Karlsson writes life's next chapter

Updated: February 11, 2011, 9:47 AM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

Jockey Inez Karlsson rides Rahystrada to victory in the 2010 edition of the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap.Four Footed FotosJockey Inez Karlsson rides Rahystrada to victory in the 2010 edition of the Arlington Handicap.

STICKNEY, Ill. -- She got the news early in September, the diagnosis hitting like a slug to the chest. The treatments weren't working. The disease she'd fought with emergency surgery in 2007 had come back.

So Inez Karlsson took stock of her life, all 27 years of it. She made tough choices spurred on by a brutal case of endometriosis and the realization that her decision could change her future forever. Then she walked away from her rising career and did the last thing anyone expects a highly successful jockey to do.

She decided to have a baby.

***

Chicago. February. It is bitter cold and deep snow from a recent blizzard covers the ground near Hawthorne Race Course, where Karlsson is hot-walking a Thoroughbred for trainer Frank Kirby. She makes countless rounds inside the barn under overhanging eaves, one hand on a leather leadshank, moving along until the high-strung racehorse cools down from his morning exercise. She doesn't have to do this. She does it anyway.

It is not the first time Karlsson's career has been halted by her condition, a hormone-related disease that causes cells, cysts and scar tissue to grow irregularly around the female reproductive organs. The surgery in December of 2007 kept her out until February of 2008, and in 2010 she was forced to take off her mounts on multiple occasions as the season came to a close.

Inez Karlsson
Inez Karlsson at 2009 Eclipse Awards in Miami.
It is the first time, however, that Karlsson is making her own decision to stop riding. Today, she'll visit the doctor for her four-month checkup. She's pregnant. She's healthy. She's happy. She's pain-free.

"I got really sick at the end of 2010 and just knew I had to do something," she says. "I had four doctors telling me, 'You're probably not going to be able to have kids. If you want to have kids, start trying now. Sooner or later, we'll want to do a hysterectomy.' Imagine, when you're 27 years old, having to think of things like that. Plus, I was at the midpoint of a career that was only getting better."

In 2009 she became Arlington Park's all-time leading female rider. In 2010 she won two Grade 3 stakes races, the Hanshin Cup and the Arlington Handicap. She rode in the Arlington Million, the first female rider to do so since Julie Krone in 1991, and only the second in history (her mount, Rahystrada, ran fourth). In four short years, her mounts amassed more than $8.5 million in earnings. It has been almost six months since her last race at Arlington.

"I had to make a decision: What did I want to do with my life?" Karlsson recalls. "It was very hard for me, but I know I made the right choice. I'm glad I'm still young and I have plans to get back in the saddle. For a little while after I stopped, I just wanted to be away from it all. But it's so natural for me to be on a horse. I do miss it, and I know I want to come back."

Right now, however, that comeback is vague, somewhere in the yet-to-be-determined future. Karlsson is caught up in planning for the baby's arrival with her spouse, Anthony Calcagno. She maintains her connection to the horses only through this leather shank in her hand, this snorting beast a comforting presence beside her.

"People come up, feeling sorry for me," she says. "They say, 'Oh, you're not riding, you're walking horses,' but I feel like this is a way for me to give back and remember where I came from, a way to stay down-to-earth."

***

She was nobody when she arrived on the Chicago racing scene, a slender slip of a girl with pretty blue eyes. The trainers, set in their ways and superstitions, wouldn't pay much mind to a wannabe jockey who hadn't even won a race. Especially a girl. She'd walk up in the mornings and they'd literally turn their backs on her, refusing to acknowledge her presence.

But Karlsson didn't go away. She kept popping up around the barns in the mornings, pedaling her bicycle across the stable area with a riding whip sticking up from her back pocket. She approached each horseman with that determined set to her jaw, and wouldn't take no for an answer.

"She kept coming around my barn every day, every day, every day," said Kirby. Now he's one of Karlsson's staunchest supporters. "I didn't put her on nothing for quite a while, but she just kept coming by. It didn't take me long to develop great confidence in her ability. I had a good feeling when I put her on my horses; I knew I was at least getting an honest, hard try."

A native of Sweden and in 2005 that country's second-ranked light flyweight female boxer, Karlsson first landed in Toronto in 2005. She was seeking a change, and the world of horse racing provided excitement, a challenge. She worked with Standardbred harness horses, glimpsed jockeys at Woodbine Race Course, and immediately knew what she wanted to do for a living. Then she bounced around between Thoroughbred tracks in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Kentucky before winding up in Chicago, just looking for someone to give her a chance.

"It was difficult when I first came around because I heard all these things like, 'You should just go home and get married,' or 'Chicago is not a girls' place,' or 'You'll never make it as a rider,'" she says. "It was like that a lot. Sometimes I would think, What am I doing? I'm just working and working and working and trying and I only get a slap in the face. But I always believed in myself and knew I could make it if I got the right opportunities. I was going to try until I did."

Gradually, the crusty horsemen began to come around -- at first because Karlsson offered to ride their trainees in morning workouts for free, and then because they recognized her obvious abilities, the way she connected with their horses.

"I kinda took a liking to her," Kirby admits. "She's very aggressive but professional; you could tell she was going to make it because she was going to work at her career. When I put her on horses I saw that she has very good hands, great balance and form on a horse, and that she was kind to animals."

Inez Karlsson
Four Footed FotosKarlsson is interviewed in the Arlington Park winner's circle.
Karlsson breezed 250 runners for free before she even got her jockey's license. When she did, even the weight allowance granted to apprentice or "bug" riders did not make things easy for her. She rode one or two races each day. When business was especially good, her agent, Penny Ffitch-Heyes, was able to line up three.

Ffitch-Heyes, a tough, no-nonsense Englishwoman who rode steeplechase horses before she turned to managing jockeys, recognized Karlsson's potential. In a colony where there were no other female riders, it would take an exceptionally gutsy woman to survive, let alone succeed.

"There are a few girl riders out there, but not many that really make it," Ffitch-Heyes says. "They don't have the attitude, the fortitude, or even the body strength that she does. Also, she's always been very forthright, very up-front and clear about what she's wanted. There's never been anything wishy-washy about her. A lot of girls aren't like that."

Even through the hard times, Karlsson persisted. She studied films of past races and learned to improve her style. She worked out every day until she was as strong as a guy. She braided her long blonde hair and tucked it up beneath her helmet. She focused on getting those mounts.

"I knew I couldn't act like a girl and I didn't want to be like a girl because the best jockeys in the world are men," she recalls. "I realized very fast that to be in this game and be competitive, I'd have to show a tougher side of myself."

***

On Sept. 12, 2007, before the last race of the day at Arlington, a trainer named Chris Block gave Karlsson a leg up onto a horse named Death Valley. The 3-year-old gelding had a string of four previous starts but just couldn't break his maiden. Every time the gates opened he bolted like a bullet, expending all of his energy in a panicked rush down the racetrack.

Block had been watching Karlsson in the mornings and at the races. He'd noticed the longshots she'd been riding horses without much chance to win. She seemed to be getting quite a bit of run out of them, and they were finishing better than they had in other races. He also figured the weight allowance he'd get because of her apprentice status might play into getting Death Valley into the winner's circle. So he asked Karlsson to breeze the horse, get to know him. With her in the saddle, Death Valley went better than he'd ever gone before.

"What did you do with him?" Block asked when she returned to the barn that first morning.

"I was nice to him," she said simply. But the strategy was a little more in-depth than that.

"I never took a hold of that horse, from the time I broke out of the gate until the race was over," Karlsson recalls. "I sang to him in the post parade, and he knew my voice. That's how I won the race on him, just a little Swedish song -- he seemed to like it, and relax."

She wound up winning not only her first career victory aboard the gelding, but seven additional races as well.

"The reason I put her on that horse is because we were frustrated with the way he'd been running," Block recalls. "She rode him very, very well that day. She seems to ride an intelligent race and puts horses in good positions to win. She's strong enough to ride with the male riders on any given day and she has a very good work ethic, which goes a long way in our industry."

Other trainers picked up on this, and in 2008, Karlsson's career took off. She brought home leading apprentice honors at the Arlington meet and finished fifth in the overall standings. It had been seven years since Zoe Cadman became the first woman in history to win a riding title at Hawthorne Race Course; at the end of the fall-winter meet of 2008-2009, Karlsson became the second. Twice, she rode four winners in a day -- a feat never before accomplished at Arlington by a female rider. In 2010, she actually led the Arlington standings -- the first female rider to do so -- before she wound up sixth.

That's because her health was declining again. The pain was constant and medication brought little relief. A fever that came on after one painful episode lingered for two months. She could almost feel the infection spreading inside her, and for days she would ride, go home, and collapse into bed.

"I didn't quite understand what she was going through," Ffitch-Heyes recalls. "She was in so much pain there at the end, but she didn't want to stop riding."

She'd competed with broken ribs, a broken toe, a broken thumb, a contusion to her pelvis. She'd fought through the pain of a separated shoulder. She was used to shaking off various concussions. She just couldn't tough this illness out.

Inez Karlsson
Four Footed FotosThe jockey signs for fans to raise money for paralyzed fellow rider Rene Douglas.
"The question became, how long am I going to force myself to do this?" she says. "Now, feeling healthy, I realize how sick I really was."

But to walk away from racing, just when her career was becoming solid, just when things were getting good, was one of the toughest decisions of her life.

"Do what you think is right for yourself," Kirby told her. "You always have to remember, you're the only one in control of your own destiny."

"I give her credit for being a pretty strong person because at the moment she stopped a career that was going forward very fast," he says. "I was very surprised when she chose to stop. Of course, nobody knows what someone else feels inside, what they're going through. When she made her mind up to do that, she immediately followed through on it, and I commend her for that."

***

People still ask about Karlsson, how she's doing, and why exactly did she take time off again. In the grandstand, on the backside, they come up to Kirby, "Frank, how's Inez? We hope she comes back riding, we really liked her."

He remembers the days when she'd walk from the winner's circle to the jocks' room, signing autographs all the way. He's seen some awfully good riders come and go, and he counts her among them. Heck, he'll even call her the best female jockey in the nation.

"Riding in Chicago is hard," he says. "You have to work at it, you have to put down roots and stay here. I think that sooner or later now, she'll come back to ride. She won't be off too long, and she'll do just fine when she does come back. People really like her, trainers and owners and everybody. They have great respect for her."

This Friday, Hawthorne Race Course begins its 102nd year of operation and Karlsson begins her first year in a new position -- as a co-host for the track's in-house simulcast show. It's a gig management needed to fill when former analyst Katie Mikolay went to work for Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots, and Karlsson is expected to provide unique insight during the prerace handicapping program and between-race analysis.

"She's one of those we've been really supportive of since the start, and she's been really good to us when it came to doing anything promotionally," said Jim Miller, the track's assistant general manager and host of the show. "We feel like she's a part of our family and it seems like a good fit; she'll give the perspective of a rider who knows all these trainers and is familiar with a lot of these horses and it's a great thing for our racing fans, who already recognize and like her."

Karlsson doesn't have any major broadcast experience, although a few years ago when she was taking days on suspension, Miller brought her on to participate in the track's replay program. So last week, she stopped by the front side offices to pick up copies of past shows. She wanted to study, of course.

"I told Jim, 'Now listen, she's not just going to dabble around on this show, she's going to work at it and really work at it,'" Kirby says. "She'll do a great job."

No one knows exactly when or where Karlsson will return to racing -- or even if she will return as she desires. But if there's one thing they recognize, it's her determined nature. And whatever path she decides to take as the future unfolds, there's no doubt she'll succeed.

"I still really want to have my career," she says. "I think I can do it again and I think I can be better the second time around. Time away from riding makes you realize what you had, how many people helped you, and that you were so lucky to get a chance. It makes you very humble and you value those accomplishments even more."

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.