Karlsson writes life's next chapter
Updated: February 11, 2011, 9:47 AM ETBy Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com
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.
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."
Inez Karlsson at 2009 Eclipse Awards in Miami.
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."
Four Footed FotosKarlsson is interviewed in the Arlington Park winner's circle.
"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."
Four Footed FotosThe jockey signs for fans to raise money for paralyzed fellow rider Rene Douglas.
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