In a bit of foreshadowing – or as she might have said, fate – Kathee Rengert rode a horse named My Fair Hill at the Fair Hill Races in 1979.
The horse, who never won again, barely wound up a footnote but her jockey carved out a place in and around Fair Hill, Md. for the next 40 years. Rengert, who died Saturday at 68 after a brief illness, was a steeplechase jockey, trainer, bloodstock agent, photographer and fixture at Fair Hill Training Center. She trained horses there in a few rented stalls in the mid-1980s, later took a job in the office and added the unenviable job of organizing horses, trainers and riders from the starting gate and clockers’ tower.
“She’ll be missed by a lot of people around here,” said Sally Goswell, Fair Hill’s general manager. “She was known for being very firm about things, but she cared and worked hard. She had a wide variety of people who really liked her.”
Her job at Fair Hill was part record keeper, part safety monitor and part referee over track access, hours, workouts, training rules and starting-gate schedules. She made it work, while also capturing Fair Hill with her award-winning photography. Goswell used a Rengert photo in the weekly email of news, race results and other updates each week. The subjects were mostly horses, but veered off to eagles, bluebirds, deer, foxes, dogs, native plants, sunrises, snowstorms and plenty more.
This week’s newsletter led with the news about Rengert and featured her photo of a bald eagle soaring high above the tracks at Fair Hill.
Rengert grew up in Connecticut, and kindled an early love for horses into riding regularly as a child despite her family’s lack of horse experience.
“She put her passion into everything,” said her sister Beverly Rengert. “She didn’t do anything halfway, and riding was her thing.”
And basically no one else's thing in the family.
Kathee Rengert got a degree from Mary Washington College in Virginia, and was soon riding on the point-to-point circuit. In 1973, she rode Velvet Gun at the Piedmont Foxhounds Point-to-Point – and finished second while making a bit of history as the first woman to ride in an open (not restricted to women) at the Virginia race meeting. Riding for Hall of Fame trainer Mikey Smithwick and others, Rengert won 34 point-to-point and sanctioned races through 1985. Her 1978 allowance hurdle victory at Saratoga on Wine Scandal is believed to be the second win over jumps by a female jockey at the historic track (Joey Ruhsam was the first in 1976). Rengert and Wine Scandal won seven races at the point-to-points and jump meets together, including hurdle wins at Saratoga and Delaware Park.
She later trained on her own at Fair Hill, which led to the job, and became the executive director of the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup race meet (that's her at left on the job on a rainy day, photo Tod Marks) while also pursuing photography, tennis, gardening and a recently completed master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from West Chester University. Rengert fought breast cancer several years ago, and seemingly won.
Her work as a photographer was recognized by American Horse Publications first prizes in 2013 (for a photo titled Winter Wonderland which appeared in Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred) and again in 2016 (for a photo titled Dawn Patrol which also appeared in the magazine). In addition, she also played competitive tennis, volunteered at Longwood Gardens and supported numerous environmental causes. She recently completed a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning at West Chester University.
For more on her photography, check out her website.
In addition to Beverly, Rengert is survived by another sister Joan Cobb.
A memorial service is set for 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12 at London Grove Friends Meeting House at 500 West Street Road, Kennett Square, Pa. on the corner of Newark Road and Route 926.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution to an environmental charity of your choice. Kathee supported the Arbor Day Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Brandywine Conservancy and the Chester County Library System.
A fairly random sampling of Kathee Rengert's photography work (click on the image below to launch slideshow):