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Last year when jockey Mary Russ opened the Christmas card from her husband, Rick Tortora, she found the gift she had long desired. "He had put a note in there that told me if I wanted to ride again, he would support me," says Russ.
So in January, at age 39, Russ, a mother of three, began a comeback, hoping to regain the form that made her not only the first female rider to earn $1 million in a year (1982) but also the first to win a Grade I stakes race, which she did aboard Lord Darnley in the '82 Widener Handicap at Hialeah.
"It's sort of like riding a bicycle," Russ says. "Once you do it, you never forget." Apparently not. Russ got the first victory of her comeback on Feb. 10, and it was in a stakes race, the Fast Hilarious at Gulfstream Park.
Russ and Tortora first met in the late 1970s, when both of them were working at Red Oak Farm in Ocala, Fla. Tortora left to pursue a career as a trainer, and shortly thereafter his father, Manny, also a trainer, gave Russ a chance to be a race rider. Her first big year was 1981, when in 908 starts she had 118 victories and $779,807 in earnings. Among female jockeys that year, only Donna Burnham, Pattie Cooksey and Julie Krone won more races.
The next year Russ proved she could compete anywhere, against anybody. Her mounts earned a women's record $1,319,363. A month after she won the Widener Handicap on Lord Darnley, she rode him to victory again, this time in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, another Grade I stakes.
Then Russ went to New York to try her luck against Angel Cordero Jr. and all the other top riders based there. Although she won several stakes in New York, she didn't get as many mounts as she wanted, so she returned to Florida late in the summer of '82. There she renewed her friendship with Rick. They married in 1983, and when Russ learned she was pregnant in early 1986, she retired from riding. "I started having weight trouble, and then I found out why," she says. Mary and Rick had twins, Barbara and Richard Jr., now 6�, and then another son, Justin, who turned four on Sunday.
Although Russ never had any regrets about retiring—"I didn't want to miss out on having a family," she says—she did find herself yearning to race again. In 1988 she and Rick moved to Equitor Farm, a 26-acre spread near Ocala, that they own with Rick's parents, brother and sister-in-law. Though Russ was no longer racing, at least she was around horses. Her duties included riding 15 to 20 yearlings a day. "That helped me stay in shape," says Russ, who packs 107 pounds on her 5'4" body, "but it's not the same as riding in races." When the horses left the farm for the racetrack. Russ couldn't help but feel a little wistful.
Now Russ says she'll continue racing as long as it doesn't put a strain on her marriage. The family is together only on weekends. During the week, Rick keeps the twins on the farm while Justin stays with Mary at her in-laws' home in Miami near Gulfstream Park.
Russ goes to the track early every morning to hustle mounts. Last Saturday she and Rick took the children with them to Tampa Bay Downs, where Russ rode a 5-year-old horse named Meena to a fifth-place finish in the Budweiser Breeders' Cup. "The kids love to see me ride," she says. "They like to pretend they're jockeys now."
Russ says that all the jockeys at Gulfstream have welcomed her back, especially Krone, who became the most successful female rider in history during Russ's absence. "She's a lot of fun," says Russ of Krone, "and she's a real good rider."