For most women with six children and six grandchildren, the next step in their life includes things like retirement and relaxation. But for Sherry Kirk, there will be no baking cakes, sewing, or taking strolls on the beach. Those things can wait another 20 years. For now, she is just getting started on the second half of her riding career.
Kirk, dubbed the “galloping granny” by some, is a 50-year-old jockey currently riding at River Downs near Cincinnati. Though she has been riding horses since she was 4 years old and has been a professional jockey since age 21, Kirk took a long hiatus to raise her children and grandchildren. She is now making up for lost time.
“I have a lot more riding in me. I’d like to ride for six, seven, even 10 more years,” said Kirk, who also has her trainer’s license. “I love horses. People who meet me don’t believe I’m 50. I’m fit and strong. After River ends, I’m going to make my way over to Beulah for their meet.”
Kirk grew up around horses in Montana, where her father, Lonnie Gray, was a trainer on several western circuits. He took Sherry to the track every chance he got.
“I had a Shetland pony when I was 4,” Kirk recalled. “I loved horses from then on. I was never much around the house. I always wanted to be with Dad.”
When Kirk was 12, the family moved to West Virginia so her father could train at the former Waterford Park, now Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort. It was there he taught Kirk the tricks of the trade.
“I started breaking horses and galloping when I was 12,” Kirk said. “Dad taught me to handle the tough ones. He was a master at it.”
When she was 21, Kirk began riding professionally, despite the challenges of being a woman in an industry comprised mostly of men. She drew her inspiration from trailblazers Patty Barton and Pinkie Smith, both pioneers as female jockeys.
“I used to babysit for (Barton) when I was a teenager,” Kirk said. “She taught me a lot. It was pretty rough being a woman rider back then. But I did OK. I remember my first winner was on a horse named Kingston Three at Waterford in 1981. I rode him for Glenn Phillips. He paid $162 to win. After that, it came easy. I won 100 races the first six months as a bug.”
Under her then married name Sherry Welsh, Kirk rode for much of the next decade at tracks all over the East and Midwest. Sometimes she would ride at Thistledown during the day and drive to Waterford for its night card.
“I rode the ones none of the boys wanted to ride, the mean ones,” Kirk said. “I rode a lot of longshot winners.”
After divorcing, remarrying in 1990, and relocating to Northern California, Kirk, who had two kids from a previous marriage, stayed busy raising four more children. There would be no more professional riding during the next 15 years, but she always stayed close to horses.
“We had a ranch, and people used to bring their horses over for me to break,” Kirk said. “I also gave riding lessons to kids on the weekends.”
In 2004 at age 47, Kirk decided to return to the track. She moved to Oregon to ride at Portland Meadows, then to Arizona to ride Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds at Turf Paradise and at several county fair meets.
Despite shattering her leg during a frightening spill in August 2007 that put her out of commission for more than a year, Kirk came back for more. Last year she decided to move back East.
“I’m making my way back to Mountaineer where it all started,” said Kirk, who lives in a dorm at River Downs. “I haven’t got there yet, but I will eventually.”