By Greg Douglas – Dr. Sport
SCENE & HEARD: There was a time, not terribly long ago, when ladies were not welcome in drinking establishments unless they were escorted by a gentleman; service clubs refused to register female members and women were not allowed to wear slacks in trendy restaurants.
Or in Mary Cowan’s case, aspiring female jockeys were forbidden to gallop horses at the same time male riders were on the racetrack. Some tracks even forbade women from saddling their own horses.
In the 1960’s, it was known as gender segregation and employment discrimination.
But there was no stopping Mary. She and her husband Charlie met at Assiniboia Racetrack in Winnipeg and galloped horses together prior to both of them acquiring trainer’s licences. Mary had been a show jumper in England in her teenage years and her love of riding led her to being the first female jockey in Canada, a career that began right here at Hastings which was then Exhibition Park. The year was 1969 and she was one of three women riders in all of North America.
Mary Cowan passed away at the age of 82 on May 29 of this year at the Delta View Care Centre in Ladner following a lengthy illness.
“Mom faced a lot of obstacles in her early days as a jockey that would be unheard of today,” says Charlene Miller, an accomplished trainer at Hastings who went into this season with 1,400 career starts to her credit. “We’re planning a family Celebration of Life in July and a race in her honour on September 15, her birthday.”
Charlene’s sister Marilyn was taught her mom’s unique way of bandaging horses and when word spread throughout the barns, numerous trainers surfaced in need of the mother-daughter combo’s expertise.
“Mom’s touch was golden,” says Marilyn. “Everything she did, she did well. She competed with recognized basketball and softball teams and played the guitar, piano and organ. But her real love was the horses.”
Neither gender segregation nor employment discrimination was going to stop Mary Cowan in the ‘60s from realizing her dream of becoming a professional jockey. The first, as we now know, in Canadian racing history.