It is a chill December night at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, where recent rains have muddied the track. Jockeys stream into the jocks' room after the third race, wiping ruddy, dirt-splattered faces on vibrantly colored sleeves. Last comes Gwen Jocson, who yanks off her canary-yellow cap as she enters. Her face is spanking clean, her cheeks rosy. She wears an impish grin as she describes the race, a $5,000 maiden claimer, as if it were the Kentucky Derby. Her voice rises with each phrase, and a slight Southern accent creeps in as her speech accelerates.
"Man, I did win by a lot," Jocson says, watching the replay of her 10 Vi-length victory on a television screen by the scale. "I just glanced up at the matrix board, and it didn't even show me." By the time Jocson and her 2-year-old filly, Ms. Cormorant, got to the straight, they were far ahead of the field. "I'm glad they didn't show me, because I was whipping and driving her the whole way, and I win by 20," she says, gleefully exaggerating the margin of victory.
By now other jockeys are giving Jocson a hard time for riding all out when she had the race won. "You can't see the matrix board until you're almost at it," she says. "When I looked up, I saw one horse in front and two back, and I panicked. I just didn't hear anything, which sometimes does happen to you. I thought, There's somebody there,' so I kept cracking the whip." Jocson thought the two horses were right behind her, but in fact, she was so far ahead that the board was showing the race for second place.
"When you're out in front by 10, you know you've got the race won. That's a great feeling, but when you win by 10, it's the horse. If you win by this much," Jocson says, holding her index finger a half inch from her thumb, "sometimes it's the jock. If you consider everything you did in that race, every bit of ground you saved, every move you made, everything you thought of, and you win by that much, then you made the difference."
Jocson, 26, made the difference in enough races last year to finish with 376 wins. That placed her first for 1991 among all apprentice jockeys (over Eclipse Award winner Mickey Walls, who had 285), first among women riders (over veteran Julie Krone, who had 230 wins) and third among all jocks in North America (trailing only Pat Day's 430 and Russell Baez's 412). By the time Jocson completed her apprenticeship, losing the "bug"—the five-pound weight allowance for first-year jockeys—last Sept. 17, she had won 260 races, 29 more than the second-leading apprentice in North America. This made Jocson the first woman to become the leading apprentice race-winner and a finalist for the Eclipse Award for outstanding apprentice in North America. She finished second in the Eclipse voting to Walls, a 17-year-old Canadian who was the No. 1 apprentice money winner. Still, that was but a minor disappointment for the resilient Jocson.
She has overcome loneliness, poverty, spinal surgery, heartache, an unhappy situation at home and prejudices against women in the largely male world of horse racing. Sadie Cook, Jocson's mom, says, "She had to make it all on her own. It was a million-to-one shot."
Gwen Jocson was born in Charleston, S.C., as were her mother and her grandmother and her great-grandmother before her. She grew up on nearby John's Island in the South Carolina low country, among salt rivers, creeks and farmland, in a region enveloped by a sick-sweet smell of decay—the scent of tomatoes rotting on the vine, cow pastures, low tides and ocean breezes. She has fond memories of languid days spent with aunts, uncles and cousins, of singing and laughing, and vivid recollections of the food: buckets of shrimp pulled from the creeks and crabs hauled in on strings baited with chicken necks.
Cook's marriage to Ed Jocson, Gwen's father, was a stormy one, and after 10 years Cook divorced him. By then Gwen was nine and had a four-year-old brother, Jerry. Cook then married David Powers, a medic in the Army. The family moved from John's Island and traveled to various Army bases for the next three years before going back to John's Island. When Gwen returned to the same Catholic grade school she had attended three years before, the other children treated her as an outsider.
Each day after school she would go straight home. No sports, no friends. "I wasn't allowed; my [step]father was really strict; he just thought it was better if we came home," she says.
Wandering down the road from her house one afternoon, the 15-year-old Gwen came across a horse trailer going down a side road in the woods and followed it to a farm, where she discovered horses grazing in a 10-acre field. "I'd always get them to come to the fence by giving them apples or carrots or something," she says. "I'd jump on them, and eventually I got caught."