Seventeen days after the start of the current Bowie meeting, Jockey Willie Hartack drew a cheap horse named Inn Keeper which bore out in the stretch and got Hartack a 10-day suspension for careless riding. At the time Willie was the leading Bowie rider, with 35 wins, 28 places and 12 shows. This week Hartack returned—still the leading rider despite his 10 days of inactivity.
It's a good thing Willie does as well as he does when he's working, for besides riding 785 winners in his two and a half years as a jockey he has been set down no less than five times at as many different tracks. Willie's setbacks always seem to coincide with the rich stakes which come along toward the middle or end of a meeting. At Hialeah, where he was well in the lead, he was set down before the Bahamas stakes. At Bowie he missed the John B. Campbell. And this has happened at other tracks too. His agent Chick Lang says: "My boy has never done a mean thing on or off the track. His only trouble is he's overanxious to win." Sammy Boulmetis, who rides against Willie all season on the Maryland and Jersey circuits, goes along with Chick but adds: "Willie is a left-handed whipper and that may cause the horses to drift out. He's definitely not a rough rider."
Neither his victories—he was second only to the great Willie Shoemaker for the second straight year in 1954—nor his setbacks have brought much publicity to Hartack, a dark-haired, blue-eyed youngster from Johnstown, Pa. He has a substantial personal following on the Jersey circuit, where he accounted for 154 of his 323 wins last year, and in Maryland and Charles Town, where he led all other riders. But few racing fans across the country are particularly aware of him, and the press has generally neglected his unorthodox career.
April 18, 1955
It certainly is that. Until 1950, when he graduated from high school at Black Lick, Pa. and found that he was underweight for the Army, he had never given a thought to being a jockey. In fact he'd never seen a horse race. But an ex-jockey's agent, Andy Bruno, persuaded him to pay a visit to Charles Town.
The expedition changed his life and gave him a career. For it was there he met Norman Corbin, a small stable owner. They took to each other like fish and chips and for the next couple of years Willie worked for Corbin, learning his trade, mucking out stalls, walking hots, cleaning tack and also learning to ride. In October 1952, Willie rode his first race and won his third one.
Since then a good many things have happened to Willie Hartack. He has acquired the nickname "Hardtack," has developed the aplomb of a bond salesman, and has worked out a cool career plan that would do credit to a banker. At the same time he takes a paradoxical, juvenile delight in such things as model airplanes, skin diving and comic books; wears his hair in a long pompadour; adorns his left hand with a specially designed diamond-and platinum horse-shoe ring, and his body in pastel suits with matching ties.
"Before I started to ride races, I used to bet all my money, shoot craps, play around and live it up all I could," Hartack says, with the secretly pleased air of the reformed rake. "But when I got my chance I decided to try living right and give myself a break. I said to myself, 'I'll give it a try and see if it works.' I tend strictly to business, don't bother much with anything else. And I've been lucky since the very first week I started. I haven't had more than a three-day losing streak excepting one short stretch at Sunshine Park."
Hartack is only 22, which may account for his firm views on marriage: "Women aren't going to bother me. Horses come first. I'm not planning on marrying. Any kind of a change might be for the worse. Sometimes I meet a girl I like, then I get to thinking. The minute I get to thinking, she's dead."
Total recall, about horses if not women, is one of Hartack's trade secrets. He can tell you about every single horse he has ever ridden, and, like every top jockey before him, can report on other horses in a race too: "You never know when you'll be riding one of them, and they have differences about them you just wouldn't believe. Some will run till they're in front. Some you can hit. Some you can't. Some are nervous, some are not. Some come from behind, and others won't run a lick unless they are out in front. I guess they're pretty much like people."
ROOM FOR HORSES
From seven o'clock in the morning, when he usually goes out to the stables of his contract holders, Dan and Ada Rice, until the last race of the day, Willie has no room for anything but horses. "I study them to find out all I can," he says. "For when I ride a man's horse I'm all business. I don't go to fool around. When I get beat on a horse that should have won, it bothers me. If a horse can run and won't, I get mad. But if he can't run there's no sense in getting mad. When I lose I don't want to be consoled. I just want to be let alone. But I'm not looking for pats on the back when I win either." None of this is said truculently, just with the dead seriousness of someone whose objectives are perfectly clear and attainable.
For Willie has found that "living right" pays off. First thing he did when he got in the money was to dig his 47-year-old father out of the coal mines where he had worked for 30 years and buy a 170-acre farm near Charles Town on which his two sisters and father now make their home. (His mother has been dead for many years.) After the farm came a Jaguar, a Cadillac, an Oldsmobile—and an oil painting of Pet Bully, the Rices' retired great miler. "Best horse I ever rode," is Hartack's sole comment on his venture into the arts. Purchase of this picture makes Hartack, at least to my knowledge, the only art collector among jockeys.
NOT SO ACEY-DEUCY
But then, everything about Hartack is a bit unusual, including his riding technique, which differs a bit from the style of chief rival Shoemaker. Hartack sits a shade higher in the saddle, though not as acey-deucy as he did in his first season or as the extremist Charley Burr. (Acey-deucy is the term used when one stirrup is longer than the other to equalize weight around the curves.)
At Hialeah this winter, where he was well on his way to being leading rider until he got set down for careless riding in a turf race, Hartack lived by himself in a quietly elegant residential hotel in Miami Springs. The hotel was occupied almost entirely by middle-aged couples from the Plains states. He took them more in his stride than they did him.
Although Hartack makes something of a fetish of freedom (he even hates to make dates ahead of time, often picks up a couple of stable-boy pals at the last minute to go to a movie), he has a beguiling sense of loyalty. Whenever he gets to Charles Town the first person he looks up, even before he heads for the farm, is his former boss, Norman Corbin.
"I'd ride for him again anytime, at a half mile track, anywhere, because he gave me all my chances," Willie says. "He was like a father to me. Gave me a place to stay. Stuck with me when I knew nothing. Taught me all I know. Whoever he trained for, he'd say, 'If you want me, you gotta take my boy.' He wouldn't have taken me off a horse to put Arcaro on."
In view of Hartack's penalties for carelessness, a good many owners might still take him off a horse to put Arcaro on—and they might be wrong.
Make no mistake—Hartack is no flash in the pan. All he really needs to become one of the truly great jockeys is to be given top horses to ride. Until that day comes, Willie will be in there trying—and thinking. For, as he rather succinctly puts it: "There aren't any orders to follow from the eighth pole to the wire."