Metro

Jill Jellison, 51; fifth female jockey to win 1,000 races

Ms. Jellison rode a filly named Shopper Wife on opening day at Suffolk Downs in 2013.
matthew j. lee/globe staff/file
Ms. Jellison rode a filly named Shopper Wife on opening day at Suffolk Downs in 2013.

On an October day in 1993 at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, Jill Jellison rode into history aboard a 3-year-old filly named Topsy Turn.

Characteristically closing to victory by a half-length, she became just the fifth female jockey to win 1,000 races. The moment was special for Ms. Jellison and her mentor Bobby Raymond, the horse’s trainer.

“I’m glad I did it on one of Bobby’s horses. He was more emotional than me,” Ms. Jellison told the Globe, recalling that she had posted five second-place finishes leading up to her milestone win.

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Their shared history extended back to her first riding days. A quarter-century before her 1,000th win, when Ms. Jellison was 4, Raymond taught her to ride her pony, Blackie, on his farm in North Smithfield, R.I.

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Ms. Jellison, who in 1993 received the New England Turf Writers Association’s Lou Smith Memorial Award for outstanding achievement, died of breast cancer Tuesday in Rhode Island Hospital. A longtime North Smithfield resident, she was 51 and had lived recently with her brother Charles in Harrisville, R.I.

Her 1,913 victories rank sixth all-time among female jockeys, and she was a fierce competitor from the beginning.

“Blackie did nothing but throw her off the first time I taught her to ride, and she’d do nothing but get back on, and that determination never left her,” Raymond said. “She had such a love of horses that by the time she was in eighth grade she’d help me out at the tracks at Narragansett and Lincoln.”

As an apprentice jockey in 1982, she appeared in her first race at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, and shortly thereafter won for the first time at Finger Lakes in New York on Mighty Peter.

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Raymond said although Ms. Jellison developed a great feel for riding and track awareness, there were some early growing pains.

“In that race at Finger Lakes,” he recalled, “she took the whip and flicked it from side to side over Mighty Peter’s head like it was a cowboy movie, and afterward the racing steward asked her, ‘Who do you think you are, Lash LaRue?’ ”

Unfamiliar with the 1940s cowboy movie star, she shot back: “Who’s Lash LaRue?”

Quiet and private off the track, Ms. Jellison was a formidable and spirited opponent for any jockey when “They’re off” rang out.

“She could do it all, short or long, turf or mud,” said her close friend Tammi Piermarini, who ranks third among female jockeys in all-time wins. “She had gifted hands, knew how to position her horse, and always had something left at the end.”

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Ms. Jellison would “tell you like it was and tell you straight out,” Piermarini said. “She had such a great passion for horses.” Piermarini added that Ms. Jellison had wanted to be a jockey since she was 14, and Raymond’s stables were “like her second home.”

After missing most of the 2012 racing season due to one of a series of debilitating injuries, Ms. Jellison — who by then was also being treated for cancer — put on a display of courage during her last racing season at Suffolk in fall 2013.

“Day in and day out, she was dwindling in size and weight, icing down, and taking aspirins for her pain,” Piermarini said. “And then she would go out, block out the pain, and win. It was like the Lord knew it was her last time on the track.”

In her last 15 races, Ms. Jellison posted five first-place finishes, a second, and four thirds. In addition to nearly 2,000 wins achieved over 15,242 mounts, she had 1,931 seconds and 2,010 thirds, and her horses earned $13,592,449.

“She had a gift and she was tough,” said Chip Tuttle, Suffolk’s chief operating officer. “But most of all, she showed a positive attitude and fought so bravely over the last few years.”

In 1989, Ms. Jellison rode 240 winners at Rockingham to lead all jockeys at the spring and summer meetings, and she was the No. 2 women’s rider in North America that year behind the legendary Julie Krone. The following year, she was selected to compete in the international women’s jockey race series at four tracks in Japan as one of two representatives from the United States.

Joe Hampshire, a nine-time leading rider at Rockingham who often went head-to-head against Ms. Jellison, said she “was strong-willed and had a lot of talent as a rider, and I respected her as much as any man in our profession. On a good horse, she was tough to beat, and if you crossed her, she’d come right back at you.”

Piermarini said Ms. Jellison, who raced at Pimlico in Baltimore in a fund-raiser for breast cancer awareness, was generous and caring. Along with being involved with other charitable causes, Ms. Jellison made sure to pass along her jockey silks to Piermarini.

“She had a big heart and would do anything for you,” Hampshire said, adding that when Suffolk jockeys visited Boston Children’s Hospital at Christmastime with toys and donations from race fans, “Jill was the first one on the bus.”

Born in Woonsocket, R.I., on Nov. 22, 1963, Jill Ann Jellison often visited Raymond’s farm with her father, Charles Grady, a hearing aid salesman who helped walk and feed the horses, and who enjoyed riding.

After her father died on New Year’s Eve last year, Ms. Jellison took over caring for the retired race horse he owned, and did so “until she couldn’t lift a bucket,” her brother said. Her mother, Marilyn Jellison, died in 2010.

Ms. Jellison loved all animals and often photographed her dogs and cats. Though she passed up a formal high school education to pursue her riding career, she received a general equivalency diploma and attended Community College of Rhode Island after retiring from riding, intending to become a veterinarian.

“She hoped to beat her illness and ride again,” her brother said, and she recently purchased new stirrups. “Jill lived a simple life. She was humble with a strong work ethic, and I looked up to her.”

In addition to her brother Charles, Ms. Jellison leaves a sister, Lisa of Woonsocket, and four other brothers, Michael of Boston, Matthew Grady and Scott Grady, both of North Smithfield, and Glen Grady of Jacksonville, Fla.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday in All Saints Church in Woonsocket. According to Ms. Jellison’s wishes, her ashes will be scattered at Raymond’s farm.

As a memento of a key moment in Ms. Jellison’s life, Raymond keeps the halter of Benny’s Gem, a horse he once trained. The horse probably saved her life during a race at Tampa Bay Downs.

“Benny’s Gem stepped into a hole and snapped her leg and Jill went to the ground and broke her collarbone and a bone in her neck,” Raymond said. “But despite the horse’s injury, she walked back 20 feet and stood over Jill,” protecting her from oncoming horses.

“I had never seen anything like that before or since,” Raymond said. “It was like Benny’s Gem was her guardian angel.”

Ms. Jellison gave her first-place trophy to an adoring fan at Suffolk Downs in 1996.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File
Ms. Jellison gave her first-place trophy to an adoring fan at Suffolk Downs in 1996.

Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.