Kaye Bell, the first female jockey to win at Keeneland when she accomplished the feat in 1972, was back at the track this past week to film parts of a documentary of her life. Filming will include an interview with former Keeneland President James E. “Ted Bassett III, whom Bell credits as an exceptional supporter during her jockey and training careers.
“I love coming to Lexington to reunite with all my childhood friends,” she said.
While in the Lexington area, Bell mingled with those longtime buddies and newer friends, including Sophie Doyle, the most recent woman jockey to win at Keeneland when she was victorious on Oct. 19.
Growing up in Lexington, Bell participated in horse shows, some of which were held at Keeneland. She rode a variety of horses, including one that became the gateway to the race track. The mare was a retired racer, and Bell transitioned her into a show ring jumper. The Thoroughbred’s former trainer, Doug Davis – a leading Keeneland trainer at the time – was so impressed that he recruited Bell to ride Thoroughbreds at his farm.
In an era when women were not welcomed in race track barn areas, Bell ventured at age 19 to Aiken, South Carolina, to ride for eventual Hall of Famer Mack Miller. Bell migrated with the Miller crew when they returned to Belmont Park, where her main role was breezing stakes runners. Her mounts included a nearly undefeated South African-born colt imported to tackle America’s top turf races named *Hawaii (the asterisk was used to denote him as foreign-bred.) Thanks in part to Bell’s skills, *Hawaii was named America’s champion grass horse of 1969.
Speedy workouts aboard *Hawaii and his stablemates sparked Bell’s interest to become a jockey. She returned to Keeneland and started riding races for Davis, who trained her historic first winner: 17-1 longshot Nashota in the fourth race on April 14, 1972. Bell used Keeneland’s first aid room as her dressing room.
Bell was a jockey sparingly for only about 1½ years partly because her petite muscular build made her too heavy. She turned to training Thoroughbreds in 1973 and traveled the country to various tracks. In 1990, she took up residence in Southern California for about 20 years. She worked in the movie industry, including gigs as a stunt rider, and in race track publicity. She settled back in the Lexington area for a decade before returning to California two years ago.
“The fact that I am the first woman to win a race at Keeneland as a jockey makes it a special place in my heart,” she said. “One of my favorite spots is the quarter pole (at the top of the stretch) because that is where I learned I could win or lose a race.”
Despite changing her lifestyle, Bell said she never really left the track.
“You can take the woman out of the race track but you can’t take the race track out of the woman,” she said.