Sunday, September 29, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mary Bacon Ran Out Of Rides

Dallas Morning News

DALLAS - Lifting her left arm was hell for jockey Mary Bacon. The arm once had been shattered in a horse-racing accident, crushed under a 1,000-pound thoroughbred. Only when she absolutely had to would she lift it above her shoulder. Always it brought a grimace.

Lifting the gun to her head must have been torturous that Friday morning of June 7 in the budget motel room in Fort Worth. She had run out of rides. No one would let her on a horse any more. She had fallen off one too many mounts. She had been buried under their mass one too many times.

Her body had become too fragile, her mind too feeble.

Only to Mary Bacon, the pain that racked her body never seemed to matter when she was on a horse. She loved to race. She lived to ride.

But then came a pain that made riding almost unbearable. She recently had learned the cancer burning in her cervix no longer could be controlled, sapping even more of the little strength that she had left. The doctors told her that there no longer was any hope.

Bacon was 43 and long finished as a jockey. Once, she had helped make history. She had been a member of the first class of female jockeys when thoroughbred racing opened its starting gates to women in the late 1960s.

Now, she could find no one who would allow her to perform even the relatively menial task of working horses through their morning exercises.

Her smiling face on the cover of Newsweek must have seemed like a lifetime ago. The seductive photos in Playboy, in and out of her silks, came dozens of reset broken bones ago.

It had been a decade since she last had visited a winner's circle.

In the end, all that horse racing brought Mary Steedman Bacon Anderson were those broken bones and shattered dreams.

When Mary Bacon strained to lift the .22-caliber pistol to her left temple and pulled the trigger on the eve of one of her sport's most important races, the Belmont Stakes, hardly anyone noticed.

Few outside her family knew she died in the early morning hours of June 8 at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth.

It would be four days before the Daily Racing Form, the bible of thoroughbred racing information, identified the woman who put a bullet in her head as "Mary Bacon, pioneer woman jockey."

She would have liked that. In her last years, the still striking jockey, who once graced the pages of the fashion magazine Vogue and modeled nationally for cosmetics giant Revlon, preferred to go unrecognized.

She had long ago forgone the hour-and-a-half ritual of making sure she looked just right before leaving home. She preferred to meet the world in peasant dresses and sunglasses, with a bandana to hide her blond hair.

"Life had become disappointment after disappointment for Mary Bacon," said her husband of 10 years, retired jockey Jeff Anderson. "Hanging around tracks was once her heaven, but it became her hell. Racetracks were her life.

"Mary was born to ride. When they didn't have any place for her any more, she must have figured it was time to move on."

Bacon liked to tell people that she was born in Oklahoma and raised on ponies and quarter horses. That's what Newsweek reported when she was queen of the track in the early 1970s.

Were it not for horse racing, she liked to say, she would have been a waitress in a diner back in the Oklahoma Panhandle. She claimed that she had been to reform school and had once worked as a topless dancer.

Not a word was true. It was harmless fiction designed, perhaps, to win acceptance in a world previously reserved for men only.

"Mary liked to tell stories," Anderson said. "She lived in a man's world, and she wanted to be known as the meanest S.O.B. in it."

Or perhaps the stories were designed to thwart a madman and protect her family. Bacon was kidnapped in 1969. She escaped, and the kidnapper was not caught. Two years later, the kidnapper reappeared. Bacon found him waiting for her with a gun in a motel room in Louisville, Ky. There was a skirmish. The man ran. This time, he was arrested after a nationwide manhunt. He was sentenced to 12 years in a Kentucky prison.

In truth, Mary Steedman Bacon Anderson was born in Chicago and reared in Toledo, Ohio.

Hers was a close family. Her father, a big-band pianist who later went into the construction business, was involved in Little League. Her mother, who stayed home to raise Mary, a brother and a sister, did volunteer work.

On Sundays, the family always attended church. On the walk home, Mary and sister Susan would stop along the way to feed the horses on a neighbor's farm.

Mary, who loved watching the movie "National Velvet," loved the neighbor's horses. The neighbor noticed. One day, he gave Mary and Susan a pony to care for.

Mary's future had been decided.

In high school, Mary found work as an outrider, helping in morning workouts and accompanying horses to the starting gate at Toledo's Raceway Park.

She saved her money and after graduation went to school in England, where she earned an instructor's degree from a prestigious riding academy. When she returned to the United States, she taught riding at a posh hunt club outside of Detroit.

But the lure of the track was too great. It wasn't long before she was galloping horses on mornings at Detroit Race Course.

It was at the track that Mary Steedman met jockey Johnny "Pug" Bacon. They married soon afterward.

"We had a special kind of love," Bacon told Newsweek. "Most people go home at night and chat about kids or something, but we could go to bed talking about who cut us off at the three-eighths' pole."

In March 1969, Bacon gave birth to a daughter, Suzie.

It was an exciting time for women in horse racing. On Feb. 7, 1969, Diane Crump had become America's first female jockey. Bacon was determined to have her chance. If she had to, she would travel from track to track to find her fame and fortune. She could not allow a baby to rein her in.

The day Suzie was born, Bacon had been riding horses, teaching them how to break from the starting gate. She would be back riding two weeks after the birth.

Bacon's mother, it was decided, would raise Suzie.

Not long after Bacon started riding in races at Detroit Race Course, officials raised objections to her competing against her husband.

They needn't have worried. Above all, she wanted to win.

But when objections persisted about husband and wife continuing to ride in the same races, Bacon found a convenient excuse for escaping from what had become a stormy marriage.

Bacon divorced her husband, who later died in a 1977 auto accident, and raced off to national prominence.

Bacon won her first race June 5, 1969. She won 55 times in 396 races that first year. She finished in the money 160 times.

She may not have been the best of the early female jockeys, but she certainly was good enough to compete. And the cameras clicked lovingly whenever she came into focus.

Around the track, she remained tough, always trying to prove that she belonged.

Away from the track, she could be softer. She laughed. She made jokes. She appeared to many to be a small-town girl who had gambled on the big city and won.

She became more than a jockey. She became a national phenomenon. Even during her most successful years on horses, she would earn far more from modeling than racing.

Four Junes after her first victory, Playboy presented Bacon as part of a collection of photographs the magazine titled, "Woman's Work."

In June 1974 came a Newsweek cover for a story on women emerging in sports. The news magazine used 14 photographs inside to help illustrate its story. Bacon's was the only face to appear more than once.

She would win 286 times in the 3,526 races she would ride.

Another significant number: She suffered 51 broken bones in racing accidents. Her pelvis was crushed. Her spleen was ruptured. At times, she could not walk without a limp.

But it was her mouth that would begin to send her career into decline.

In April 1975, while riding at the Fairgrounds in New Orleans, she attended a Ku Klux Klan rally down the road in Walker, La. A prominent personality, she was asked to speak. She was introduced to a crowd of 2,700 by the national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke.

"We are not just a bunch of illiterate Southern nigger-killers," the Catholic woman from Toledo told the rally. "We are good, white, Christian people working for a white America. When one of your wives or one of your sisters gets raped by a nigger, maybe you'll get smart and join the Klan."

For the first time in her life, a camera would be her undoing. A local television station filmed the speech.

Bacon was back in the national headlines. In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal would refer to her as "The Klansman's Jane Fonda."

Almost immediately, her endorsement contracts were canceled. Trainers looked for riders carrying less baggage. She had 323 mounts in 1974; the next year, she would get only 143; by 1976, her total fell to 38.

Bacon, who later said she never had been a member of the Klan, never apologized.

"It was just Mary trying to sound tough, trying to be the center of attention, trying to be the equal of any man," Anderson said.

In May 1979, she was seriously hurt in a starting-gate accident at a small track in East St. Louis, Ill. Her mount flipped. The horse landed on her.

She sued for negligence, claiming that the gate had been unsafe. She won and was awarded a $3 million settlement. She never collected. The track declared bankruptcy and went out of business.

Three years later came what in essence was her career-ending injury. In June 1982, Bacon went down in a spill at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California. She remained unconscious for eight days.

Anderson maintains that his wife suffered more than just more broken bones in the accident.

"She broke her brain in that one, too," he said.

Bacon developed trouble with her balance. She developed trouble remembering things.

"Doctors said my license shouldn't be renewed because I was permanently brain-damaged," she told the Chicago Tribune in the 1987 interview. "I wasn't brain-damaged. It's just my personality.

"Finally, I was approved by a doctor. But with no agent and no outfit, you're just a name on a list."

Mary and Jeff retired to a new life in South Florida.

"We lived there for a while and then moved to San Francisco," Anderson said. "For five years, she was a housewife doing things like shopping and hitting flea markets. I thought things were fine.

"And then Mary woke up one morning and wanted to be a jockey again."

By June 1991, she had tried to get rides at enough tracks around the country that the word was long out; Mary Bacon could no longer cut it.

Like gypsies, wife and husband flitted from track to track. They had no luck at the big, first-class tracks such as Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.

What little work Bacon could find in her comeback came at smaller tracks, such as Bandera Downs outside San Antonio and Manor Downs near Austin, Texas. There, owners and trainers cannot be as discriminating in picking exercise riders.

Until last summer, Jeff and Mary had lived in Austin for two years. She loved Texas. She loved wearing boots and jeans and cowboy hats. Perhaps more importantly, she always managed to find some work in the state. Texas, just discovering parimutuel horse racing, was littered with small tracks searching for people with experience.

She even put on her silks again at Bandera last September. She rode in half a dozen races. On Labor Day, a month after she broke her right arm in three places falling from a quarter horse during a morning ride at Manor, Texas, she rode a 2-year-old named Royal Narue to second place in his maiden race. It was as close as she would come to a winner's circle comeback.

Remembering her good fortune at Bandera, Mary and Jeff drifted from Oaklawn to a similar track in Kansas. But nothing changed at the Woodlands.

"By then, all the trainers had to see was Mary on a horse once, and she was finished," Anderson said.

And so, Mary Bacon planned one last ride.

She told her husband that she was leaving the Woodlands, where he had found work as a jockey agent and she had been sentenced to watch others work with horses.

She would head south, she told him, back to Texas to try to find work of her own.

Perhaps this time, she said, she would try her luck at Trinity Meadows, the new track in Willow Park, west of Fort Worth.

Mary Bacon left Kansas in her blue, two-door, 1985 Oldsmobile Toronado on a Thursday. She loved the old car, because it was big with the kind of powerful engine hard to find in newer models.

Her husband worried when she left, but there was no arguing with her once she had made up her mind, he said.

Almost two months after her death, Anderson said he realizes she never intended to try her luck at a track. She left Kansas without the tools of her trade - her saddle, riding boots and tack.

In Texas, she stopped at a Motel 6 along Fort Worth's North Freeway. She paid $25.93 for a room and was handed the key to Room No. 133.

Early on Friday, June 7, she left to visit a pawn shop. She used her American Express card to buy a blue-steel, .22-caliber revolver. The credit-card bill that her husband would receive weeks later reported it cost $59.95.

At 11:45 a.m., Mary Bacon left her motel room, walked to her Toronado, took the gun out of the car and returned to her room, a witness told Fort Worth police.

About 25 minutes later, a maid opened the door to 133 to clean the room. She found Bacon lying on the floor, a pool of blood around her head.

There was nothing the paramedics or the doctors could do. Mary Bacon died at 1:45 a.m. June 8.

Sixteen days later, Mary Bacon would return to New York and Belmont Park, where she had enjoyed much of her early success.

Her cremated ashes were spread over the grave of Ruffian, perhaps the greatest female thoroughbred in history.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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