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In the Sport of Kings, 18-Year-Old Karen Rogers Is the Reigning Queen

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Karen Rogers is back in the saddle again. It was only nine months ago that the 5’1″, 95-pound teenager, widely touted as the country’s top female jockey, was thrown from her mount, Bal Breeze, at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park. She crushed three vertebrae and her racing future looked bleak.

But five days later, encased in a plaster cast from her neck to her hips, Karen embarked on the arduous climb back to the track. She began a strenuous exercise program that included working out with weights and eventually doing push-ups. Three months later Karen swapped the cast for a brace and by December was riding races again. On January 12 she lost her “bug” (a five-pound allowance granted her as an apprentice jockey), which can be disastrous for a young rider. But Karen has gone on to win 10 more times, bringing her mounts’ earnings over a two-year period to close to $2 million. Her share is 10 percent (of which her agent takes one-quarter). She is still only 18.

In between Karen’s fall and rise, she endured days of intense pain and self-doubt. “I had a lot of bad thoughts,” she recalls, “but once I got back on a horse, it was easy.” Cheering her on were big-time trainers like Bobby Lake and Frank Wright and fellow jockeys Mike Venezia and Jeff Fell. “She ranks right up there with the top male jockeys,” says Lake. “She’s nothing like that Robyn Smith [now Mrs. Fred Astaire], who thought she knew it all.” Adds Venezia, “I think it may be a long time before we have a female jockey as good as Karen.”

The biggest boost, however, came from Angel Cordero, the superstar rider whose flat-out aggressive style Karen admires most. He called her in the hospital and later paid her the ultimate compliment—for a jockey, at least: “She has good hands, a good head and such a good seat that you can’t tell she’s a girl.”

“Being a jockey is all I ever wanted to do,” Karen confesses. The daughter of a high school teacher, she began riding—and breaking bones (an arm)—at the age of 3 at her home in Highland Park, N.J. By 11 she was competing in pony races. When she was 13 her parents divorced. Her mother, now an accomplished racetrack artist, wed Reese Howard, a steeplechase jockey and trainer. He kept thoroughbreds at Monmouth, and Karen, of course, began tagging along. She soon taught herself how to break a horse from the starting gate, now considered one of her strongest points. Karen got her jockey’s license at 16 and won her first race in May 1979, at Pennsylvania’s Keystone track. She graduated from high school four months later, after completing an accelerated program.

Steve Cauthen was her first idol and he remains a heartthrob—a poster of the 20-year-old rider now competing in Britain dominates one wall of Karen’s bedroom. She lives in a three-family house in Elmont, N.Y. with her mother (now separated from Howard) and her sister Alice, 3. Another sister, Jean, 19, is away at college.

By 6 a.m. Karen can be found at nearby Belmont or Aqueduct hustling rides on top horses. Between races she bides her time, usually alone, in the spacious women’s jockey room at Aqueduct.

Karen has set a goal—appearing in the Kentucky Derby. She has little chance this year, but Rogers is in for the long haul. “It’s a 24-hour business,” she says. “I don’t even watch TV. I met Larry Hagman and thought he was the guy in I Dream of Jeannie. That’s how out of touch I am. But I don’t feel I’ve missed out on anything,” she figures. “The person not at the track is the one who’s missing out.”