Kelly Artz is putting the final touches on her UCLA graduate thesis film, a documentary following three female jockeys on the So-Cal racing circuit, but she needs our help to reach the finish line.
For what began as a student film, Lady Jocks has taken on a cinematic life of its own, featuring female jockey superstars as they claw their way up the ranks in a tough, traditionally male-dominated sport.
Each woman is on her own journey: It’s Kayla Stra’s first season back as a new mother, Chantal Sutherland is making a post-retirement comeback, and hungry amateur jockey Cheryl Charlton is trying to break into the big leagues at some of California’s biggest tracks. Triple Crown winner Julie Krone also makes an appearance, as well as several other racing legends and track insiders. The filmmakers follow the female jockeys behind the scenes and around the world in a quest to accurately portray their stories in a 53-minute television-ready format.
Producer-Director Kelly Artz and Producer-Director of Photography Sandy Stenzel are in the home stretch of the film’s production but between equipment, travel and insurance, it’s been an expensive endeavor, and they’re seeking pledges through Kickstarter to finish the job. (What is Kickstarter?)
The goal: $7,000 to be raised by January 9. Rewards for backers range from digital downloads of the finished film to autographed goggles to a place in the film credits. Check out the Lady Jocks Kickstarter campaign here.
Kelly took the time to answer a few of our questions about her filmmaking, her riding and building a bridge between her two passions.
Tell us about your background as a rider.
I’ve found horses fascinating for as long as I can remember, although I don’t come from a family with horses and my mother was always very apprehensive. I recall being three years old and feeding a neighbor’s horses grass from under the fence where they couldn’t reach, out of my hand, and begging to be taken for rides. When I was in elementary school I started taking riding lessons and was totally hooked. I joined 4-H and my grandpa let me ride a ranch horse in Gymkana events and on trail rides and I loved every second of it. Then I remember seeing the Rolex on TV and saying, “Those are the best riders I’ve ever seen! I wanna do that!” and decided I wanted to ride English from there on out–and really learn how to ride. I transferred to a middle school where I could be dropped off at a barn from the bus, where I was able to join Pony Club and loved every minute of it. I competed in rallies and decided I wanted to be a three-day eventer, and tested up to my C1 on a leased pony. I had never been to the race track and knew no one involved in racing–I had just watched Seabiscuit over and over again while cleaning my tack before shows.
When I went to college I stopped riding for a while due to a back injury and majored in psychology. During graduate school at UCLA, after having spine surgery, I always felt like a part of myself was missing, and found a job as a working student with a dressage trainer. Shortly after I joined Pony Club again, wanting to get my upper-level certifications before I turned 26. I found another working student position for an event trainer at Gold Spirit Farms and started eventing again, taking my C-2 and am now preparing for my traditional national level tests. It’s my dream to one day event at the advanced level and ride internationally.
How long have you been interested in filmmaking, and what is the appeal to you?
I discovered I was interested in filmmaking while taking a film studies elective course at the University of Northern Colorado during undergrad–I had always like working in dynamic settings and telling stories.
I grew up in a small town–Nederland, Colo.–and HATED it. I had major cabin fever and couldn’t wait to see the world. Movies were always an escape for me, and an inspiration. I became interested in things I probably never would have had I not seen them in TV in films–I lived in Africa and traveled the Middle East and Europe–and, heck, even started this documentary. I think movies are incredibly powerful; they help human beings connect to things and people they might not normally get to. They appreciate people’s struggles and imprint journeys we can all learn from in our lives. I think they can inspire people and I always try to make films, where 1) I’m learning something new during the production from the team, and the story, and 2) I want to make movies that I think will make people feel good and challenge them to see a new perspective.
How did the idea for Lady Jocks come about?
I’ve always been curious about jockeys, knowing my first upper-level eventing partner will probably be an off-the-track thoroughbred in his second career, as to this day I still dream of owning my first horse.
I really wanted to learn more about the racing world and the riders who first sit on these horses’ backs. I had this screenwriting professor, Nick Griffin, at UCLA during my first year in the graduate program, who would relate script structure and pacing to horse races–as he is an avid fan. One day after class we totally horse-geeked out. I knew very little about racing and he told me tons of things–I think my eyelids just kept creeping further and further into my forehead. I told him I’d been wanting to make a documentary about a female jockey for a long time, as I was taking a documentary class and I had thought if there was any subject I would want to make a film about, it would be female jockeys. He told me about Chantal and said he knew her manager, Angie Athayde Stevens, and put us in touch. Then I was talking to a fellow student in the camera office of UCLA, Sandy Stenzel, who shared my excitement for the idea of a lady jockey documentary. As she is an extremely talented cinematographer, and used to work as a horse-racing handicapper, she eagerly was on board. She knew the game of racing and I knew horses and riding and after a little research and prep we met Angie a month later and pitched the film to her.
You got to go behind-the-scenes at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and the Del Mar racetracks and interview dozens of high-profile athletes and horse racing professionals. How did you get that kind of access?
Lady Jocks would not have been possible AT ALL without Meticulous Talent owner and manager Angie Athayde Stevens. She is the wife of legendary jockey Gary Stevens and represents basically all the major jockeys in Southern California. She must have thought we had a great concept and liked our visual ideas, because in the winter of 2012, she basically handed us her entire clientele and started encouraging them to get involved. She said she had two subjects she thought would make our story great: Kayla Stra’s first season back as a new mother, and Chantal Sutherland-Kruse’s comeback after retirement (which hadn’t been announced yet).
She also talked to all the race track media relations people, whom she works with regularly, and vouched for us. It was completely incredible. They trusted Angie’s judgement and let us have access–the girls vouched for us with the stewards to film them in the jock’s room. The project just took on a life of its own. Kayla was amazing and let me become her “personal entourage” and Chantal let us in on all her comeback fitness secrets. Angie helped us meet HRTV analysts Millie Ball and Zoe Cadman early on, and we filmed them, learning more about racing. Then as we spent more and more time at the track we kept meeting people who got totally stoked, either from the cameras we were using or the story, and the support just kept growing. One day when we were down at Del Mar shooting Sandy suddenly goes, “Kelly, there are three girls in this race!!” and that’s when we tracked down Cheryl Charlton, who was an up and coming rider having some of her first races at the major tracks. She was so excited to join the project and we started following her as well.
Then Kayla had a conflict with the stewards, which got resolved, making her an iconic mother and breast-feeding advocate for women in racing. She was asked to ride at the International Female Rider’s Championships in Peru, and told me about it, saying I should come to. So she got my touch with the hosts, and the Peruvian Thoroughbred Owner’s association agreed to host me in Lima for the weekend to film the races, letting me in the jocks room and even mount a go-pro camera to the start gate and a jockey’s helmet. Kayla won the championships and came back and was on fire. Chantal got asked to break the trotting world record at The Meadows on a pacer and people started getting even more excited for the film knowing it featured the girls’ year-long journey.
What challenges and/or surprises did you encounter along the way?
Insurance was our first big hiccup. We needed an insanely large insurance policy for production for a student film. The vice chair of the film department at UCLA had to work with the insurance broker to help us get such a large policy at an affordable rate. So far, we’ve had to spend $2,000 just on insurance. Then, because we are filming with professional cameras and it’s a documentary, our files were so large we had to buy lots of 4TB hard drives, and so far have spent close to 3k on just those. That and travel expenses to all the different tracks really started to add up and we had to work really hard to keep getting to the tracks to shoot the girls.
It’s been surprising how blessed this film has been. Horse industries, much like Hollywood, are all about who you know and someone saying, “I’ll have your back and vouch for you,” and Angie did that for us. We were so lucky. The stars seem to just keep aligning for the project as so many great things and people have floated into its path and said, “Shoot me, I add conflict, watch me overcome obstacles,” etc.–all of this is what’s going to make it a great story. I’m still astonished by the athletes and trainers I’ve been able to meet and geek-out talking to, and what’s so amazing is that after a year of shooting, I go to the race track now and feel like I’m a part of something, and have friends there. As we take a camera through the paddock, jockey Joe Steiner will, like, hug Sandy as she goes by and the girls and guys wave. It’s unreal and totally awesome.
How far is the film from being finished?
We are so close to being done with filming. We just have a few more formal interviews to shoot, and a few races with the girls next quarter. We’ve already started post production, and I’m confident we will have a complete, finished, polished work within the coming year to share.
What are you taking away from the experience?
I’ve learned so much about perseverance from these women and what it takes to be top level equestrian from fitness to attitude and even family life. Working on Lady Jocks has been one of the most personally rewarding projects I’ve ever directed both as an equestrian and filmmaker. Just the other day, I got to talk to Joe Steiner and Julie Krone about overcoming the psychological components to falls and injuries–their words won’t just make the film engaging, they’ve taught me to ride from a different mental place and I’m extremely grateful for that. I’ve learned so much from Chantal and Kayla about the politics of racing and dealing with owners, horses and networking and these are lessons I will carry with me in my relationships in the film industry as well as in the equine world. I have so much fun every day I get to work on this project, and it’s my deepest intention to make Lady Jocks a work that emanates from me the amount of beauty, dedication and integrity that I have seen in these amazing women.
Check out the Lady Jocks Kickstarter campaign here and follow the project on Twitter @ladyjockdoc.
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