When the New York Times featured Sylvia Harris in 2008, they described her as a rarity among jockeys because she was an African American woman, a 40-year-old rookie and more shocking, suffering from mental illness.
The once homeless, single mother of three had a trouble-free life growing up in Santa Rosa, Calif. But her dream of becoming a veterinarian was shattered when she learned in her late teens that she suffered with manic depression.
Harris, who didn’t exactly grow up around horses, vividly remembers taking a few pony rides here and there, going to the races at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields with her parents and playing with a popular 70s doll, Dusty and her Horse Nugget. Then her parent’s divorced, triggering stress and the episodes ensued.
Her new book, LONG SHOT: My Bipolar Life and the Horses Who Saved Me, is a candid memoir of a single mother crippled by her struggles with bipolar depression.
She insists that “sheer faith and determination” are truly the things that helped her to gain celebrity as the second African American female jockey in the United States to win a major thoroughbred horse race.
As far as her illness is concerned, Harris applauds her family and friends for their support, her “good” counselor and doctor, and without a doubt the horses.
Harris offers advice for aspiring jockeys. “Never give up no matter who tells you no you can’t do it. Write your goals down and make a wish list. Seek out those people you admire in that field even if it is not racing, and ask them if you can help them out some way. Be an apprentice. Learn, learn, learn, as much as possible from the people around you. Read and try to be around as many different horses that you can, even, if it is just to observe.”
When asked if a horse is truly a girl’s best friend, Harris shares, “I think across the board, somewhere in every little girl’s heart and mind, there is a wish to have a pony. Yes, in my case they have been this girl’s best friend in my dreams and now in everyday real life.”
During the off season, you can catch Harris at Delaware Park riding race Arabians. –yvette caslin