How cancer survivor Alison stays in control of the jockeys’ room

Alison Read is the first female Clerk of Scales in Ontario and is believed to be the first in North America. Photo: Emily Shields

She is an utter rarity in sports: a female head of a male-dominated locker room. Woodbine’s Clerk of Scales, Alison Read, has one of the most important and detail-oriented jobs in racing, with the added pressure of having to prove herself daily to a deep and varied jockey colony. She is more than the sum of her profession, however, as Read is coping with a long-distance marriage and is a recent cancer survivor to boot.

Although not a job visible to the regular racing fan, the Clerk of Scales is a position vital to the integrity of the sport.

“I oversee everything in the jockeys’ room, from the actual jockeys, to their valets, to the racing equipment we provide, such as armbands and saddle cloths,” Read explained. “I’m also in charge of the physical building, from the color room and silks, the laundry, and making sure the steam room and the sauna are clean and working. All of it falls under my umbrella.”

Read is the first female Clerk of Scales in Ontario and is believed to be the first in North America. “If anything, I’m extremely rare,” she said.

Different career paths

She had been working in many facets of racing for years before she took up her current position. “I actually started working in the gift store here as a teenager,” she said. “Then I saw the mutuels department and I thought, ‘I want to try that.’ That’s very much me, I want to do and learn new things, I want to try this and that.”

From the mutuels department, Read met more people in racing, found out what their jobs entailed, and decided she wanted to try those career paths as well. She did everything from hotwalking to clocking workouts, and she was the paddock judge for many years before becoming the assistant Clerk of Scales in 2012. One season later, she was promoted to her current position.

Race days are notoriously busy for Read, who arrives early to make sure the locker rooms and hot boxes are clean and ready, then begins paperwork. “The phone rings constantly as scratches come through and jockeys phone in their weights. That part is really important so that we can put the changes together.”

Woodbine, always a pioneer in sport integrity and safety, has instituted a new policy for 2017 that requires all ‘safety sensitive positions’ to blow into a breathalyzer every race day. This includes not only the jockeys and outriders who will be on the track, but also the starting gate crew. “It’s almost 90 people a day that we have to use the breathalyzer on,” Read said.

A parade of jockeys

She distributes the day’s weights changes to the mutuels and tote departments around 11 in the morning, then gets a brief respite before jockeys come to weigh out for the first race. The rest of the day is a parade of jockeys climbing the scale beside Read’s desk while their valets hover nearby, shuffling lead weights into and out of their tack to reach the proper poundage each horse has to carry in the race. The jockeys weigh back in after the race on a scale by the finish line.

Aside from its prestigious Queen’s Plate, run in early July each year, Woodbine is best known for its two days of top-notch grass racing, the Ricoh Woodbine Mile (G1T) and the Canadian International (G1T). Both days offer a host of undercard stakes and regularly draw horses, trainers, and riders from out of town. The latter can make Read’s already busy day even trickier.

“We absolutely scramble to get the room ready for visiting riders,” she said. “The big thing is to get them licensed. Often they come straight from the airport, so they have to go first to the stable area to get licensed. They might not have flown in at the same time as their trainer, which means the phone is going off the hook trying to get riders in touch with the trainers.”

The different racing customs of the European shippers can cause confusion as well. “Their equipment can be different,” Read said. “One of the first years I worked as a paddock judge, the trainers would try to take the tack away from the room, but here in Canada and the United States the valets bring the tack out to you to saddle the horse, so there has been some confusion there.”

‘Sometimes I get treated like a little girl’

With a combination of toughness and quiet confidence, Read has generally earned the respect of the community of jockeys, but problems do still arise. “Once in a while there may be a respect issue,” she admitted. “Sometimes I get treated like a little girl, and all it takes is for me to get angry or snap once. When faced with a strong woman, they realize that I do know what I’m talking about.”

There are logistical issues that make the job slightly harder than if a male was in charge. “It would be nice if the valets and the equipment were in an area separate from the men’s changing room, but it’s not, so I have to be careful to make sure I give them respect right back and let them know ahead of time if I’m coming in. But, if something happens, like if there’s a fight, I’ll just go in, no question.”

And Woodbine’s female riders? “They’ve never been so well supervised,” Read joked.

Radiation treatment

Last year, the rigors of her job was far from her mind when Read began experiencing some health problems. “I was in a lot of pain over the summer, so I was scheduled for an operation that I thought would take care of everything,” she recalled. “When they opened me up, however, they discovered a cancerous tumor in my right hip, which was the cause of my pain. They closed me back up and sent me to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, which is one of the top ten cancer centers in the world.”

Read underwent radiation treatment five days a week for five weeks, and was hospitalized twice with two sessions of internal radiation and chemotherapy. Treatment ended in November, 2016, and an MRI check-up in March showed she is now cancer-free. “Last year was a blur of pain, but now I’m doing just great. I feel super.”

Read also has to cope with her husband being a country away. Brian Jabelmann is the Track Superintendent for the New York Racing Association, and while Read, an Ontario native, is proud of him, the distance can be difficult.

‘A great colony’

“We certainly don’t want to be apart forever, but we don’t have a lot of options,” she explained. “We’re very lucky in that, because we are both in racing, we understand each other’s schedules with getting up early in the morning and working all day. We understand that there are times nothing exciting happens, and then days where everything hits the fan.”

Overall, Read is proud of her riders, who have proven on big days that they can compete with the best from the United States and Europe.

“It’s a great colony,” she said. “We’re really lucky to have top riders in the sense that they have gone to other tracks and proven themselves, and they take on the best here. We have Luis Contreras, who went to Santa Anita and Oaklawn last winter with good results, and then Rafael Hernandez and Alan Garcia who came to us from the States. Then there are guys like Steve Bahen, who has been here his whole career. Plus we get the opportunity to meet so many guys that ship in to ride.”

If anyone can tackle the task of heading up a male-dominated locker room, it’s Read.

“Most everyone has been good and respectful, but you do have to prove yourself, you really do. I’m not a little girl, a pretty woman. I will not sit back and be quiet if something happens.”

That attitude alone is enough to earn admiration from her riders.

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