Jockey Mary Bacon was just a little ol' cowgirl

June 30, 1991|By Maryjean Wall | Maryjean Wall,Knight-Ridder News Service

In her life she'd been kidnapped, shot at and almost stabbed, posed for Playboy and ridden racehorses.

But the demon that destroyed Mary Bacon's self confidence was the cancer that finally made her too weak to ride. Before she died recently in Texas, apparently of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, she must have wept over facing a life without racehorses -- no life at all to her.

This seems unthinkable, to picture Mary Bacon without the zany zest for life that made her one of racing's unforgettable characters. She was not the first woman to ride races -- she followed about a year after the pioneering wave that began in the late 1960s. But Mary Bacon was one of the most flamboyant jockeys, man or woman, ever to sit astride a horse.

Those who knew her called her "a tough riding broad." Bacon tried to downplay that reputation and said, "I'm just a little ol' cowgirl from Oklahoma." But wherever Bacon turned up, the sport of racing knew the little ol' cowgirl had rode into town.

"I've always said you have to be a lady off a horse and a man on one," she said.

Her trademark was her model's face with long blond hair, her cowboy hat and painted fingernails and the flowered bikini panties she always wore beneath the regulation white riding pants. The flowered panties showed right through the riding pants and were such an item that at the starting gate they would ask her, "Is it roses or daisies today?"

This was in the days when hardly a woman rode in a race, you have to remember. A female jockey was a curiosity in the early 1970s, something hardly to be taken seriously. Bacon was dead serious about her work. But she poked fun at the way racing made fun of her. She said the flowers on her derriere gave other riders "something to look at when I'm on the lead."

She gave everyone something to think about with her well-publicized exploits off the track and the tall tales she painted about her life. Her most famous caper was posing in the buff for Playboy -- a coup for the magazine, when jockettes, as they used to call them, were still a novelty.

Racing snickered over the Playboy incident. But the sport was scandalized when Bacon attended a Ku Klux Klan rally in Louisiana. A photograph published in the Times-Picayune of New Orleans showed her in front of a microphone, speaking to Klansmen. The backlash that built against Bacon was thought by many to have ruined her career.

Some owners and trainers refused to ride her on their horses after "the Klan thing" broke out. A cosmetics company canceled a lucrative endorsement contract. Bacon was never as much in demand for races after that, but she never quit trying, either.

This much is known about Bacon: that she rode her last winner Sept. 8, 1990, at Bandera Downs in Texas -- her 286th winner in a career that began in 1969. What is not known for sure is where Bacon came from, how old she really was and what really constituted her early life.

She was said to be 43 when she died, but her age was always in dispute, because she told every writer something different. Her conflicting stories prompted a magazine called WomenSports to check out Bacon's background in 1973, when she was still a name in the news. But a concrete picture of Bacon's background never could be assembled.

"She's from Illinois, Oklahoma, Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico," the article read. "By the time she was 16, she had ridden thoroughbreds, quarter horses, trotters, show horses and bulls in rodeos and racetracks all over the country. . . . She had slugged cops, stolen chickens, was in a foster home, three reform schools, was a sixth-grade dropout, a high school graduate, a lifeguard, a dancer, a topless go-go girl, a wife, a mother and a professional jockey."

Bacon's life story was a forest of crisscrossed trails that never could be checked out. She even said she was kidnapped in 1969 by a track employee in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and held in a nearby woods at knifepoint.

It seemed like a publicity stunt. But two years later, Bacon found a man hiding in her bathroom in a motel in Louisville -- and said he was the same one who'd tried to kidnap her. She saw a light under the bathroom door, kicked open the door and attacked the man, Paul Corley Turner, with a pair of scissors. He fired some shots and got away. He was later captured by the FBI in a nationwide manhunt, and sentenced to 12 years in a penitentiary.

L "He was mad because I was beating male jockeys," Bacon said.

She had not ridden much since 1983, when she rode only one race, a dramatic difference from her best year, 1970, when she rode 697 races for purses of $107,343. An injury in 1982 virtually ended Bacon's career. She was comatose 11 days after a spill at Golden Gate Fields, and might never have been the same again.

But the game itself has never been quite the same since Bacon rode tall tales and horses in and out of every racing town.

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