The Story of Joan Pratt
By Eliza McGraw
When the March article about Early Women Jockeys was posted here, Wendy Russell contacted us. Her mother, Joan Pratt Russell, was a jockey in the 1940s and 50s. Russell, who works with horses, too, had some stories to tell about an amazing life. Below is what she told us, with some additions from newspaper articles.
“Joan was born in Boise in 1926,” says Russell. “Her father was an editor for the Idaho Statesman, and he died when Joan was 4 or 5 years old. She seemed to know from the beginning what she wanted to do. When about 13, she borrowed a farmer’s tractor and made a quarter-mile track, and got a pony from the killers. I would assume, in the ’30s, a Boise slaughterhouse would be the place to get a nearly free horse. She sent away for a ‘horse breaking kit’ and was off and running. She would attempt (and did) to bring the pony in the house when it rained. She didn’t have any horsey or racing influences, as far as I know.
“She was an incredible rider; I have pictures of her jumping decent sized fences, bareback with perfect form. After her father died, her mother moved her and her sister to Los Angeles, where they finished school. Joan wanted to be a vet, so she began galloping horses at the track to pay for school. She went to pre-vet at Washington State at Pullman, in 1946 and I think 1945.
“When she broke her collarbone badly, she had to stop school. She then picked up a few old runners, a trailer and a truck, and began racing in the bushes [unlicensed racetracks],” says Russell.
“I decided to enter races in the ‘bushes’ as a means for paying for my education,” Pratt told a reporter in 1952. “Every week end, as soon as my Friday class was finished, I’d pack the horses in a trailer and rush to the races at Santa Ana, Corona, over in Arizona or wherever they were running. I didn’t compete in recognized thoroughbred races but in quarter horse races, match races and the fair circuit from Bakersfield to Sacramento.”
“The fellows got used to me after a while, and gave me a pretty good schooling,” she said. She won more races than she lost. “So, I always figured I worked my way through college on horseback.”
In the late 1940s, Russell says, Pratt “got hooked up with the Hollywood bunch because her brother-in-law was Paul Fix, the actor who was a judge in [the movie] To Kill A Mockingbird, and the sheriff on the [television series] Rifleman.”
In 1949, at the Agua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana, Pratt rode in a Powder Puff Derby, which was a race solely for female jockeys. She won aboard a horse named Gyration. Next, she rode in the Girls’ Jockey Championship, as a substitute for jockey Wantha Davis. It was a challenge race against Joyce Goldschmidt, a jockey from Maryland, over 6 furlongs. Each horse carried 130 pounds. In 1950, Pratt won another Powder Puff aboard Razzum. “Lashing her mount with every stride the 5-year-old mare took, Joan overtook the early-pace setter,” wrote a Los Angeles Times reporter.
In 1952, a profile of Pratt called “From Baby Sitter To Horses” appeared in newspapers. It said she was “the first coed who ever ‘worked her way through college’—on horseback!'” “My boy friends look incredulous when I tell them to take me home early because I have a date with a horse at 5 a.m., but I wouldn’t change this life for anything, even though the hours are worse than a longshoreman’s,” Pratt told the reporter.
“She was beginning to get sick when she met my father, the son of a trainer,” Russell says. His name was Russell Trumble Russell. “He nursed her and she got better, and they got married in 1952. They had some nice horses around the time I was born. We had a little 19-foot trailer we all lived in, and things were going OK when she got really sick in 1956. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and given 6 months to live. My father was in the hospital for a year at the same time, with a degenerative spine condition. All the horses had to be sold for medical bills, and we never had a good horse again.”
“Joan did not die,” Russell says. “She became a force of nature. She took thyroid pills, and did not stop galloping horses. I remember a time at Stockton when she was galloping 19 head a day, plus ours. She suffered a lot for her passion. I remember she quit [one] man when he insisted she gallop a two-year-old that was down in the stall, sick.”
“She was just this wild thing who occasionally had to come down to earth because she was sick,” says Russell. “But I can remember no speech about what a hard time it was for a woman on the racetrack. She did not feel she was breaking barriers. They shod the horses themselves, they did their own vet work. She would train a horse for $6 a day. She rode, but at 5’8″, she wasn’t going to be a jockey.”
“She worked hard all through the sixties, with breaks for hospitalization for both of them. In about 1967 she had her throat operated on again, including a tracheotomy to help her breathing. She did not stop galloping horses. She needed suctioning every day, and my job was to help keep her tracheotomy tube clean, and put drops in her eyes at night for her very severe uveitis.”
“Finally, in 1969, she couldn’t go on any more and retired to her mother’s house in Santa Monica. There were more surgeries, and the last left her split open almost ear-to-ear [with] a wound that had to be packed every day. They took out all her lymph nodes and her larynx and some esophagus, and there wasn’t enough skin left to sew together. When the time came for her to die, she wouldn’t. She was paralyzed all over with cancer, but she could still move her eyes. Russell [her husband] taught her Morse code, and they communicated that way at the end. When her digestive organs quit working, she still insisted Russell feed her through her stomach tube. The cancer never could get to her brain,” Russell says. She died in 1969.
“She saw the moon landing,” Russell says, “but never got to see Secretariat.”
Sources, from Newspapers.com
Allan, Frederick. “Here’s A Baby Sitter Who Saved Enough Dollars To Buy A Horse,” Evening Independent [Massilon, Ohio], October 21, 1952, 16
“Girl Jockeys in Border Race,” Los Angeles Times, July 16, 1950, B14
Hoffman, Jeane. “From Baby Sitter To Horses,” Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1952, C3
“Joan Pratt Guides Razzum To ‘Powder’ Win,” Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1950, C4
“Women Jockeys Featured Today,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1950, A14
All photos courtesy of Wendy Russell