11/18/2011 4:46PM

Hawthorne: Karlsson, now a mother, returns to riding following more than a year off

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STICKNEY, Ill. – Inez Karlsson, a 2008 Eclipse Award finalist as an apprentice rider and one of the more popular jockeys in Chicago, will ride her first race since Sept. 18, 2010 on Sunday at Hawthorne.

Karlsson’s career was halted by a painful recurring gynecological condition known as endometriosis. One cure for the condition is becoming pregnant, which is what Karlsson did last fall. Her daughter, Sophie Rose, is four months old, and Karlsson, 28, will be mixing motherhood and horse-backing during this comeback.

“The endometriosis seems to have disappeared,” Karlsson said. “I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Karlsson’s return to riding post-childbirth is just another chapter in an unusual biography. A native of Sweden, Karlsson once was a competitive amateur boxer. She held various odd jobs, like working as a filling-station attendant, before immigrating to Canada, where she planned to work with Standardbred horses. From there, she made her way to the U.S. and, with surprising rapidity and fluidity, into the position of successful jockey: Karlsson has 429 wins from 3,027 rides.

Karlsson was named on three horses Sunday, the first in featured race 1, where she rides Seans Silverdancer in a high-end, two-turn dirt allowance race for trainer Lisa Merritt. Leading Hawthorne trainer Roger Brueggemann put her on a horse, as did Frank Kirby, for whom Karlsson has sporadically worked since leaving the saddle. Last winter, while pregnant, Karlsson walked hots in Kirby’s barn, and when she started preparing for her comeback early this fall, it was Kirby who gave her a steady stream of horses to exercise in the morning.

“Trust me, when I came back, the horses were kind of running off with me,” Karlsson said. “Frank was very patient.”

Karlsson said she had little trouble dropping down to riding weight after giving birth to her daughter, but regaining her strength after a long layoff proved more challenging.

“I’d never been away for that long, and your body changes. If you’ve never been on a racehorse, it’s hard to explain – they’re just so strong. I had the mind of a jockey, I know what I wanted to get done, but my body just wouldn’t cooperate,” she said. “When you’re not used to that pulling, my arms blew up. I couldn’t lift my arm over my chest I was in so much pain. At first I was thinking, ‘What did I just get into? I could’ve been a housewife.’ ”

Karlsson said she has no plans to hustle as hard as possible for mounts this winter. She just wants to get back in a good rhythm while still having time to devote to her young daughter. She said she plans to keep galloping for Kirby during Chicago’s winter dark period in January and February before making a more serious go of things at the Hawthorne spring meet.

For now, there are other challenges.

“I love being a mom, but it’s a lot of work,” Karlsson said. “When I was pregnant, I thought it would be like owning a dog: How hard could it be? But the baby came, and I realized this is harder than I thought.”

The horses pull Karlsson early in the morning. Her baby daughter tugs the rest of the time.