey? At age 24, Karin would make her pilgrimage to the United States.
A Pilgrimage Gone Off Track
Once again, an overseas family connection helped determine Karin’s port of entry. This time, it was a cousin living in New York City. Karin spent ten days with her, long enough to buy a ’72 VW Beetle. As is her habit to this day, she gave the bug a name: Little Joe, after the Michael Landon character on Bonanza.
With $500 in her pocket, she set off alone to Lexington. She would sleep in her car to save money.
Karin did not make it to Lexington. During a quick stop at a gas station in Cleveland, she asked the station’s attendant if there was a racetrack in town. The man said there was a track nearby and if she hurried she could catch the last couple of races.
Karin rushed to the track, but instead of watching races, she struck up a conversation with a group of stable workers. Within a few minutes, it became obvious to them that Karin was an experienced track person. The workers introduced her to a Mr. Blakeslee, their trainer. Blakeslee invited Karin to come back the next morning and he would take her behind the scenes to his training stable.
Karin was in awe of what she witnessed the next day. Racehorses in the United States were handled very differently than they were in Germany. She was particularly struck by the way the Americans used Quarter horses with Western saddles to “pony” the Thoroughbreds to and from the track.
Blakeslee invited Karin to ride one of the Quarter horses. Karin had never seen an actual Western saddle before and for the first time in her life, she got to ride on one.
Blakeslee also allowed Karin to exercise a young racehorse. He was so impressed by her riding ability that he asked her to stay and work for him. Karin declined, her heart was set on Kentucky. Blakeslee gave her a contact name at Churchill Downs in Louisville. She was to ask for a man named Glenn Wismer.
When Karin approached the gates at Churchill Downs, she was filled with apprehension. Even though she had been through so much already, it was one of those moments in which she began to question her own judgment.
“Once again, I got scared of my own courage. Who was this guy? What would he be like? What will come of this?”
Karin had nothing to worry about. Glen Wismer was an exceptional horse person and trainer. Karin found him to be knowledgeable, pleasant and a decent man to work for. He allowed her to live in one of his tack rooms while she served as a kind of jack-of-all-trades in his barn. However, he did not have room on his roster of jockeys for her.
At that time, a minor trainer at the track, Phil Thomas, was finding it difficult to get his exercise riders to show up in the morning. Since Karin always seemed to be at the barn, he asked her if she would like to pick up some extra work exercising horses. Karin quickly accepted.
Thomas had been having trouble with a particularly skittish filly. His other riders refused to work with her because she was getting so difficult to control. Karin asked if she could give it a try.
Instead of attempting to overwhelm the filly with a heavy hand, Karin took a gentler, more patient approach. She spoke to the horse in a soothing tone and employed a lighter touch, using only as much force as she thought absolutely necessary.
“I made it fun for her,” Karin says.
And the filly responded. Karin discovered that this horse loved to run.
Thomas couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Since no one else seemed able to handle this horse, he asked Karin if she would be interested in riding for him. He offered to help her get a racing license and told her that when the season ended at Churchill Downs, she could accompany him to Ellis Park in Henderson, Kentucky
Wismer was going to Minneapolis and Karin wanted to race, so she accepted Thomas’ offer. In a span of four weeks, she rode seventeen races for Thomas and other trainers at Ellis Park.
In the meantime, Karin found a room to rent in Evansville, Indiana, just across the state line from Henderson. She also found a boyfriend in Evansville. She met Howard at bar on the evening of the 4th of July.
While at Ellis Park, a jockey agent approached Karin:
“You have talent and I’m going to make you famous,” he told her.
The agent offered to promote Karin at Turf Paradise, a large track near Phoenix, Arizona. She accepted. Thomas was angry and felt betrayed, but Karin, compelled by her insatiable Fernweh, couldn’t resist the lure of an even greater adventure out west.
Karin was actually part of a large convoy of thirteen horses and an assortment of trainers, handlers and riders accompanying her new agent. Horseracing is inherently nomadic and this kind of caravanning is typical.
It was a difficult trip. It was August and the Beetle was not equipped with air conditioning. Even the car’s windows didn’t work well. As a result, Karin suffered from heat stroke while driving through Texas. Then her car broke down in Oklahoma. At one point during the trip, the convoy’s hay supply caught on fire, due to a careless smoker.
Turf Paradise turned out to be more like Turf Nightmare. Thieves broke into her car and took everything she had, except for her saddle. Then her agent abandoned her when he was offered a position in the track’s office. Transitory relationships, both business and personal, are another common feature of the racing scene.
Karin found the atmosphere on the backside of Turf Paradise hostile to women. In this macho dominated environment, trainers considered young women like Karin as “too weak” to handle their spirited Thoroughbreds on the track. They simply did not take this little girl with a German accent seriously.
Karin refused to back down. In order to prove herself, she volunteered to work with horses that would have been dangerous in even the most experienced hands. And without an agent, Karin had to exercise horses for free in exchange for a chance to race. It wasn’t uncommon for unscrupulous trainers to dangle a racing opportunity in front of a trusting jockey as a way to get free labor – and then give the spot to another jockey.
With her usual determined spirit, Karin endured the exploitation and managed to ride in four races. However, she didn’t get paid for any of them because – they told her – she had to have an official work permit for them to process the payment. To make matters worse, the racing season in the north was ending and jockeys were coming south in droves, flooding an already competitive job market.
With no agent, no money and no decent employment prospects, Karin knew it was time to move on.
A Rough Trip Back
After visiting a friend in San Francisco, Karin turned back east. She intended to meet up with Howard in Kentucky. The original plan had been for him to join her in Arizona where he would find work as a golf pro. But that wasn’t going to happen now.
On the way back, Karin got caught in a massive Rocky Mountain snowstorm and her car died on the side of the road. She would have froze to death had not a kindly stranger stopped and helped her get the Beetle started again by pulling it with his vehicle. The man warned her if she shut the engine off, she might not get it started again. Thus began a 52-hour marathon drive to Kentucky. She left the car running even when she stopped for gas.
When she got to Kentucky, Howard was gone and Karin knew the relationship was over. Emotionally and physically exhausted, Karin decided it was time to go home.
Racing to the Bottom
Back in Germany, Karin worked at the Dortmund racetrack for about six months. However, the dark side of track life was wearing on her spirit. Unhappy with her situation, she decided to resume her schooling. In four months, she would be able to complete her Master’s degree in Horse Training. This would allow her to train racehorses and work with apprentices.
Following the completion of her degree, Karin went to Cologne and managed to land a job working under legendary horse trainer, Heinz Jentzsch. In an era when the top German horse trainers rarely hired women, this was a noteworthy achievement. While Jentzsch respected Karin for her seriousness and hard work, he made it clear from the start that he could only keep her on for three months.
While working for Jentzsch, Karin learned that Lufthansa, the German airline, was in the process of developing a new program for transporting horses by air. Previously, the airline required owners to accompany their horses on flights and made them responsible for handling the animals during the trip. The new program would offer a service where trained handlers would relieve owners of that responsibility and even allow them to take separate flights.
The prospect intrigued Karin. As a seasoned traveller with extensive experience and training as a handler, she knew she was perfectly suited for the job. Apparently, Lufthansa thought so as well. After interviewing for the position, Karin believed she had excellent chance of being hired. However, she would have to wait for the airline to complete the final stages of development before receiving an answer.
While Karin waited for word about her “dream job,” she found work at the track in Munich as an assistant trainer. What Karin experienced in Munich was the polar opposite from Jentzsch’s operation. While living in a housing unit on the track’s backside with other trainers, jockeys and workers, she found herself surrounded by dysfunction and misery. The track operated seven days a week and the workers rarely had time or opportunity for a life on the outside. Washed up jockeys, who once felt that addictive adrenaline rush, now found themselves with broken bodies and unqualified for any other kind of employment outside of racing. Many worked as “stable lads.” Isolated and trapped in low paying jobs, some turned to alcohol and drugs. Addiction and all of its attendant vices ran rampant in the worker’s dormitories. There were regular incidents of domestic violence, robberies and even suicide and murder. It was a depressing and dangerous environment.
Meanwhile there was still no job offer from Lufthansa. The program had been stalled within the airline’s bureaucracy and there was no telling when the position would become available. It had been six months since her interview and Karin gave up hope.
Karin began to look at what her life had become. Even with all the success, adventure and travel, she was as restless as ever, unable to escape the void she felt inside. Whatever it was she was looking for, she knew she wasn’t going to find it on the racetrack. She certainly didn’t want to end up like the jockeys in Munich.
Karin decided it was time to leave racing and never look back.
Look for Part 3 next week.