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With run at ND Horse Park this weekend, Sofie Barandela hoping to inspire more women to become jockeys

The Mexico native was the first woman to run at the Fargo racecourse since 2014, and before her run on Saturday, less than five women had competed at the track since it was built in 2002

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Jockey Sofie Barandela crosses the finish line at North Dakota Horse Park aboard Youwonderwhyidrink, a 6-year-old Thoroughbred trained and owned by Lexon Backhaus, Saturday, July 23, 2022. Wendy Reuer/The Forum
Wendy Reuer
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FARGO — There are two key characteristics a person needs in order to be a horse jockey.

"You have to have passion and no fear."

Those are the words of Sofie Barandela, an apprentice jockey based at Minnesota's Canterbury Park outside of the Twin Cities.

With racing at Canterbury idle this weekend, the Mexico native made the 3-hour, 40-minute drive to Fargo for two races at the North Dakota Horse Park this weekend.

It was a historic feat of sorts, one Barandela wasn't aware of until after the fact. She was the first female jockey to race the Fargo course in eight years.

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Tiff Mosset was the last woman to race at the Horse Park in 2014. Before Barandela's run this weekend, less than five women have ever competed at the track since it was built in 2002.

"Maybe it's about people telling you, 'Don't go there, it's dangerous.' But everywhere is dangerous," Barandela said. "I've seen horses broken down in California and people getting hurt there. Maybe it's about circumstances and you didn't know this racetrack existed."

Those are two reasonable answers as to why more women haven't shown out, but another key component to the issue is that there aren't many female jockeys partaking in the sport.

A 2018 study conducted by the Thoroughbred Horseracing Industries MBA program at the University of Liverpool showed that only 11.3% of professional jockey licenses were held by women at the time. This is vastly opposite from the equestrian industry as a whole, which is female-dominant with 77.4% of women partaking in equestrian.

Being the first woman to compete at the Horse Park since 2014 caught Barandela by surprise.

"Proud of me? Yes. Disappointing because of the (lack of) other women? Maybe," Barandela said.

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Jockey Sofie Barandela is one of a handful of women to ride at the North Dakota Horse Park. She rode Youwonderwhyidrink, a 6-year-old Thoroughbred in the third race, Saturday, July 23, 2022. Wendy Reuer / The Forum
Wendy Reuer/The Forum

Barandela earned a second-place finish Saturday in a six-furlong maiden claiming race atop the Thoroughbred 'Youwonderwhyidrink.' On Sunday, she'll run seven furlongs in the Rachelle Backhaus Memorial event with Thoroughbred 'Yak.' Both horses are trained and owned by Lexon Backhaus.

Barandela said her experience in Fargo has been top-notch so far.

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"We arrived with the trailer and the sky was beautiful," she said. "It was amazing, it smells good and people seem happy. It seems like a friendly place.

"I'm always very professional. I don't care if I ride a Triple Crown or I ride here, I respect the horses, the public and the trainers as much as everybody else. And the crowd is great. Everybody has been very nice. So, so far so good."

An apprentice jockey is one who recently started riding and looks to move up the ladder toward earning their professional jockey license.

Barandela started riding last September. She moved to the United States in what she deemed a "leap of faith" in continuing her equestrian career.

"I started riding a year ago in Rock Springs (Wyo.)," Barandela said. "A friend there — who passed away — was an agent and he called me and said he knew I wanted to be a jockey. I was in California galloping, but it was about time for me to start riding, so he called me. So I took my bags and drove all the way to Wyoming to see how he was. I started riding there, it went good and then I went to Colorado. We finished the last two or three weekends and then I said, 'Well, I want to continue, I like it.' So I went to Phoenix and I was riding Monday through Friday, then an agent contacted me from Canterbury in Minnesota, so I went there. I know it's tough to break in, I'm not riding much yet, but I'm riding."

Barandela began galloping in her native country of Mexico in 2013 and has been all over the world since then, earning her degree in veterinary studies in Germany.

"I was born and raised in Mexico and my dad is Spanish," she said. "I was living five years in Germany and I was just raised in Mexico with horses. I always rode show jumpers and dressage and whatever else — just horses. My Mexican grandpa had race horses, but he never allowed us to go to the racetrack or nothing. So I studied animal medicine and I'm a certified vet, and I went back to Germany to finish my studies. I had the opportunity to stay in Germany to work as a vet or go back to Mexico and ride in Mexico.

"So in 2013, I started galloping in Mexico to learn, and then I rode a couple of races in Mexico. I won one and then I went back to Germany. I was galloping all over Europe in France, Germany, England, Spain — and I never rode, so that's why I took a leap of faith and came to this country. I was in California just learning and I galloped wonderful horses. I could've gotten comfortable traveling and galloping until (my friend) called me and said, 'Hey, you're in this country to ride races, not to be a galloper all your life.' So that's kind of the journey."

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Apprentice jockeys have one year of apprenticeship from the year they win their fifth race.

Barandela has six career first-place finishes in 162 career starts, including three wins in 118 starts in 2022.

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Jockey Sofie Barandela aboard Youwonderwhyidrink, tries to catch Missen the Point and jockey Larren Deloreme during race 3, Saturday, July 23, 2022. Wendy Reuer / The Forum
Wendy Reuer/The Forum

Asked why she thinks the gender gap within the sport is so wide, Barandela noted the fact that women were forbidden from entering the sport for a long time. It was in 1968 when Olympian Kathy Kusner became the first licensed female jockey in the U.S. after the Maryland Racing Commission originally denied her application based on gender. Kusner was the first female to medal in equestrian competition at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972.

"In the past it was forbidden," Barandela said. "So we've been working our way into the industry. There's still the thought that women are less strong than men. Sadly, it's still a male-dominant sport, so we still have to fight with that. I know we're built different, but some horses run better for female jockeys. It doesn't matter how strong you are. And some horses — that's the trainer's job. Even as a rider, you can say, 'This horse is too strong for me.' But that doesn't mean we don't have an advantage. Some horses relax better with us and they run better. It's not always about strength, it's about soft hands and understanding and communication with the horse."

Barandela said she hopes to see more young women pursue a career as a jockey one day.

"I hope more women get inspired," she said. "I want little girls to know they can do it if they want to. The idea that women aren't strong enough is false. So many horses run better for us so we have an advantage there.

"As long as you have passion — because this is hard. You have to deal with people. But once you're on the horse, you don't care. Be constantly disciplined and ask how bad you want it. Because there are going to be more challenges and more dark spots than good ones, but the good ones are bigger than the bad. Some days you feel drained or sick or whatever — but you still have to wake up, go there and run. Be constantly disciplined and never quit, and believe in yourself because the horse feels everything you carry with you."

Action from the North Dakota Horse Park in Fargo continues Sunday with one more weekend of racing scheduled for July 30-31. For more information, visit hrnd.org.

Ryan Spitza joined The Forum in December 2021 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Marquette, Mich., a city of 20,000 on the southern shore of Lake Superior. He majored in multimedia journalism and minored in public relations at Northern Michigan University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in May 2019. While attending college, Spitza gained real-world experience covering high school and college athletics for both The Mining Journal and The North Wind.

Spitza can be reached at 701-451-5613 or rspitza@forumcomm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryspitza.
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