by Jane Primerano
People who follow horse racing know the name Karen Rogers. She was one of the top female jockeys in the East, riding for the big stables and winning important races at the Meadowlands and Belmont Park.
She won races against legendary jockey Angel Cordero Jr. as well as many other ranking riders.
She was filmed by Good Morning America on her 17th birthday and name-checked in the Peanuts comic strip as one of the best female athletes. There’s a photo on her mother’s refrigerator of her with inventor John DeLorean and another with football player Lynn Swann.
On the surface, Rogers’ life was idyllic.
The truth, as it often is, is more complicated.
Rogers returned to her Somerset County, NJ, roots after she left racing. She also left an abusive relationship and battles with anorexia and bulimia (not an uncommon problem among jockeys), obsessive compulsive disorder and drinking. And she wrote a book.
She actually wrote a version the book, Racing with my Shadow, years ago, but it wasn’t until she decided to homeschool her son and took encouragement from her mother that she was able to pull it together.
Coming from a family involved in the Somerset County hunt scene, Rogers was always around horses and started very early in pony races. She was successful from the start, encouraged by her stepfather. Unfortunately, he was also manipulating her away from a relationship with her mother.
If she hadn’t grown up around horses, Rogers thinks she might not have ended up a jockey, but she still would have had the drive for success which she said came from a desire to escape the insanity of her life. She was totally focused on her riding and her career. In the book, she describes feeling like two separate people, the successful jockey and the failure in life.
Like many victims of abuse, she blamed herself for her damaged relationship with her family.
Her success in racing gave her enough financial stability to put her life back together. And a lot of hard work gave her the mental stability to create a life for her son, Sean.
She found a devotion to God that she credits with giving her that stability. “Applying God’s will to my life made me see everybody is gifted,” she said. “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” she said of finding her devotion.
Rogers’ mother, Barbara Howard, is a painter who rode with the hunt in Somerset County. She was the person who got Karen into horses. Her living room walls are covered with her paintings. Horses, ponies, a Lipizzaner and two paintings of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis riding her grey over jumps.
It was Howard who persuaded Rogers to move back to New Jersey from Long Island where she had lived for some time while still riding.
“I’m thankful mom and I edited the book together,” Rogers said. She explained their relationship had been healed and continued to improve with the work on the book.
“I want people to think about their own lives,” she said about her readers. “To reflect on their own childhoods, connect their own dots, piece things together.” To that end, she has presented the book at book clubs and women’s shelters
She also encourages people to write the book that is within them. “Create the space,” she said.
Although no longer riding, Rogers is still involved with animals. She has saved about 40 feral cats and now has five cats of her own. She also has a Rottweiler who she takes to agility classes. She does a lot of pet sitting.
“Racing had its time,” she said, “so I’m not nostalgic. I learned about the world once I stopped riding,” she added. “When I left that world, I loved to learn about things other than horses.” She is happy women are more accepted as jockeys than she was.
At one time, Rogers said, she couldn’t have envisioned being back in Somerset County, back in a good relationship with her mother and having a happy life. But here she is.