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Equestrian Prowess You Can Bet On

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Her face is caked in mud, but C.C. Perkinson is smiling. Is she modeling the latest facial mask? Hardly, though she has the skin, the looks and the smile for it.

There is nothing subtle about the application of this mud “mask.” It was kicked into her face by a pack of 1,200-pound horses muscling their way toward the finish line. We’re talking slimy, grimy mud, from the home stretch at Los Alamitos racetrack.

Perkinson, 31, wears crusting crud proudly. Like any professional horse jockey, she is committed, competitive, determined and, not least of all, talented. By all accounts, this 5-foot-1 athlete has the right stuff. But as with most professional sports arenas, the racetrack is male-dominated turf. Perkinson’s tack is to let her talent speak for itself.

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Perkinson remembers one run-in with a horse owner who had “attitude.” The horse was one she hadn’t ridden before, but she won the race convincingly. Afterward, she couldn’t resist making a comment. “Is that what you had in mind?” she recalls saying, erupting with a contagious laugh.

Despite the odds, the atmosphere is improving for women jockeys, Perkinson believes. And she is betting on her own abilities. Why else would she settle in at Santa Anita, home to the top 10 jockeys in the country?

A former show-horse rider who grew up in Texas and Washington, Perkinson first stepped foot into racing stirrups when she was 27. Most jockeys grow up around horse racing, so starting a career at that age might seem like a long shot. However, the transition from the show ring to the racetrack was a natural one for Perkinson.

“She has Willie Shoemaker hands,” says trainer Jude Feld, referring to one of the winningest jockeys of all time. “She’s probably the most talented woman who’s ridden for me. She has a great mind, a terrific personality and she gets along with owners--which is really important.”

Perkinson is perhaps her own biggest hawker. Walking among the barns at Santa Anita, wearing her helmet and boots and carrying a whip, she shakes hands and greets nearly everyone in sight, flashing a grin that could sell toothpaste.

Horse racing is “so much PR,” Perkinson says. And unlike most jockeys, she doesn’t have an agent. She would, she says, if she could find someone who worked as hard for her as she does. Even when running morning workouts, she has a cell phone hooked to her belt, with the numbers of trainers, owners and other race contacts preprogrammed.

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“Besides, when I hit the dirt I can call 911,” she says, following up her joke with a laugh.

Anyone who tries to write off this tough turf woman might find himself eating dust. While most riders gallop horses for four to five years before they even earn a jockey’s license, Perkinson got hers a year after she first climbed aboard a racehorse. She immediately introduced herself to owners and trainers--and it didn’t hurt that she took first and second places in her first two races.

While Perkinson has a way with people, perhaps even more importantly, she has a way with horses.

“She gets on and starts talking to them, petting them, and pretty soon their ears perk up,” says Feld.

While some consider strength an advantage, Perkinson--whose grip could stop a Clydesdale--has a natural instinct for the sensitivity of a horse’s mouth.

“Some guys will intimidate and overpower a filly. I like to let them feel this is their day,” she says, “then they’ll run their eyeballs out for you.”

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Jockeys and trainers agree that one good horse can put a rider on the map. For now, Perkinson, an apprentice, is working on getting the good mounts by raising her percentages. Last year at Los Alamitos she had the highest win percentage in the jockey standings. She also races at Santa Anita, Del Mar, Turf Paradise and Stockton (where, on opening day last week, she took first place on a long shot).

Asked about the dangers of her sport, Perkinson says she’s “practiced” falling off horses since she was a kid. She did have one mishap recently, she says, when a fatigued horse crossed his feet at the finish line.

“I went right over his head, taking the bridle with me,” she says. “I hit the ground and came up like a yo-yo. He ran over me, stepped on my chest.”

But she got up, still holding the bridle. The first words out of her mouth?

“Did we win?”

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