Jill Jellison was four years old when she first came to trainer Bobby Raymond's farm in North Smithfield, Rhode Island, in 1967. Her parents had bought her a pony named Blackie and Raymond told her, “You're going to be a jockey.”
His prediction would later come true.
“She looked at me like I had three heads,” Raymond recalled. “That little pony Blackie was a rogue. He kept throwing her and throwing her and she kept giving him carrots. She finally won him over, and it was onward from there.”
Ms. Jellison eventually would work at Raymond's farm, drop out of high school and set her sights on becoming a professional jockey. She won her first race in 1982 at Finger Lakes in New York on a horse named Mighty Peter. Seven years later she had her best year, winning the 1989 riding title at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire and booting home 241 winners overall from 1,478 mounts that earned $1,118,095.
“She tried to win on every horse,” Raymond recalled of Ms. Jellison, who at the age of 51 lost a lengthy battle to breast cancer earlier this week. “Every horse she got off of she tried to help. We did very good together. Losing her was like losing a superior tool. She'd come off the horse and tell me what was wrong.
“She was tough. She was kind. And she loved her animals,” Raymond said.
The toughness came out once at Rockingham Park when a male jockey who didn't like the idea of competing with female riders tried “to drop her a race,” Raymond recalled. “She came back to the paddock area and waited for him. She had the saddle in her left arm and gave that guy a beating, right there. They both got fined for it.”
Margo Flynn, a former trainer and now a racetrack executive at Tampa Bay Downs, got to know Ms. Jellison early in her career at Finger Lakes. Later on, she would occasionally ride at Tampa Bay Downs to escape the harsh winters of New England.
“She didn't consider herself a 'female rider' – just one of the jockeys trying to win,” said Flynn. “She wanted the opportunity and got it.”
“She could do it all, short or long, turf or mud,” another friend, fellow rider Tammi Piermarini, told the Boston Globe. “She had gifted hands, knew how to position her horse, and always had something left at the end.”
Ms. Jellison was a “private and reserved person,” Flynn said, who never wanted to talk about the cancer she was diagnosed with several years ago and that in 2013 forced her to quit the only profession she'd ever known.
“She loved animals and would do anything for a horse, a dog or a cat,” Flynn said. “That was her life. She wanted to become a veterinarian.”
Born in Woonsocket, R.I., on Nov. 22, 1963, Ms. Jellison compiled a career record of 1,913 wins, 1,931 seconds and 2,010 thirds from 15,242 career mounts. Horses she rode earned $13,592,449. She is the sixth winningest female jockey in history.
In her final meet at Suffolk Downs in the fall of 2013, Ms. Jellison finished seventh in the rider standings behind Piermarini with 35 wins from 147 mounts, a 24 percent success rate.
“Day in and day out, she was dwindling in size and weight, icing down, and taking aspirins for her pain,” Piermarini told the Globe. “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.”
“I went to see her last Sunday, and she passed away on Tuesday,” Raymond said. “She looked like a pencil from the cancer. She came down to Tampa last year and would go to the track and root for the horses. She was too weak to go to Belmont this year, but she was extremely happy to see a horse win the Triple Crown.
Jill Jellison was preceded in death by her mother in 2010 and her father last Dec. 31. She is survived by five brothers and one sister.
A funeral Mass will be said at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday in All Saints Church in Woonsocket. She has asked to have her ashes spread at the same farm where she first jumped on that pony some 48 years ago.
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