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On Dec. 1, a longshot wired the field in the final race on a cold day at Hawthorne Park, but it wasn’t seven-and-a-half length winner Wildwood Pegasus. The longshot was jockey Sylvia Harris, who overcame two decades of hardship to capture her first career victory at the age of 40 and became a part of horse racing history.
Aside from scoring her initial victory at an age when many riders are retiring, Harris also made headlines by becoming one of only a handful of female African-American jockeys in the United States to win a Thoroughbred race.
"It was the best," Harris said a few days after the race. "It was almost as if time stood still; like I was in a time warp. I started to cry. I leaned over and kissed the horse. It was a dream come true, a dream that took 30 years to fulfill. I’m 40 now and my prayers were finally answered.
"I worked with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and learned that we are not promised one minute, so take advantage of every one that you have. I will savor that moment forever."
If Harris’ comments seem a little cheesy or a bit over-the-top, you won’t think so after learning about the obstacles she overcame to complete her lifelong dream, including mental illness and homelessness, for a brief time.
Harris’ story began in Sonoma County, Calif., where her love of horses developed during visits with her father to Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows. Harris says she knew then that she wanted to be a jockey.
"I remember leaning over the fence and watching them run," Harris recalled. "I was enthralled."
Life had other plans for Harris, however. Discouraged by her parents from pursuing a career in horse racing, she forgot about becoming a jockey and instead went to college. After two years of school she had the first of her three children and was forced to support a family as a single mother.
For the next 20 years Harris’ life was a difficult one. She spent most of the time between Virginia and Florida, working a variety of odd jobs to support herself and her family. Some of the jobs involved horses, including working at a rescue farm and as a temporary groom, but none involved riding and none paid well. Eventually she had to rely on welfare.
Harris says many of her problems stemmed from bipolar disorder, which she was diagnosed with at age 19. Battling with the depressive side of her condition, Harris said, made her unable to care for her children and hold a steady job. In 1999, Harris hit rock bottom, finding herself in Orlando, with no money and nowhere to live.
"I was homeless for two months," Harris said. "I lived out of my car. It was awful. For the first time I didn’t have any family around me. I just didn’t care anymore. Really, the only thing I cared about was who was serving lunch at the nearest soup kitchen."
Harris said things began looking up later that year after she met a local pastor who helped to get her back on her feet. A couple of years later, in 2002, she was introduced to Elmer Heubeck, Jr., a pioneer in the Florida Thoroughbred industry. Heubeck owned Quail Roost Farm in Citra, Fla., and was in search of a groom.
"I went down there and applied for the groom job, but I also told him I wanted to ride, even though I still had never been on a horse, and I was 35 years old," Harris said. "He hired me as a groom and I moved in. But he also taught me to ride and gave me a shot. I learned a lot, but unfortunately, he passed away six months later and then his wife died six weeks after that. They shut the farm down."
Harris got more experience riding at the Robert Scanlon Training Center in Williston and later moved to West Virginia where she received an exercise riding license at Charles Town. In 2005, her roller-coaster journey took her to Chicago.
"I was on my way up to Canada because I had heard that they were in need of jockeys, but I got stranded," Harris recalled. "I had $55 to my name and couldn’t make it. Somebody told me to go to Arlington Park. I wound up meeting (trainer) Bettye Gabriel and galloped for her the last two years. With her help, I was able to get steady work and my own apartment. I finally got my bug license this year, too."
Gabriel, who has been a Chicago-based trainer for more than 30 years, recalled meeting Harris for the first time in 2005.
"She didn’t have any money and was down on her luck," Gabriel said. "She was looking to breeze horses so that she could get her (jockeys) license. She was very sweet and kind, and everybody needs a chance, so I gave her some work. She was a very hard worker and had a gentle hand with the horses."
Harris rode in her first race Thoroughbred race during the Arlington summer meet this year, during which she got all of three mounts, none of which finished in the money. But when the Hawthorne meet began this fall she was introduced to another trainer, Charlie Bettis, who gave her more of an opportunity. Mainly galloping horses for Bettis at first, Harris was offered the occasional mount, more as a favor to her so that she could keep her head above water.
One of the mounts that Harris got was Wildwood Pegasus. On Nov. 7, she guided the 4–year-old gelding to a third-place finish. Wildwood Pegasus had been winless in seven starts since owner Kenneth Fishbein had claimed him in May.
"I think they appreciated my ride and decided to give me another ride on him," Harris said. "But the day before the (winning) race, three riders went down at Hawthorne and I got really scared. I’m still learning how to ride, and I’m definitely not polished. I know every day is a risk. I had to rely on my faith.
"I decided that I wasn’t going to stop riding until I got at least one winning picture."
It happened Dec. 1 on just her 17th mount, putting Harris in the same company as Cheryl White, who in the early 1970s became the first African-American female jockey in the United States to win a race.
Harris gives a lot of credit for her success to Charlie and Janelle Bettis, and Ken Fishbein, because of the faith they had in her.
"That was a blessing. That was all I needed," she said. "If I don’t win another race, that one win was enough for me. I don’t need to be a jockey. I’ve proved that I can do this and it has given me confidence. I’d like to keep riding for as long as I can, but my goal is to be an assistant trainer. I’m at peace.
"I also realize the historical significance aspect of this," Harris said." I’m the first (female, African-American jockey) to win at Hawthorne and that makes me proud. I hope this can inspire someone else."