Arguably the most famous female jockey of all time, she’s had a voracious appetite for victory, and for even greater challenges out of the saddle, since the day she was born.
It’s been almost 25 years, but Donna Barton Brothers still vividly remembers watching her first Kentucky Derby in person. The emotional experience hasn’t been diminished by the years, and she can’t discuss that day, that race, that horse, without her eyes welling up.
Winning Colors, the third (and last) filly in Derby history to win this prestigious race, was a massive gray horse, bigger and more athletically built than many of the colts in the field. She and jockey Gary Stevens took the lead out of the gate and held it to the wire, earning her the respect of virtually everyone involved in horse racing.
And when Brothers thinks back, calling that day’s events a pure display of “girl power,” it’s easy to see that part of what makes the memory so emotional are the parallels to her own life.
Triumphing in a sport dominated by males, Brothers holds the distinct honor of retiring as the second-winningest female jockey by money earned in history (second only to best friend Julie Krone). Her fearlessness, moxie and self-determination have earned her the respect of her peers and helped her parlay an incredibly successful riding career into an equally impressive correspondent job with NBC Sports and TVG.
Viewers of the Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes will recognize Brothers as the inquisitive, dynamic, petite blond navigating on horseback following each race to speak with the winning jockeys still astride their victorious mounts. She possesses an apparently natural gift for bridging the divide between those "in the know" and the average viewer.
Her love for the sport is obvious in her coverage of the races, yet nowhere is her inclusive approach more evident than in her conversational and chummy new book, Inside Track: Insider’s Guide To Horse Racing. In it, Brothers pulls back the curtain on the rarefied and often intimidating world of horse racing, leaving novices better educated on everything from what to wear on race day to how, and when, to bet.
Speaking with Brothers inside the cavernous Belmont Park (N.Y.) mere hours before 2012 Triple Crown hopeful I’ll Have Another is scratched from the Stakes, it quickly becomes clear why she’s achieved such a level of success—she’s focused and confident with a mischievous and quick sense of humor. The trajectories of her career paths are eclectic, but her desire to fully understand—to examine and dissect—is her intellectual fingerprint and marks all of her endeavors.
God, I Hate This
Brothers, now 46, grew up in a family of jockeys. Her mother, Patti Barton Browne, with whom she is still incredibly close, began riding in 1969 and was one of the first licensed female jockeys. Brothers’ two siblings followed suit, but she was never that horse-crazy girl who was dying to ride— she had no desire to follow in her family’s footsteps. In fact, she had every intention of not becoming a jockey.
“I think I just took the horses for granted,” Brothers admits. “It was quite easy and very mundane for me.”
Brothers’ parents divorced when she was a year old, and she was never close to her father, a farrier and rough stock rider on the rodeo circuit. She’s unsentimental as she recalls being forced to visit him one summer when she was 10 years old. It did little to change her mind about horses, or her father.
“He was an alcoholic and a horse shoer, which meant we had to go to the barn in the morning. I’m not very big now; you can imagine how I was at 10. But I would have to hold the horses for him. ‘Stand in front of that son-of-a-bitch,’ was code for, ‘I’m about to hit him up under his belly with my rasp, and he’s going to run you over,’ ” she says with a laugh. “And you wonder why I wasn’t romantic about horses? I was thinking, ‘God, I hate this.’ ”
The middle child of three, Brothers was an excellent student.
“School was really easy for me, and my brother and sister weren’t very good at school. I grew up in this house, and I felt like, ‘There are two different choices. I can maximize the potential of my brain, or I can follow my stupid brother and sister,’ ” she jokes.
Brothers decided she wanted to go to college, but the problem with being the first in your family to try something new is that there’s no one to show you the ropes. No one reminded her to take the SATs or tour college campuses. And though she was incredibly bright, (she finished high school in three years, despite having attended seven schools in 11 years as she and her siblings followed their peripatetic mother to different racetracks) Brothers soon faced the dilemma of how to make enough money to pay for college.
“Mom’s rules were pretty clear. As long as we were going to school, we could live for free, but once we stopped, we had to pay rent or move out. And by that time, Mom had married her fifth husband, and I thought, ‘I am so out of here!’ ” she recalls, laughing.
It was then that Brothers decided to turn to the thing she knew best—the racetrack. She started as a groom but quickly came to understand that it would never pay enough to cover the cost of college, much less provide the adequate time needed to attend.
So she learned to gallop horses. And her world expanded.
“Once I started galloping horses for a living, one, it was a pretty decent living, and two, it gave me the freedom to go anywhere!” she says. “Now I could travel!”