Born To Ride
Born in New Mexico in 1966, Barton had riding in her blood. Her mother, Patti Barton Browne, raced over 1,200 thoroughbred winners during her pioneering 15-year career as a woman jockey that began in 1969 after the job of jockey was made open to female equestrians. Barton's younger brother Jerry and older sister Leah also worked as jockeys. While growing up, Barton and her family were often on the road because her mother worked as a truck driver and trick rider and her father, Charlie Barton, rode the rodeo circuit. She attended seven schools, then completed high school in three years by taking correspondence courses.
Continuing her education by attending college was a bigger goal for Barton than following the family tradition, and at age 18 she left home and moved to Louisville to see what she could make of her life. As a teen she had worked as a groom at local stables, and realized that she would never be able to earn the money for college tuition unless she could find a job that would pay well. Barton thought she had found that job exercising horses for Kentucky trainer Jack van Berg, but found that even on a trainer's salary she would never be able to afford school.
Barton almost considered working as a trainer, but decided that work as a jockey would provide the opportunity to make big money—jockeys are paid ten percent of the purse winnings. With her experience and diminutive stature, the five-foot-three-inch, 102-pound Barton knew she had what it would take. She decided to take on a few races, figuring she'd make some quick money and then quit.
Barton began her career on May 30, 1987, when she steered Bold Splinter to fifth place in a race in Birmingham, Alabama. She rode Discover Acro to her first win weeks later, July 9, 1987 at the Birmingham Race Course. Still, times were lean, as the competition among jockeys for jobs from trainers pitted Barton against experienced, proven jockeys of both sexes. In 1993 she rode her first major race, and finally drew the attention of respected horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Lukas took the young jockey under his wing, coaching her and providing her with the horsepower that enabled her to build a strong record of wins.
Barton's success as a jockey propelled her into a career that swept her into the world of competitive horse racing, the only major professional sport in the United States in which women and men compete on equal terms. Still, she encountered sexism, one instance being at the 1996 Kentucky Derby when she was refused the opportunity to race the horse Honor and Glory by owner Michael Tabor. Cincinnati Enquirer contributor Neil Schmidt quoted Lukas's take on the situation: "Donna was the perfect fit for this horse in a lot of ways… (but) was eliminated on the basis of her gender."
For over a decade Barton's dreams of attending college were overshadowed by the excitement of life at the track, the constant upheaval of living out of a suitcase while working seven meets each year, and her ambition of riding in the Kentucky Derby. Frustrating this goal was the fear among owners of sending a horse out with a female rider. In several cases Barton was pulled off of horses at the last minute due to owner fears, and watched as those mounts went on to win, their male jockeys collecting both their share of the purse and the congratulations. As Lukas wryly observed, Barton is "very personable and charismatic—but that will only take you so far."
One of the first big races of Barton's career was in 1995, her first Breeders' Cup, in which she rode Hennessy in the Juvenile division and finished a close second. Pairing with the colt Boston Harbor earned Barton three more wins in 1996. Still, she was pulled from the saddle later in the season and replaced by winning jockey Jerry Bailey. Ironically for Barton, Boston Harbor would end the season as the Two-Year-Old Champion Colt.
Despite being denied a shot at the major races, by the mid-1990s Barton had no problem finding steady work, adding trainer Ken McPeek and others to her stable of employers. Her 1,000th win—considered a milestone in the racing world—came in early February of 1997, when Barton rode Primistal to victory in the sixth race at Kentucky's Turfway Park. In 1997 alone she won 136 races for $4.5 million in prize money.
On Sunday, September 27, 1998, just prior to riding Hidden Pleasure in the eighth race at Turfway Park in Henderson, Kentucky, Barton announced to the media that this race would be her last. Finishing her last race in eighth place, she retired with 1,131 wins from 9,234 starts and earnings of $18,661,388. Her final words to the media: "This is one of the happiest and saddest days of my life." Barton retired as the second winningest female jockey of all time. She also retired having amassed a riding-related injury list that included several broken ribs, cracked neck vertebrae, a broken collarbone, four broken noses, and six concussions. Asked two years into retirement whether she missed racing, Barton told Neil Schmidt of the Cincinnati Enquirer: "No I don't.… As far as having to sell myselfand prove myself every single day [as a jockey], that's a lot of pressure on any person. Twelve years was enough."
After retiring in the fall of 1998 at age 32, Barton enrolled at the University of Louisville to begin work on her college degree. Accepting an offer to provide television network horseracing coverage, she has since served as co-host of the Paddock Preview Show at Churchill Downs and covered several major race telecasts as a reporter for NBC. Married two months after retirement to 52-year-old noted horse trainer Frank Brothers, she moved to her husband's farm, where she helps exercise and train the stable's young thoroughbreds every morning. "She's a luxury to have at the barn," Brothers was quoted as saying on the Kneeland Race Track Web site. "That's when she isn't working for NBC or Churchill Downs or TVG, though."