Diane J. Nelson, a multiple graded-stakes winning jockey who rode over 1,000 winners while capitalizing on her good looks with a modeling career, has died. She was 54.
Nelson died July 5, according to a post on the Moloney Family Funeral Homes of New York’s website. There was no cause of death listed and no obituary.
A memorial service was held Monday at Mother Teresa Tribute Center at Nassau Suffolk Crematory in Lake Ronkonkoma, New York. Denise Bisset, a relative of Nelson’s, wrote on the website’s condolence page that the service was for immediate family only.
Nelson was the sixth female jockey in North America to reach 1,000 winners. She had 1,095 victories from 9,905 career races and purse earnings of $19,106,392, according to Equibase.
Nelson was one of the elite women jockeys in the sport, although she never rode in any of most prestigious Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup races.
She rode regularly on the highly competitive New York circuit, where at times she was the lone woman.
“I’m realistic enough to know that I’m not going to get all the good mounts,” she told the New York Daily News in 2001. “There are 10 riders in here that are the top riders in the country. I would prefer to stay here and ride less and ride quality. I’ve gotten to ride some unbelievable horses in my career. That means more to me than winning a lot of races.”
Nelson’s career began at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack on Feb. 27, 1986. She rode her last race at the same track on Jan. 20, 2007.
She won eight graded stakes races in her career, including the Grade 1 Prioress Stakes with Acey Deucey in 2005 at Saratoga.
After debuting at Aqueduct, she moved to New Hampshire’s now-defunct Rockingham Park and later Suffolk Downs in Boston. Eventually, she went on to ride at the New Jersey tracks and the New York circuit near her Long Island home.
“Being in New York is incredible,” she told the Daily News. “I’m not going to get rich, but there’s always a chance of riding a really nice horse and winning $100,000 stake races.”
Nelson said the lack of women riders who followed her was proof of how tough it was to survive in the sport.
At 5-foot-6, Nelson was considered tall for a jockey. After being featured in television ads for the New York Racing Association, she landed a contract with the Ford Modeling Agency.
“Diane was beautiful inside and out,” Abby Fuller, a former jockey who competed against Nelson, wrote on the mortuary’s website.