Mary Wiley Wagner

Mary Wiley Wagner was a retired jockey that recently came out of retirement in May to participate in the Legends of the Cure Race down at Pimlicio. She must have liked riding in the race because after that she decided she wanted to ride some more and has been riding in several races down at Delaware and Laurel Park. I recently got her on the phone and here is what was said:

FOTH: When were you born and where did you grow up?

MWW: I was born New Rochelle, NY and grew up in Annapolis, MD.

FOTH: Did you come from a big family or a small family?

MWW: Um 4 kids.

FOTH: Were you interested in horse racing at a young age or did that come later on?

MWW: My parents moved away when I was 16 and I was into show horses, I had never been to a racetrack in my life, but I needed to make money and I was working at a gas station at night after school. Someone suggested I walk hots in the morning (hot walker) to make more money and that was my introduction. I was 17 at the time. I didn’t start riding races until I was 25.

FOTH: When you started walking horses what racetrack was this at?

MWW: That was Bowie.

FOTH: Now when you first started working there, what did you think of the horses and horse racing in general at the time?

MWW: At first they scared the hell out of me and the firs time I pulled into Bowie a horse threw his rider and ran loose through the stable area. I had no intentions of riding races, I just wanted to make a little bit of money cause I really needed it. It wasn’t until a couple of years later another kid who was working at the track told me I couldn’t ride races cause I was a girl. By that time I was galloping and he thought that I wanted to ride races! That was the farthest thing from my mind. That kinda posed a challenge to me and that is where it started.

FOTH: What was it like getting up on a horse for the first time? Were you nervous or scared?

MWW: Sacred to death of course. I was put on horses just to shedrow out of necessity cause we only made $70.00 a week so we were always short on help. It was scary, but I got over it pretty quickly.

FOTH: Now when you were getting up on horses and all that, was it in the pack of your mind that this might lead to you riding horses in the afternoon?

MWW: Yeah that was in the back of my mind but of course I had no idea if it would ever become a reality. At that time there were no female riders in Md.

FOTH: Let’s talk a bit about your first race. Where was it at and how nervous were you in the jock’s room?

MWW: It was Timonium and the horse was not a good choice for a 10 pound bug because the was known to bolt. The horse had bolted the previous time at that same racetrack. The trainer thought that somehow I was gonna get the horse around the track without him bolting. I was scared to death cause I knew this horse and we were on the inside going down the backside and that was not fun at all.

FOTH: After the first race did it start feeling a little easier and less fearful as far as riding goes?

MWW: I rode 5 races and I knew I was not prepared. I was a danger to myself and others so I hung up my tack and at that point didn’t really care if I ever rode. I quit the outfit that I was galloping for and started galloping for trainer Mert Bailes . After I'd been galloping for Mert for about a year, he told me I was wasting some good talent and that I should give riding races another shot. I was thrilled that a horseman of his caliber thought I had potential and was all for trying again. He put me on my first winner who was owned by his son, Robbie Bailes. From then on in it was a completely different game. Things picked up from there and I don’t think I was ever scared again.

FOTH: Tell me more about your 1st win.

MWW: My first win was for Mert Bailes owned by his son Robby Bailes and it was at Pimlicio and going back to the winner’s circle was the greatest feeling in the world.

FOTH: Did the jocks get you pretty good after the race and did you know that was coming?

MWW: At Pimlicio the girls room is downstairs and to get to it you have to go through the paddock. Above the paddock is a balcony to the guy’s room. They dumped several buckets of water on me but that was pretty much all they could do.

FOTH: How long did you end up riding for?

MWW: 10 years.

FOTH: Looking back was it easier or harder becoming a jockey?

MWW: It was easier. A couple months things were slow, but I was riding a lot for Mert and then Bob Suggs, then a trainer, asked me if he could have my book and I think Murt arranged that and from there I took off like a rocket and I had the bug at the same time and state as Kent Desoumoueax, which made it a bit more difficult, but the wins came easier than I ever expected.

FOTH: What injuries have you had over the years and what was the worst one?

MWW: The worst was a torn ACL a horse had an accident going to the racetrack at Bowie and I was out for 9 months and it completely severed my ACL and they had to reconstruct it and that was a big operation. Other than that I was really very fortunate I only had 5 concussions and broken ribs and plenty of bumps and bruises, but the torn ACL was the worst.

FOTH: What tracks did you ride at and did you have a favorite?

MWW: I rode at Garden State Park, Monmouth Park, Philadelphia Park, The Meadowlands, Pimlicio, Laurel, Delaware Park, Atlantic City, one track in Kentucky that raced like 2 days, Charlestown, and think that is it. I loved Atlantic City grass course and probably had a 80% win average. My least favorite was Philadelphia Park. I didn’t like the dirt and me and that track did not get along.

FOTH: When you rode your last race, did you know at the time it was going to be your last race and what event or events led to retired the 1st time around?

MWW: What happened was I was 3 months pregnant with our first daughter and my husband at the time and he was an assistant starter and he had to handle me every race that I rode and I rode a little ratty filly who tried to launch herself over the front doors and it was a good situation and that night me and my husband decided it was time.

FOTH: What years was it that you retired?

MWW: January of 1997 when I was 3 months pregnant with our first daughter, Sydney.

FOTH: Did you stay involved in horse racing after you retired or did you just get out of the game completely?

MWW: I got out of the game completely. I started a family and got into real estate and did well with that and I had not been on a horse since this past March when I started to get fit for the Ladies Legends race.

FOTH: Did you even follow racing when you were a real estate agent?

MWW: I followed it. The big races... the Kentucky Derby and stuff. I only went to the track once a year. I heard what was going on, but was not involved directly.

FOTH: This Legends for the Cure race that took place in May of 2010. How did you get contacted for it and what thoughts were going through your head when you were asked to do it?

MWW: Interestingly enough I was still in active treatment, aka chemo, for breast cancer when Georganne Hale, the racing secretary with the MD. Jockey club called. That was in October and my last treatment was scheduled for November 24th . I didn’t hesitate for a second and didn’t even ask for details and I signed right up for it and I couldn’t wait.

FOTH: Take me through the months leading up to the race exactly what you did to prepare for this race.

MWW: I started going to the gym in January for 5 days a week at least 2 ½ hours everyday and I got fit enough that I could run at least 3 miles and each mile in under 10 minutes and then I started getting on horses in the morning.

FOTH: The day of the event, I was also there, were you surprised at the amount of publicity for the race itself and the fact that the crowd seemed to respond to the race the most as opposed to all the other races on the card that day?

MWW: I was amazed that day! The attention we got from the press and the support from the fans was incredible. We were getting more press for that race than the Preakness was. It was crazy, I did 2 TV shows and we had articles published about us all the way to Australia. It was absolutely incredible. The funny thing is we were asked to do an autograph session and I was afraid nobody would show up. As it turned out we had more people in line than we had time to sign autographs. I don't think management had any idea that there would be several hundred people in line so there were regrettably many folks who stood in line and didn't get our autographs because we had to go back to the jocks room to get ready to ride.

FOTH: What was going through your mind during the post parade and when they were loading your horse into the starting gate?

MWW: It was an amazing feeling. My girls were there so they got to see me ride and my company, Champion Realty, had chartered a bus for all the people that wanted to see me ride. Once we jogged off it was like I never stopped riding. During the running of the race I never lost sight of the fact that I wasn’t riding with the guys and that this was a special race. We all rode hard but careful. It was a great race!

FOTH: So what led to you after that race to start riding again? Was part of it due to you spending so much time getting ready to ride this one race and why not ride some more?

MWW: Yeah that and the encouragement that I got from several other trainers that I have rode for before. Quite honestly I love being on racehorses and right now all I am doing is breezing horses which is my idea of fun. Also, I had breast cancer last year and I have learned that life is not always what we expect it. we might not be here as long as we hope. I never wanted to look back and say “what if?”

FOTH: So your just gonna take this race by race now?

MWW: When it is not fun I won’t do it anymore.

FOTH: What advice would you give a young girl that wanted to become a jockey?

MWW: Work hard, learn about nutrition so you don’t have to fight your weight and stay away from the gyps cause they will get you hurt. There is always the chance of getting hurt but you can mitigate risk by sticking with the good horsemen.

FOTH: Mary I am out of questions. Anything you want to say to wrap this up it was great talking to you?

MWW: I think we've about covered it. Thanks.

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