Robyn Smith, the jockey, invented herself a few years ago so that she could succeed in that role. Few athletes have forfeited more than she has to chase after a dream, to try to live out a little girl's fantasy, for she gave up a good and glamorous life in the pursuit. She changed her style and her habits, she traded in a knockout face and figure for a jockey's stark image, and she discarded her past, pretending almost that she never had one, that she just materialized, walking out of the mist at dawn one morning late in 1968 at Santa Anita. Even her closest friends have no firm idea who she is or where she came from or even, for sure, what her name is. Nor, as she protests, is any of that really important. She has constructed this whole other person, forming her out of perseverance and independence and ambition and talent—and because she likes the new person much more than whoever Robyn Smith was before.
And it has worked. There is nothing there anymore but Robyn Smith, the jockey.
Once she was good looking enough to work seriously toward a Hollywood career, but by now the transformation is so complete that Robyn Smith (see cover) actually looks her prettiest in racing silks. She is 5'7", standing on long, lovely legs, the kind so fine that women envy them; not just the things that men whistle at when a skirt rides high. She has dimples, chestnut hair and eyes the color of twilight that alternately doubt and challenge. Yet seldom does she flatter herself. Usually she wears pants and baggy cardigans, and after them racing silks look positively feminine on her.
She claims her natural weight is around 110, but that is preposterous. A high-fashion model of her height would hardly be that light. Probably Robyn weighed 125 before she became a jockey. She strips at no more than 105 now, is flat-chested and her riding breeches hang down, flapping, off her hips. "Her little rear end is like a couple of ham hocks," says a friend who worries about her. Her face is gaunt and drawn, and life comes to it only from the sun and the freckles on her nose.
She is still pretty, even beautiful in profile (where she does not appear so skinny), but those who knew her when she was just getting into racing shake their heads at the beauty she exchanged for stirrups. These people all say: "You should have seen her then." They all shake their heads and say that. She doesn't seem to care. Barry Ryan, a trainer she knows well, one day said something like, "Robyn, you're just looking awful," and she replied, "Great!" gaily, defiantly.
Yet she is almost paranoid on the subject of photographs she considers unflattering. Something so concrete, so conclusive as a picture perhaps forces her to remember what she was. Otherwise she has no time or inclination for that, except on rare occasions when she suddenly decides that she is giving the wrong impression, that she is sounding too mannish or neuter. Then she pauses and carefully sets the record straight. Like the thin man who is supposed to be yelping to get out of every fat man, there is still a gorgeous, alluring woman inside Robyn Smith, the jockey, and not often, but every now and then this creature tosses her head and sighs.
A newspaper reporter was trying to convince her one day that she should let him ghost her autobiography. Robyn wasn't interested. "Why don't you do one of the other women jockeys—Arline Ditmore or Donna Hillman?" she asked, putting him off.
"Donna Hillman?" he said. "You mean the pretty one?"
Robyn cocked her head and smiled at how silly a man could be. "No, I'm the pretty one," she replied, correctly.
Her retreat from glamour has been largely forced upon her, because even now that she has established herself as one of the better riders in the country, there still are whispered innuendos and snickers whenever a new trainer puts her up on a horse. And the mere threat of gossip costs her work. "This lame excuse I always hear," she says. " 'I'd like to use you, Robyn, but my wife won't let me.' And it's true—not all trainers, of course. But I have trainers' wives come up to me and say sweetly, 'Why, Robyn, we're all just so thrilled you're riding so beautifully and doing so well,' and then I'll hear that these same women behind my back have said, 'That bitch better not come around my husband looking for horses.' I mean, I've actually heard these things.