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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Career with horses was more than a whisper

Jerry Bowen

Hellen Davis had great success on many racetracks

A letter that was passed on to me by the newsroom of The Reporter is the seed for this article. In it, Ed Farrell, who lives in Sacramento wrote:

“Enclosed is a letter I sent to the Sacramento Bee. There was no response. Could The Reporter take a look at this and give a girl who graduated from Vacaville High in 1917 the recognition she deserves and straighten out the Bee in the process.”

Ed included a copy of a letter to the Sacramento Bee in an attempt to correct a recent article that claimed that a Megan Beauchamp was the first female driver to win a harness race in the State Fairs 150 year history this year.

Ed knew better and he was absolutely correct when he stated: This is wildly wrong by at least 77 years for in Sept. 1928 at the State Fair Miss Hellen Davis came to Sacramento from Vacaville and won with her horse Palo Cres in three straight heats. In those less effete days three one-mile heats commonly made a race. Starting in sixth position in an enormous twelve horse field she swiftly took the pole and then per the Union the race was between second and third. In the next two heats she had the pole and had no trouble winning.  Two days later the Bee’s headline was, C0 ED WINS 2ND RACE AT STATE FAIR TRACK Palo Cres with Miss Hellen Davis of Vacaville and College of Pacific driving was too much for six others.

Before we move along, I must say that the spelling of her name Hellen is correct and Hellen wasn’t the only woman racing then, but she was certainly the most successful. And unlike other women, she bred, broke, trained and raced her own horses, and she did it all on her own. Even more interesting, her race horses were also used to haul fruit from the orchards for shipping and other regular ranch chores!

Hellen Davis parents were among the early pioneers of Solano County. Her mother, Mattie Davis, arrived in Vacaville in 1888 with her parents Mr. and Mrs. John Statler from Missouri and the family located onto Parker Street. Mr. Statler was a cabinetmaker.

Mattie Davis attended Vacaville schools, and in 1895 was married to George W. Davis, son of Vacaville pioneer ranchers, Mr. and Mrs. W.B. Davis, who settled here in 1853. W.B. Davis was among the first ranchers in the area to venture into fruit growing. Following her marriage to George Davis, the couple settled on the Davis ranch just off Elmira Road where Mattie continued to reside for the next 70 years, eventually moving to Leisure Town where she died in 1974 at the age of 98. They raised two daughters, Hellen and Ora Margaret. Mattie’s husband died in 1917.

Growing up on a ranch had much to do in shaping Hellen’s future as a celebrity harness racer.

In 1901, at the age of 3, Hellen was hitching her pet dog to a wagon, playing horse race. Later she hitched up and trained all the calves on the ranch, and whatever other unlucky livestock fell into her eager hands. At the age of 8, she acquired her first very own horse after she attempted to harness a very old nag from the top of a fence.

She spent most of her time working with horses. They became Hellen’s vocation and avocation. She thought, breathed, and lived horse morning, noon and night.

In 1921, she entered her first race for money at the Dixon May Day Picnic and the mold was set for the next 30 years. In the next few years she gained national attention when she drove her own horse to victory at the May Day races in Dixon. Hellen became known as a bold innovator in a field almost exclusively masculine, and by the mid 1920s she was recognized as the only girl trainer and driver of race horses in America according to an article in The Reporter in Vacaville in 1926.

During another 1926 interview by Dorothy M. Niemann in the Sacramento Union she said, Horses are just like people. Very nice people. They have every bit as much character, intelligence and personality as any of us.

There are just two ways to deal with them and to make them think you are their master. One way is through bluff and the other is through love. I need to use both methods all the time.

The article went on to state that she had driven on the half-mile track at Dixon for the previous five years and at the Sacramento State Fair it was to be the first time she ever competed on a one-mile track. She had only been defeated once, and her horse, Lady Belle D, held the Pacific coast record of 1 minute, 1 second in a pacing race at the time. With a stable of fast horses like Lady Belle D, Palo Cres, and Palomin, she followed the racing circuit up and down the West Coast, winning enough to keep her in the racing limelight.

Hellen’s masculine dress and close-cropped hair may have shocked some social swelled heads in those early days, but she was just ahead of her time. Take a look around you at what a lot of women wear today!

Now we get to the core of this story.

Since it is also a good idea to use more than one source when writing history, here is a second version of Hellen’s win at the Sacramento State Fair. The following article was printed in The Reporter on Sept. 7, 1928.


Add another name to California’s Marvelous Helens - Miss Helen Davis of Vacaville champion racehorse driver. By winning one of the speed classics at the state fair Tuesday, this wizard of the reins steps into the spotlight with California’s two Helens of tennis fame.

Miss Davis, a college coed, who spends her summers on western racing circuits, brought cheering thousands to their feet when she drove to first money with her sensational trotter, Palo Cres. She had to beat twelve other speedsters to gain the laurels, but she did it handily. Never has a girl received a greater ovation at the state fair than that given Miss Davis at the close of the third and deciding heat which Palo Cres stepped off in 2 08 14.

Solano County is exceedingly proud of Helen and Palo both products of this highly productive county and this pride is shared by all California, for this plucky miss will soon be heard from on the grand circuits of the east.

Immediately upon conclusion of the victory Tuesday, Miss Davis was called before the grandstand to receive the congratulations of friends while the stands roared with applause Cameras clicked as she was congratulated by Edward Dinkelspiel, state fair director from Solano County, and Joseph Stadtfeld of Vacaville on whose ranch the classy little trotting horse was bred.

Miss Davis and Palo Cres will appear in another big event today, and as the field of contenders is more formidable the contest should prove highly exciting. Delegations from all parts of Helen’s home county are expected to be in the stands rooting for the dashing young co-ed to come through with another triumph.

Hellen went on to race at some of the most famous racetracks in the country, including Bay Meadows, Golden Gate Fields, in Phoenix, Portland, Ore, and Saratoga Springs. She raced the fair circuit in California every season between 1921 and 1951 except during World War II, when the California racetracks were used as relocation camps for the Japanese. She never made more than a living from racing in those early days since $2,000 was a high purse.

She was the only woman listed in a 100-year compilation of successful drivers and trainers from 1845-1948.

During a Vacaville Reporter interview in 1974, she summed up her career by saying, It’s not everybody who gets to do what they like, and be able to exist.

Hellen Davis died in 1981 at the age of 83 at the Intercommunity Hospital in Fairfield. With her passing, another Vacaville legend left a vacuum in the daily lives of the people who knew her but a legacy that reminds us all that nothing is impossible to achieve.

Thank you, Ed, for reminding us of one of Vacaville’s great ladies.