July 31, 1972
Robyn Smith doesn't like doing things halfway. When she became a jockey in 1969, she wanted to be not only the best female jockey but also the best jockey, period. Of winning, she said, "Nothing makes me happier." It didn't matter that no other woman had gone where she wanted to go. It didn't matter that the media wanted to focus on her appearance (she looked like a fashion model) rather than how she rode. If anything, the challenges she faced as a "girl" jockey appealed to her love of competition. Despite the difficulty she had getting respect, an agent and mounts, by '72 she was the top American-born jockey—of either gender—at Aqueduct Racetrack, where her winning percentage that year was second only to Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero's.
On Jan. 1, 1973, at Santa Anita, Smith was preparing for her first mount of the year when a friend introduced her to Fred Astaire, 46 years her senior. Astaire asked whether he should put money on her horse, Exciting Devorcee, and Smith assured him it was a bad idea. He paid no heed, and when the horse beat Willie Shoemaker's mount by a nose, Smith had won her first race at Santa Anita, Astaire had won his wager on a long shot, and the seeds of a great romance had been planted. "I used to kid him and say, 'Oh, you fell in love with me when I won that race,' " says Robyn. In '80 she became Robyn Smith Astaire, and within four months she had left the horse racing circuit to spend more time with her new husband and because Fred was concerned for her safety.
When Fred died in 1987, Robyn wondered what was next. Although she has tenaciously, and at times controversially, tried to control the use of her husband's image—her efforts helped lead to the recent passage of a California law limiting the use of deceased celebrities' likenesses—she still needed to satisfy her own competitive urges. "I didn't know what I was going to do with the rest of my life because I'd always been active," says Robyn. "I'm not one to sit home and eat potato chips and watch soap operas." After getting career counseling, she decided to become a helicopter pilot, and flying became her new passion. She started in choppers, worked her way up to jets and now works as a corporate pilot. Though she claims nothing will ever take the place of riding thoroughbreds, flying comes close. "All I did was substitute more horsepower by switching from thoroughbred racehorses to big turbine engines," says Robyn, 55, who has not remarried. "I love to go fast. I love that force, whether it's out of a gate or in the air."