Bacon, Mary (1948–1991)

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Bacon, Mary (1948–1991)

American jockey and one of the first women to earn a place on the American racetrack who, in two decades of thoroughbred racing, won 286 races. Born in Chicago to a carnival family in 1948; committed suicide in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 8, 1991; completed high school and studied stable management, veterinary medicine, and steeplechase riding at Porelock Vale Riding School in Somerset, England; married Johnny Bacon (a jockey), in 1968; children: Susan Michaela Bacon (b. March 4, 1969); a son (died at birth, 1970).

After attending Porelock Vale Riding School, awarded a certificate as a British Horse Society Assistant; began professional career racing thoroughbreds the first year women were licensed as jockeys in the U.S. (1969); named Most Courageous Athlete of the Year by the Philadelphia Sports Writer Association (1973).

The lot of a jockey is never easy, regardless of gender. In most states, a jockey is "bound" to a boss, who determines whether the apprentice works five days a week or seven, what mounts will be ridden, and what salary given. But Mary Bacon's childhood did much to prepare her for the world of thoroughbred racing. Born to a father who came from a carnival family and a mother who grew up illiterate on a small horse and cattle farm, the skillful and tough-willed Bacon described herself, in the jargon of the horse-raising world, as "a carny out of a hillbilly." Her itinerant childhood took her from Oklahoma to Illinois, to New Mexico, Minnesota, and Michigan, and her father's alcoholism

led to his frequent unemployment while her mother tried to hold the family together. Mary's high school years were lonely and friendless; she was often in trouble, sometimes for stealing watermelons and chickens, sometimes for stealing cars. By age 12, she was a foster child of Maryann Wanatick in New Mexico. Though Bacon felt loved, she missed her own mother and was still at sea; she ended up in reform school, the first of several times. Wrote Bacon:

It was the first time in my life that I had a dress on. The dress was the kind with two big holes in front for your arms and it wrapped around and tied in the back. I used to lie on my cot in that stupid cell and count the blocks. There were 247 blocks up and 283 blocks wide. I used to watch the cockroaches go up the walls. You get schooled awful fast. I learned to lie and to steal and to cheat and to fight.

In Bacon's life, horses represented stability. She began riding in horse shows at age five, and at age nine she was racing quarter horses and Appaloosas on backwood bush tracks in Oklahoma, where girls were a rarity in the competition. "I had one horse that I used to tell all my problems to. At night I'd lie down in the stall and sleep on his neck." Reunited with her family, she ran away many times, always to a stable. "I cheated all the way through" high school. "I don't know why they ever passed me," she said. But "sometimes not a top stud produces a real runner," and it was the depth of her love of horses that gave her life its unexpected dimensions.

At age 16, Bacon saw the Walt Disney movie The Horsemaster while at the Porelock Vale Riding School in Somerset, England. Though the world of steeplechase racing described in the film was alien to her Western world of rodeos and quarterhorse racing, she became obsessed with acquiring steeplechase training, which involves jumping hedges, fences, and ditches in the course of a race. To earn money, she worked during the day as a lifeguard and rode in meets at night, did odd jobs at a country club, galloped racehorses in training from 5–8:30 am at Porelock Vale, and even worked as a model and singer.

After a year of study in stable management, veterinary medicine, and steeplechase riding, she passed the horsemanship examination administered by the British government, and received a certificate as a British Horse Society Assistant. She returned to the U.S., where she was hired at the Grosse Pointe Hunt Club, outside Detroit, Michigan, to teach riding to wealthy socialites such as Christina Ford , of the Ford automobile family. In 1968, Bacon was galloping horses for Pete Maxwell, one of the country's top trainers, when she became reacquainted with Johnny Bacon, one of Maxwell's apprentice jockeys, whom she had known as a teenager in Oklahoma. Three weeks after their second meeting, the couple eloped to Canadian, Texas.

The following year, Bacon was pregnant with her first child when the U.S. racing world was changed forever. The Maryland Racing Commission had turned down the application for a jockey's license by Kathy Kusner , who sued the commission on the basis of sexual discrimination, and in 1969, Judge Ernest A. Loveless ruled in Kusner's favor. As one woman followed another at the starting gate and sometimes crossed the finish line first, Bacon grew more eager to become a professional jockey in thoroughbred horseracing.

On March 4, 1969, she gave birth to a daughter, Susan Michaela; seven days later, she was back on horseback. Unfortunately, Suzy's birth had resulted in numerous stitches, internal and external, and Bacon was soon back in the hospital for painful restitching. In May, she received her license, ran her first race, and signed a three-year contract as a jockey for Pete Maxwell. Shortly after, she was thrown from a horse, hospitalized with a broken back, and spent four days paralyzed from the waist down. After six weeks of recovery, however, she was back on the track.

A fearless rider, Bacon worked as many tracks as she could, riding days in Cleveland and nights at Waterford Park, West Virginia, or days in Lexington, Kentucky, and nights at the Latonia Racetrack in nearby Florence. A good jockey has to have superior reflexes, split-second timing, and excellent nerve control, as the pressure of a race is intense. She has to be able to recognize not only the speed of the mount, but the pace of the competition as well. A good jockey knows not to exhaust her horse before the final stretch, and must be able to bob and weave, leading the animal in and out of small holes in the pack to find the opening to maneuver in front during the final stretch. By the end of 1969, even though she had not begun racing until May, Mary Bacon had ridden in three times as many races as any other female jockey in the country, with three times as many wins.

But her life was still troubled. Paul Corley Turner, a drifter who worked at a stables, became obsessed with Bacon; one day, he manhandled her agent and attacked her. When the attempted rape made the local news, Bacon found herself portrayed in a weekly tabloid as sex-starved. At this time, her marriage was also strained and would end in divorce.

Through all this Bacon seemed driven. In 1970, she became pregnant a second time but hid her condition and continued to race into her seventh month, while gaining only five pounds. The day of her son's birth, she was scheduled for five mounts but rode only three before she went into labor. Born two months premature, the baby lived only a few hours. Bacon was out of the hospital and had returned to riding when the stalker Turner was released after four months' imprisonment. In short order, he threatened to kill her. In 1972, he snuck into her motel room and fired at her directly, but the gun jammed. Arrested once more, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

In the next few years, Bacon, an attractive woman, promoted the Charlie line of cosmetics for Revlon. Glad for the publicity and the additional income, she saw both as a means of staying on horseback. In 1971, a race at Ellis Park in Owensboro, Kentucky, resulted in a concussion, a broken collarbone, contusions of the lung and several broken ribs. After 13 days, she slipped out of the hospital and went to the Latonia Racetrack, where she cut off her shoulder cast with a butcher knife and rode once more. The following September, she suffered another serious accident at Pitt Park in Pennsylvania. Thrown by her mount after it clipped the heels of another horse, she landed on her head and lay so still that she was thought to be dead. Held for a week in intensive care, she noticed after a few days that a nice young man stopped by every morning to inquire about her progress. When she asked who he was, her mother replied that he was the undertaker. Eleven days later, she was released from the hospital and advised to stay away from the track for awhile, but it was useless advice. In 1973, Bacon was voted the Most Courageous Athlete of the Year by the Philadelphia Sports Writer Association.

When she and jockey Joan Phipps won the Daily Double at New York's Aqueduct, they became the first women to do so. Although women had won the right to compete on thoroughbred tracks, it took some time before many rode on a daily basis, and Bacon was one of the first to ride as regularly as her male counterparts. But in her early 40s, Bacon learned she had cancer. As she grew progressively weaker she was able to ride less and grew despondent. In June 1991, she was 43 years old and knew she would never ride again when she took her own life in Fort Worth, Texas. Her body was cremated, and, according to her wishes, her ashes were scattered at the finish line at Belmont Park.


"Bacon is Dead," in Washington Post. June 15, 1991, p. G7.

Blue, Adrianne. Grace Under Pressure: The Emergence of Women in Sport. London: Sidgwick & Jackson 1987.

"For the Record," in Sports Illustrated. Vol. 74, no. 24. June 24, 1991, p. 88.

Golden, Flora. Women in Sports: Horseback Riding. NY: Harvey House, 1978.

Haney, Lynn. The Lady is a Jock. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1973.

"Patient in Silks: Wind Her Up, She Talks," in The New York Times Biographical Service. July 1973, p. 1084.

Roach, Margaret. "Mary Bacon: Independent," in The New York Times Biographical Service. February 1977, p. 183.

Ryan, Joan. "Life Wasn't Living Without Riding," in San Francisco Chronicle. June 23, 1991, p. C1.

Schuster, Julie. "For Mary Bacon, 'Riding Was Living,'" in Houston Post. June 29, 1991, p. A25.

Karin L. Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia

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Bacon, Mary (1948–1991)

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