NEW YORK -- She was still pert and pretty at 43 and had that familiar brashness, part cockiness, part wildness, some recklessness.
Mary Bacon seemed loaded with self-confidence, the very attitude she used to turn a 21-year career into a never-ending adventure, a roughshod trip across America's racetracks that included posing nude in Playboy, an appearance at a Ku Klux Klan rally, a kidnapping at knifepoint and a declaration that "if they got a racetrack in hell, I'm gonna be leading rider there."
She would have wanted you to believe that, because she liked the image, the tough girl making it in a tough sport. But behind the front was a different person, a side to her that was not open for public display. Within Mary Bacon a private battle raged, one that she could not win. On June 8, the fight ended. She sat in a hotel room in Fort Worth, Texas, and fired a bullet into her head.
It first began to fall apart due to a severe injury and then because of cervical cancer. Weakness overtook the strength she had once used to steer thousand-pound race horses to the finish line and without that ability she became a shell of her former self.
She had desperately, even valiantly, tried to restore what she had; Bacon went from track to track searching for mounts and scraping around for attention. She wouldn't give up on racing, even if racing seemed to have given up on her.
"For a while, she had something to live for," recalled her husband, Jeff Anderson, from Kansas City, Kan. "To her, this was just another of her battles, another battle to win."
That kept her going, but after a while she realized there were not going to be any last-minute miracles. The race was over. She had lost.
Bacon never gave up hope that she somehow could have beaten the cancer, but it was obvious to everyone that she could never again ride horses. She had seen the pain and the suffering of the disease firsthand when her mother died of cancer just nine months earlier, but it was the loss of racing that hurt the most.
She had come to the Woodlands Racetrack in Kansas City with Anderson and, just before the meet began, still managed to gallop a few horses each morning. But as her pain increased and her strength decreased, even that was no longer possible.
"She had said, 'I want to ride, that's all that counts,' " Anderson said. " 'Riding is living.' Her life was over as far as she was concerned. She could never ride again."
"Riding," said her sister, Suzix Steedman, "was all Mary lived for. It was her whole life."
And that was how it ended.
For one of the most colorful and controversial figures ever in racing, it began on the racetrack in 1969, a time when female riders were a novelty, a curiosity not to be taken seriously in a man's sport. They fought for respect and mounts and Mary Bacon fought harder than most.
She showed up in New York in the fall of 1972, in the big time to ride horses for future Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg. Bacon loved the spotlight and the publicity and she always gave them something to talk and write about.
She had flowing blond hair and good looks, often wore a cowboy hat and made sure the other riders could see the flowered panties she wore underneath her riding pants.
"Gives them something to look at when I'm on the lead," she said.
Bacon was tough, even crass. She once asked a New York State Racing and Wagering Board lawyer if he'd "like a punch in the mouth." She claimed she had been a topless dancer, rode Brahma bulls and had been in reform school, but many of her stories were more a creation of her vivid imagination than reality.
"She always wanted to be the center of attention and to be rated the equal of any man," Anderson said. "So she felt she had to be tough. She thought the bigger the redneck she became, the tougher she became. In this game here, unless you're cocky, you ain't a good rider. You've got to be cocky. She had more guts than a lot of these guys I know."
Bacon could appear hardened on the racetrack, but to others she was simply a real pretty girl from some small town. She had a wholesome look -- an ironic contrast to her personality -- and it sold. She got offers to endorse products, including a stint as the original "Charlie Girl" for Revlon, and she bared all for a Playboy nude spread on working women in 1973.
But even with such attention, there was already a troubled private side to Bacon that no one but her family knew.
Formerly married to rider Johnny Bacon, who died in an auto accident in 1977, she gave birth to an autistic daughter, who is now 22 and lives with Bacon's sister.
"Mentally, her daughter is 3," Steedman said. "She's not able to understand what happened to Mary, she just asks when Mary's coming home."
Bacon never told anyone about her daughter or her family due to the on-going hell she endured at the hands of a lunatic who stalked her and attempted to murder her. She needed to protect them from the same mental torture she had to deal with because of Paul Corley Turner.
Turner, believed to be a stablehand, convinced Mary and her agent to give him a ride one afternoon from a hotel to Pocono Downs Racetrack in 1969, where Bacon was riding. No sooner had the trio begun the drive to the track than Turner pulled out a knife and threatened to kill Mary and leave her for dead in the Pennsylvania woods. Bacon later said Turner wanted to kill her because she was defeating male jockeys.
Bacon managed to escape, but the madman always seemed to be lurking around the next corner.
"This guy stalked her for years," her sister said. "He would send us letters and tell us just how he would kill Mary. He would send letters from prison [Turner was later apprehended and sentenced to 12 years in jail] and still write to her. He was an awful man and he kept after her. Once in Florida, she was riding to the post and she saw him standing down on the rail at the track. She just started screaming. I don't really know her terror. It must have been intense.
"I heard that he got killed in a fight in a bar a few years ago. I sure hope that he's dead."
There were other wounds on her soul, and some were self-inflicted. Bacon appeared at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Walker, La., in 1975. In front of an audience of 2,700, she was taped by local television stations, saying: "We are not just a bunch of illiterate Southern nigger killers. 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."
It turned out to be the worst mistake she ever made. All of her endorsements were withdrawn and her racetrack business started to fall off, as well. Her career never recovered.
But Bacon was still physically healthy, which meant she could still ride a horse when given the chance. Soon she would lose even that.
She had a severe accident at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California in 1982. She was in a coma for eight days and had a great deal of difficulty regaining her balance. Her sister says she also lost her "spark." Anderson said that police would pull her over for drunken driving, even when she was perfectly sober.
"She had no broken bones," he said. "Just a broken brain."
Eventually, Bacon was able to ride again, but her body was too battered and her skills were gone.
"She couldn't find anyone who would give her a shot," Anderson said.
Then the cancer set in and Mary Bacon had to give up riding. She also felt she had to give up on life.
She never told anyone -- not Anderson, not her sister, not her brother Jimmy -- what she was going to do. She just drove to Texas one day, checked into a hotel, left Anderson a note and ended her suffering with a single bullet from a .22-caliber pistol.
In the lifeless record books of racing, all it will say was that Mary Bacon was born in Chicago, grew up in Toledo, had 286 career winners and that her last mount came at Bandera Downs in Texas in 1990. It won't tell you who she really was -- if anyone knows the answer. But she made us stand up and pay attention. There'll be no forgetting her. And she would have liked that.