There is probably nothing that people love more than a success story that unfurls against great odds. This is one of those
stories, and it's about a 44-year-old woman in Wilmington, Del., named Sylvia Harris. She managed to become a professional
jockey in spite of being female and African American and having bipolar disorder. And in spite of being such a "long shot,"
she has won 16 races.
Harris was born in 1967 to U.S. Army parents in Frankfurt, Germany, and grew up in northern California. She had her first
bout with bipolar disorder at age 19. Her life spiraled downhill after that in myriad ways. There were a few hospitalizations
because of her bipolar disorder. She lost custody of her children in 1995 because of problems related to her bipolar disorder.
One of her sons was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in 1998. She had only sporadic access to psychiatric
care and psychotropic medications because of a lack of health insurance and money. She was even homeless for a while.
But her life was studded with some positives as well—family members who helped her, such as her brother sending her money;
her three children, whom she deeply loved; and her devotion to Buddhism, whose chanting rituals calmed and uplifted her. And
then there were the horses!
In 2000, when she was 33 years old and homeless in Orlando, Fla., "someone kind of scooped me up and set me in the middle
of horse country—Ocala, Florida—and it was like, yeah, this is what I really wanted to do as a child, be around horses," Harris
said in a recent interview. "It was like a second chance—a rebirth kind of situation."
Ocala is one of the most important centers for thoroughbred horse breeding and training in the world. Only two counties in
Kentucky top Ocala in revenue from the sale of thoroughbred horses.
Harris found work in Ocala mucking out stalls and feeding and grooming horses. She progressed to walking and exercising horses
and halter-breaking colts and fillies. She said that she was quite content with what she was doing. "This was a good time
in my life, when everyone liked being around Sylvia, including me," she noted.
But then, one day, a jockey approached her and said, "You ought to become a jockey because you are petite and good with horses."
She replied that she was "too old to get up on a racehorse." He then retorted with a chuckle, "Who says you're too old? I
didn't start riding until I was 37, and I didn't win my first race until I was 42."
"Suddenly it was clear to me," said Harris. "I wanted to ride, and I wanted to be a jockey."
So she saved money for a riding helmet and vest. In 2001, a kindly, elderly horse-farm owner, who turned out to be one of
the pioneers in the Florida horse-racing industry, began training her to become a jockey. "He inspired and motivated me to
search for something higher than myself," she recalled.
In 2004, she moved to Chicago and managed to ride in her first professional race, and then another—which qualified her for
a jockey's license. She was now, at age 37, an official player in a physically brutal sport where, as she noted, women, African
Americans, and mentally ill individuals are generally shunned.
"Countless times I have seen jockeys launched from their thousand-pound steeds, then trampled by oncoming horses, [but] I
had done what I wanted to do!" she exclaimed. "If it was the last moment of my life, I knew that I would be able to pass away
with a smile on my face."
But more achievements were to come—her first win in Chicago in December 2007, when she was 40 years old and with her family
present and cheering her on. And 15 more wins since then "in spite of a terrible riding accident in May 2009, where I broke
my neck in four places and crushed part of my skull."
As for her bipolar disorder, it has been both a blessing and a curse for her work as a jockey. For example, she has sometimes
been in a manic phase while riding, and it was a "definite advantage because you feel as if you can overcome anything and
accomplish anything." But she also has to be careful not to ride when her manic phases take her "over the top" and rob her
of good judgment. Fortunately she is now more adept at sensing when she is heading in that direction than when she was younger,
she said. And as far as her depressive episodes are concerned, they are a drawback in her work; she can't ride at all until
Today Harris works as a jockey at Delaware Park in Wilmington. Her three children are in college, and her father is still
living. "I want to make sure that they have what they need to be as secure as they can be," she said, adding that although
jockey pay isn't great, the money isn't bad either.
As for the future, she contemplates getting certified to do equine-assisted therapy with inner-city children or people with
mental disabilities. "Sure, I would love to race in the Kentucky Derby, but the therapeutic aspects of horses and helping
other people are even more important to me."
Her advice to other people, especially those with bipolar disorder? "We all have setbacks and obstacles. But don't give up
on your dreams and goals. Maybe you can't accomplish all that you would like to, but you can surely accomplish some of it.
And that will put a smile not just on your face, but in your heart and soul!"
More information about Sylvia Harris's life can be found in her autobiography, "Long Shot—My Bipolar Life and the Horses Who Saved Me," published by HarperCollins in 2011.