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Fresh off riding title at Hawthorne, Karlsson a finalist for Eclipse Award
By Mike Spellman | Daily Herald Staff

Inez Karlsson


Courtesy of Four Footed Photos

Inez Karlsson


Courtesy of Four Footed Photos

Inez Karlsson


Courtesy of Four Footed Photos

Inez Karlsson


Courtesy of Four Footed Photos

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Published: 1/23/2009 12:05 AM

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When jockey agent Penny Ffitch-Heyes agreed to handle the book for apprentice rider Inez Karlsson, she got an awful lot of funny looks.

Not because she was selling trainers on giving Karlsson a shot to ride, rather it was the sales spiel she used when discussing the former boxer from Sweden, who only started galloping thoroughbreds in the summer of 2007 at Arlington Park.

"I told everyone she was going to win an Eclipse Award, and they told me I was nuts," Ffitch-Heyes recalled with a laugh. "But I could see she had it in her; she had the drive and the determination."

Well, look who's laughing now.

Karlsson recently became only the second female jockey to win a riding title on the Chicago circuit (Zoe Cadman was the first) at the just-concluded Hawthorne fall meet, finishing with 82 victories to beat out Chris Emigh by a dozen.

"I was thinking about that the other day and said, 'I can't believe I did that,'" Karlsson said from Florida, where she is riding occasionally at Gulfstream Park.

As if that weren't enough, Karlsson also found out she had been named a finalist for the Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice jockey. The awards ceremony will be held Monday (6 p.m., TVG Network) in Miami.

"I'm surprised, but I've been working really hard," Karlsson said. "I didn't think it would happen. It's such an honor."

Karlsson has a chance to become the first locally based rider and just the third female to win the award. Rosemary Homeister did it in 1992 and Emma-Jayne Wilson took the gold in 2005.

"I'm proud to represent Chicago," Karlsson said. "There are so many people who supported me all the way there - it's like family."

Going up against Karlsson in the apprentice category are Pascacio Lopez, who starred at Calder Race Course in Florida in 2008, and Abel Mariano, who currently rides at Philadelphia Park.

"She's got a great chance," said Hawthorne assistant general manager Jim Miller, who will be part of a Chicago contingent accompanying Karlsson to the Eclipse ceremonies. "Look at the quality of the meets she's ridden in and the riders she's ridden against - Rene Douglas, Chris Emigh, Eddie Razo and Earlie Fires ... she's held her own with them."

And to think it was just four years ago that Karlsson, unable to speak a word of English, arrived in Canada from Sweden to work with standardbred horses.

"That was tough," she said. "I got fired from my first job because I couldn't speak the language. I was home crying a lot."

But she prevailed, and in about six months time she learned the language well enough to thrive.

Now she finds herself writing her own speech in case she wins an Eclipse.

How has Karlsson's star risen so far so fast?

In a nutshell, she can take the heat.

"I'm hard on her; I'll be critical whenever it warrants," Ffitch-Heyes said. "She takes things and improves."

And there's another important quality Ffitch-Heyes sees in her client.

"She doesn't ride like a girl," she said.

"I never compare myself to a girl," Karlsson said. "The best riders in the country are men, and I try to be like a man on a horse."

But now that's she's lost her apprentice weight allowance and will be racing straight up against the men, what does the future hold?

"Without the bug? Who knows," Ffitch-Heyes said. "But I think her determination and drive will take her through."

"I don't see it (as being a detriment), but some trainers see it that way," Karlsson said. "I stayed in Chicago and got established, got clients. I think I'm in good shape in Chicago. It's tougher to break in on a new circuit (like Florida)."

If things go accordingly, Karlsson will return to Hawthorne in the spring and then ride at Arlington Park this summer.

"That's Plan A," she said. "But in the life of a jockey, a lot of things change."

After a whirlwind couple of weeks filled with nothing but good news, no one knows that better than Karlsson.

"I couldn't be happier," she said. "I'm living a dream."