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Donít Horse Around with Mary Erickson

Donít Horse Around with Mary Erickson

By M. Scott McMannis

Often a newcomer to the racetrack will ask, "How do we know that the horse named in the track program is really the one running in the race?"

Good question.

Answer: We depend on Horse Identifier Mary Erickson.

Visit the paddock and watch the horses enter for their upcoming race. Every one must be brought to Erickson to be confirmed, by physical markings and the unique number tattooed inside the upper lip, as the horse who is entered to race.

Did Erickson start out to be a horse identifier?

"Hardly," she laughed, heartily. "Not as a voice major from the University of Evansville." Evansville, Indiana, is Erickson's home town. "After college my friend, Margie Biggs, moved to Champaign, Illinois, with her husband," Erickson related. "She called and told me of a job at nearby Stonegate Stable, and I took it. I started at the bottom, working with the horses, and really learned a lot."

While at Stonegate Erickson met Dr. Jane Richardson who had a horse there. Richardson later called from Chicago and suggested Erickson come here.

"So, in 1970, I came to Chicago," continued Erickson. "I worked for several trainers, including Ron Goodridge, Jim Eckrosh, Tom Niolon, Tee Red Bernice, and Bobby Voelkner."

In 1975 Richardson again had a major influence on Erickson's life.

"Dr. Jane heard of a temporary position as a Coggins Clerk," Erickson explained. "It was a State of Illinois job that was to last six weeks, but it kept on past that. "Eventually," Erickson continued, "the State said the Coggins Clerk job didn't justify full-time status, but I could remain full time if I also became secretary to the horse identifier, Jim Roach. I agreed. "Four years later, in 1979, I showed up for work one morning and Jim wasn't there," said Erickson. "Come to find out that he was in the hospital, and he ultimately had his leg amputated."

With Roach unavailable, the State looked to Erickson. She became the horse identifier, a possible milestone in that she is thought to be the first female horse identifier in the industry.

Erickson milestoned again. She insisted on identifying horses by lip tattoo number, not just by appearance markings noted on foal papers.

"That was a major change," Erickson declared. "First there was a lot of resistance to a female identifier, then to identifying by lip tattoo."

The value of using lip tattoos was quickly shown in a profound way.

"The horse to be run was Fleet Isis," Erickson began, "but a horse named Indian Jewel showed up and, of course, the lip tattoo revealed that fact. I called the stewards and the horse was scratched. "Further investigation revealed that Fleet Isis and Indian Jewel had shipped on the same van from Florida to two different farms outside Chicago," revealed Erickson. "They were each offloaded at the wrong farm by mistake. They looked alike but no one checked the lip tattoo at either farm. That incident cemented the use of lip tattoos."

Erickson has worked all the Thoroughbred meets in Chicago. The best guess is that she has rolled up the top lip to confirm a tattoo number about 400,000 times. How many times has she been bitten?

"Never," Erickson replied with a smile. "The horse is held firmly and I make no quick or threatening moves. They get to know me and accept me. "We get one or two incidents a year where the wrong horse shows up," concluded Erickson. "It's a case of a groom selecting or being given the wrong horse by mistake. I don't believe anyone has deliberately tried to pass the wrong horse by me since we started using the tattoo number."

Lesson: Don't mess with Mary.


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