In her career as a jockey, Mary Bacon has been kidnapped, knifed and shot at, and in racing accidents has suffered a broken back twice, broken hands and feet, a crushed pelvis and a punctured lung.
Through it all, the 5’4″ Mary has triumphed like some kind of charmed soap opera heroine. At 25 she is the leading winner among the 60 or so women jockeys in the country, and last month ranked among the top 10 riders—all the rest males—at Aqueduct raceway in New York. But Mary knows she is an anomaly in a man’s world. “There are only a few women who are going to make it,” she says. “Most girls would rather stand in the clubhouse and watch their old man get mud in his face than get mud in theirs.”
Blonde and brown-eyed, Mary looks as if she belongs in a film that might have been titled Gidget Goes to the Races, and she has rated more than passing media attention. She has been on a national television talk show and on the jacket of a book about women jockeys. Revlon has used her photographs to promote its products, and last year she posed nude for Playboy, something she now regrets.
“I’m sorry I did it,” she says. “I have gotten hassled too much.” Track regulars call her the “Bunny Jockey,” she says, and often yell at her, “Take off your silks.” Around the paddock, however, her colleagues treat her with more respect, mindful of the fact that she is hard-working and tough. She arrives at 5 a.m. seven days a week and hardly ever takes a vacation. Her language can be coarse, but no more so than that of other jockeys.
Her devotion to duty has paid off for Mary, who last year earned about $75,000. Her broken bones have earned her the reputation as the Evel Knievel of the racetrack, but each time she falls, she mends, then gamely gets up and rides again. Two years ago she was unconscious for six days following an accident. When she finally came to, she recuperated for five days and went back to the track, entering three races and winning one. This February the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association named her Most Courageous Athlete of the Year. “Thanks to bone grafts and pins,” she says matter-of-factly, “I’m still walking.”
For Mary, horses and racing have been a means of escaping an otherwise drab life. She was raised in Oklahoma by poor rural parents. She had learned to ride well by the age of 5, and by 9 she had graduated to quarter horses. At 12, because of family problems, Mary was sent to a foster home. When she was finally reunited with her family she often ran away, and more than once ended up in reform schools.
In her teens horses began to dominate her life. She became a regular at the smaller tracks and rodeos, where she once successfully rode a Brahman bull. For a time she lived in Detroit, where she had both the skill and poise to teach riding at Detroit’s exclusive Grosse Pointe Hunt Club. Before that she went to London to study steeplechase racing, a move she financed reportedly by jumping topless out of cakes at private parties.
Mindful of her new image, she now denies ever going topless. Indeed she seems to feel free to retell her history without too much regard for facts, insisting, for example, that she is just 21, when the American Racing Manual, the Bible of the industry, lists her as 25.
She is more comfortable talking about an established Bacon legend: how she was kidnapped in 1969 at Pocono Downs, Pa. and escaped by pushing her would-be abductor down a hill, suffering only a scratch from the horseshoe knife he threw at her. Almost two years later the same man, a disgruntled horse groom, tried to shoot Mary, but missed.
Far more hurtful to Mary was her five-year marriage to jockey Johnie Bacon, who has since married another woman jockey. The experience has given her a deep suspicion of marriage. “If they ever legalize marriage between horses and human beings,” says Mary bitterly, “then I’ll get married again.”
Outside of racing Mary’s main interest is her 5-year-old daughter, Suzie. The girl sometimes stays with Mary’s mother, who still lives in the Southwest, but frequently travels to the various tracks with Mary. It is pleasant to have her daughter with her, says Mary, but it is worrisome too. Last year Suzie broke her leg while playing on her own pony near the starting gate at a track in Kentucky. “It’s a tough life,” says Mary, “and she’s getting tough.”