Not long after her debut race in New York, Diane Nelson began dividing her time between Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H., and Suffolk Downs in Boston, notching more than 200 first-place finishes in 1987 alone en route to becoming one of horse racing’s elite jockeys.
“It has worked out well,” she told the Globe that year. “I’ll pretty much ride the card at Rock, and I’ll have two or three mounts at Suffolk when the tracks aren’t competing at the same time.”
She added that such a grueling schedule was worth it, even though her nearly 1,500 starts in 1987 left little time for anything else. “I’m willing to put out the effort now because I want to get as many wins as possible,” she said in the interview. “I hope I don’t have to go at this pace forever, but right now, it doesn’t really bother me.”
Ms. Nelson, who became the sixth female jockey in North America to reach 1,000 wins, died July 5 in her Goshen, Conn., home, according to a death notice in Newsday. She was 51.
“She was always very private and had not been in touch with many people over the last few years,” Abby Fuller, a jockey who rode with Ms. Nelson in New England, New York, and New Jersey, told the racing website BloodHorse.com.
During a career that stretched nearly 21 years, Ms. Nelson raced mostly in New York, but her time at Rockingham Park and Suffolk Downs was formative.
“I think I’m improving all the time; I sure am trying,” she told the Globe in 1987. “I’m working on knowing how a race sets up. I think my style is pretty much set, but I could be a little neater with my arms. Sometimes my arms go flying around when I get anxious.”
Learning to quell her nervousness, which she knew her horses could sense, was particularly important — especially in the starting gate. “That’s been the most difficult part for me, and I’m sure working on that,” she said.
“I realized about the time I won my fifth race that there was a lot more to it than I thought,” she added. “You just can’t turn for home on top and expect to win. You’ve got to help carry the horse. I’ve been working on getting fitter, and the more I ride the fitter I get.”
According to a 1998 profile in The New York Times, Diane J. Nelson was born in Rockville Centre on Long Island and grew up in the hamlet of Holtsville, where her father ran a wholesale plant nursery. She was 16 when she started working at the Big E breeding farm on Long Island.
“I knew how to ride,” she said in the 1987 Globe interview. “I had always loved horses and I was always after my mother to get one. Finally she did. We kept him in a stable, and I’d ride rodeo and barrel race events.”
The breeding farm sent its 2-year-old horses to Florida, “and when I was 18, they needed somebody to go down there and break them,” she said. “I went there and things got slow during the summer. The stud manager on the farm was from New Zealand, and since the seasons are opposite, he suggested I go over there to learn some more. I was in New Zealand for six months, and the trainer on the farm there taught me how to race ride.”
She returned to Florida, and then to New York, where she secured her first chance to ride in a race in 1986. After relocating to New England, she became the leading rider at Rockingham Park and Suffolk Downs, “but my dream was always to ride in New York,” she told the Times. “Still, do you give up success for a larger track? I began to fly back and forth and rode a lot at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. I had just bought a home at Rockingham, but commuted to the Meadowlands. I was on the shuttle every week, Newark to Boston.”
She finally settled in the New York area, where along with her jockey duties she made some TV commercials for the New York Racing Association. Those led to a contract with the Ford Modeling Agency. “My agent dragged me around for a few years, but I didn’t want to be a full-time model,” she told the Times.
In the interview with BloodHorse, Fuller said Ms. Nelson “was a truly beautiful girl. But she was also a really good person. We rode together at Rockingham for a time and were friends, but it was when she came to the New York tracks and the Meadowlands that I got to know her better. She was a very good rider, too. She held her own with the big boys in New York, and we know what that’s like.”
Ms. Nelson had 1,095 first-place finishes in 9,905 races and purse earnings of $19,106,392, according to Equibase.com. Her last race was in 2007 at Aqueduct in New York City, and often during her career she was the only woman on the track.
“There are always going to be trainers who prefer a man on their horse,” she told the Times. “It’s not so much a question of a man or a girl. But they want one of the five top riders, and right now they’re men. So you just can’t afford to make a mistake when you get a chance.”
According to the death notice in Newsday, Ms. Nelson’s survivors include her father and two sisters. The website for Moloney Family Funeral Homes on Long Island said a service was held Monday in the Mother Teresa Tribute Center at Nassau Suffolk Crematory in Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y.
Ms. Nelson acknowledged the dangers that were a part of her profession.
“I’ve never been in a spill, but I realize that they are scary,” she told the Globe. “I know you can get hurt out there, but you can’t think about it. If you did, you wouldn’t be a good rider. I’ve learned you have to be aggressive. If you’re not aggressive, you’re not going to win.”
At that early juncture in her career, Ms. Nelson said she had no plans “other than to ride. Horses and riding are my life. I hope I can ride for a long time. I don’t want to go on past a time when I’m not good at it, though.”Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.