Marion Bartoli, Miss Cougar And Girls Gone Wild

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This month’s edition of sexism in sports is brought to you by Insider Louisville, the BBC, Hollywood Park, and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

Back in April, Insider Louisville published what was meant, according to the author, to be a paean to the female turf writer, an admiring salute to the women on the Churchill Downs backstretch who pounded the pavement to get the story in the days before the Kentucky Derby.

The song of praise hit a sour note, though, with such phrases to describe the turf-writing professionals as “the estrogen posse” and “girls gone wild,” in a few keystrokes reducing them to no more than their hormones and comparing them to intoxicated females who bared their breasts to a predatory manipulator. Professional accomplishments the equivalent of pornography? How many people read that sentence and thought it a wise editorial choice to publish it?

Live radio offers no such opportunity for editorial oversight, as BBC listeners discovered when tennis commentator John Inverdale mused aloud following Marion Bartoli’s Wimbledon championship, “’I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5ft 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.’”

Reaction was, predictably and laudably, fast, furious and overwhelmingly negative, spurring hundreds of complaints to the venerable broadcasting company. Inverdale offered, predictably and laughably, a non-apology apology “if any offence was caused.”  The BBC declined to take any action beyond issuing an official disapproval of Inverdale’s comments.

Back to these shores and the racing world: Del Mar, the southern California racetrack “where the turf meets the surf,” opens on July 17. A boutique summer meet, its opening day is one of the most anticipated on the racing calendar, the track’s emphasis on style and socializing luring tens of thousands of decked-out beautiful people to watch and wager on the races.

A recent Del Mar tradition is its Miss Cougar contest.  A champion racehorse in the 70’s who was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2006, Cougar II was known for his “versatility and stamina,” attributes shared, apparently, by the 35+ female crowd the racetrack is courting with its contest.

A race named for Cougar II will be run on Friday, July 26, the same day that the contest winner will be announced.

“Though the day’s focus will be on….horses covering 12 furlongs to honor a fellow runner who made it to racing’s Hall of Fame, there will be others on the prowl vying for the crowd’s attention that afternoon. Del Mar’s charmed and charming cougars, a fun-loving staple at the seaside oval, will give and take delight in the opportunity to compete for honors and a crown…”

Interested parties can submit a photo and a one-sentence explanation as to why she should be named Miss Cougar; neither athletic (perhaps Cougar II’s namesake could actually, you know, run a race?) nor intellectual (to write anything beyond a sentence) ability is a prerequisite to win.

And finally, also from California, comes the story of jockey Kayla Stra, banned from breastfeeding her newborn in the female jockeys’ room at Hollywood Park by the track’s stewards, who reportedly told Stra that she had to decide whether she wanted to be a mother or a jockey.

The California Horse Racing Board swiftly stepped in, decreeing, in a welcome wave of straightforward common sense:

“Kayla Stra’s baby can be in the jocks’ room. Her nanny can be with the baby. And both the mother and the nanny can do all the things they need to do. The CHRB will not tolerate discrimination in any form against anyone for any reason. No special rooms. No one goes to the back of the damn bus. Period. In order for a new mother to do her job, certain accommodations need to be made. We clearly do not have a nursery at any of our race tracks, and I don’t expect them to be constructed any time soon. Not only can a jockey also be a mother, I’d like to encourage women to consider the possibility and the profession. It is the right thing to do and it is good business.”

Kayla Stra rides 1,200-pound animals at 35 miles an hour; Marion Bartoli won one of sport’s most coveted titles; the women turf writers are well-respected, award-winning journalists. They have, as the 70’s-era saying goes, come a long way, baby. It’s too bad the men talking about them are having such a hard time keeping up.

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