In the soggy heat of the weighin room of Paris' Longchamp race track a couple of weeks ago, a little seam-faced jockey named Rae Johnstone turned to a British friend, said, "This is my last ride, Peter." Making a final adjustment to the blue and white colors of Owner Pierre Wertheimer, he strode briskly to the paddock, mounted a slate-gray filly named Midget and rode her to a hard fought second place. Just 25 years before, almost to the day, Johnstone had ridden his first race in France. The owner was Pierre Wertheimer and the horse finished second.
Between these two near wins, Willy Rae Johnstone piled up a quarter-century record of victories which fixed him as one of the greatest international jockeys of modern times. Before arriving in France in 1932, he had already won 600 races as champion jockey of Australia and India, and he added some 1,400 more before his retirement. Among these are 30 "classics," including three English Derbies. In a single year, 1948, he won the English, French and Irish Derbies, plus the Grand Prix de Paris. He has raced in 11 countries—France, England, Ireland, Australia, India, Egypt, Italy, Argentina, Belgium, Germany and the U.S.—and has won victories in all but the last two.
"My greatest thrill," says 52-year-old Johnstone, looking back over a lifetime of racing, "was winning my first English Derby on My Love in 1948." Starting odds on My Love were 100 to 9, but Johnstone was absolutely certain he would win, and he ran his horse with the ice-cold control of pace which was one of his finest gifts. "There were 32 horses starting in that Derby," Johnstone recalls, "and a mile from home I had only two horses behind me. But I knew I had it won because I hadn't asked my animal for any effort. At Tattenham Corner a friend of mine told me he could see a broad grin on my face." About 100 yards from home, Rae finally asked My Love to produce, and the horse flashed past the leader, won by a length and a half.
My Love was trained by Richard Carver, now 73, a member of one of those British racing families which has lived in France for generations (his grandfather trained in France during the reign of Napoleon III. As a 2-year-old, My Love had never won a race and Carver was dissatisfied with his jockey, so he asked Rae to have a try. Johnstone's answer astounded him: "Guvnor, I'll do it on one condition: that you'll let me ride him in the Derby." The Derby was then one year in the offing, but Johnstone was so sold on My Love that he telephoned his old friend and patron, the late Aga Khan, pleaded: "Monseigneur, if you'll buy that horse, I'll ride him and win the Derby for you." The Aga was able to purchase only 50% of the horse, but his faith in Johnstone was justified: the following year, My Love gave the Aga's chocolate and green colors their fourth Derby victory.
July 21, 1957
Johnstone's keen sense of horseflesh has been honed over a tough career almost unmatched for longevity, variety and brilliance. Warren G. Harding was in the White House as President of the U.S. when Johnstone started racing as a 16-year-old apprentice in Australia, and he became national champion before he was out of his teens. After a decade of success in his home country, Rae went to India, then blooming in the genial autumnal years of the British raj. "That was real living," sighs Johnstone reminiscently. "All those colorful uniforms and lovely saris. I had two boys to look after every horse, I raced only once a week in Bombay or Calcutta, and I rode more winners than any other jockey in India.
"But I really began to live when I came to Paris," Rae admits. Pierre Wertheimer, big-time perfume manufacturer (Bourjois, Chanel), invited him to come to France to be his top jockey, and Johnstone continued his string of victories in the circle of beautiful race tracks which makes Paris a horseplayer's paradise. He became a familiar figure to Parisians in the winning enclosure behind the magnificent cream-colored stand of Longchamp, in the red brick rural loveliness of Le Tremblay. He wore the racing colors of France's most famous owners—Boussac, Aga Khan, Volterra.
REFORMED WHEN MARRIED
Young, cocky, successful Johnstone backed his own mounts heavily with his own money, tossed many a purse to the croupiers in Deauville and other gilded gambling halls. All this stopped abruptly when Rae married his present French wife, Marie, in 1940, and he hasn't gambled since. During the Nazi occupation, Rae was tossed into a French concentration camp as an enemy alien. He escaped, hid out, and was in the saddle again six weeks after the Germans left.
By Rae's own standards, at the age of 40 he was already over the hill. "A jockey reaches his peak sometime between his apprenticeship and his 30th birthday," he claims. But what he lacked in fresh youth, he made up with seasoned cunning, which brought him some remarkable victories. Last year he won the Derby again, on Pierre Wertheimer's Lavandin, a horse he had never before mounted in a race.
In the postwar years Paris crowds fastened a title on Johnstone's sudden-death finishing style—they called him Le Crocodile because he came from behind to eat up the opposition. On his losing days they also called him "robber," "crook" and "bum," because he refused to lash a horse with his whip if he thought the animal had no chance to win. In a typical Johnstone-fashion run for the money, he humped his back like an angry cat, worked his arms and knees in a tremendous burst of energy to urge the horse on. But he seldom did more than flick the horse with his whip. "I just waved the whip in front of him now and then, to let him know it was there," he says. "There's no sense in beating a horse to death. If he hasn't got a win in him, you can't whip it out of him."
This whipless tactic outraged thousands of small players who felt that Johnstone robbed them of a chance to collect on a place bet, but it earned him the admiration of the men who trained the expensive animals he mounted. Alec Head, brilliant young trainer for Prince Aly Khan and Pierre Wertheimer, says: "Johnstone won't kill a horse just for the sake of finishing third. Lots of young horses have been ruined because jockeys have thrashed them so hard they cringe and are useless on the track thereafter. Also, Johnstone was thinking all the time he was riding; when the race was finished he usually had something useful to say about the way the horse performed."
Rae notes one big gap in his 36 years on the track: "I never rode a great horse. I've ridden lots of good ones, but never a great one like Native Dancer or Citation or Ribot." He nearly had a chance for a go on Native Dancer in 1954 when Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt asked Rae to ride him in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, but the big gray broke down before he could cross the Atlantic (Johnstone won the race anyway, on Sica Boy).
A frequent visitor to the U.S., usually on his way to a winter vacation in Mexico, Johnstone has raced here only three times, with no luck. He knows Eddie Arcaro very well and admires him as a track technician but has mild doubts about the efficacy of the acedeuce style Eddie affects. "Of course, it makes more sense to ride that way in America, where all the tracks are exactly the same and you go around them all to the left," he says. "In Europe there are no two tracks exactly alike—you can go around them to the left or to the right, and in one, Maisons Laffitte, you can go around clockwise and counterclockwise on the same afternoon."
Aside from the quality of the horses and the skill of the men who ride them, Rae doesn't have much use for racing in the U.S. "It's too monotonous," he says. "There's no atmosphere. As far as I can make out, people go to races in America to eat sandwiches and hot dogs and to bet on a number."
Much better, in his opinion, is the ambiance of the Paris tracks he will never ride again—the rolling, richly green, up-and-down courses; the flower-bordered, tree-shaded paddocks filled with the buzz of knowledgeable conversation and the slim shapes of chic women. Most of all he will miss Chantilly, the forest-enclosed training area 25 miles from Paris, where jockeys come each morning to try out their mounts by dawn's light. "Every time I did it for 25 years," says he, "it was a thrill to drive to Chantilly, to see the morning sun break through the trees arched overhead, like light coming through cathedral windows."
The summer days which used to begin with a predawn ride to Chantilly have no pattern for Rae now, and it's strange not to be saddling up at Long-champ when the afternoon shadows begin to lengthen. Beyond a trip to Australia to visit his mother, Johnstone has no plans for the future, only a few regrets about the past. "I've made some mistakes and run some bad races," he says. "I wish I had run nothing but good races."