Several hours before the horses reach the post next Saturday a balding old millionaire with a crinkled face and the build of a muscular gnome will walk stiff-legged into the jockeys' sweat room at Churchill Downs. The temperature there will be 140°. Once inside, John Eric Longden, 54, will steam himself red as a Pacific sunset. When he leaves he will have perspired away the necessary pounds to ride in the day's races.
As financially successful and physically durable as any athlete in history, tiny (4 feet 11 inches) Johnny Longden will be in Kentucky in command of a remarkable quartet of Californians—invaders who came East to take U.S. racing's biggest prize far, far West.
The rest of the Longden team at Churchill Downs, not necessarily in order of importance or finish:
•Vance Longden, 31-year-old son of Johnny, whose smile is cherubic and whose spirit is devilish. Operating a stable with two strong Derby contenders, he is as young to be a successful trainer as his father is old to be an active jockey.
•Four-and-Twenty, a chunky, psychotic 3-year-old sprinter who walks with a waddle and runs like the wind. He recently knocked the senior Longden on his hindquarters for getting too friendly. "I had just patted him on the nose and clucked, 'You're a good boy. Maybe I'll ride you in the Kentucky Derby,' " said Johnny, who talks a great deal to horses but is more reticent with people. "Then, wham! He pushed me over."
•Flutterby, a lean, obstinate 3-year-old distance runner whose walk is a horseman's dream but whose laziness is a horseman's dream but whose laziness is a bettor's nightmare. He recently kicked the junior Longden right on his plastic helmet for not being friendly enough. "He bucked me off. Then that dude looked back at me, took aim and wham!" said Vance.
Among the four of them, this Longden clan of intemperate horses and unusual men has as good a chance as anybody of winning the Derby. They are not only the sentimental favorites among the naive but the considered choice of many in the tight circle of canny old plungers. The major reason for the backing by both groups is that graybeard in the sweatbox, Johnny Longden.
Riding a horse is no more of an old man's game than playing left tackle for the Chicago Bears. A Thoroughbred is 1,200 pounds of whimsical, cantankerous beast, timid enough to shy at a shadow and bold enough to run through a barn door. When a dozen of them come charging down a stretch at 45 mph it is the equivalent for the jockeys of driving at top speed through rush-hour traffic on a Los Angeles freeway in cars with loose steering wheels and weak brakes. All the while, of course, somebody is throwing mud or dust in their eyes. It takes a combination of superb strength and sure reflexes to so much as stay alive. Yet, 34 years after he rode his first winner on a $300 plater in Salt Lake City, Longden is strong, quick, capable and very much alive.
Spring afternoons this year have found Longden riding everything from $100,000 stakes winners to $2,000 claiming-race rejects as he adds to his unequaled total of 5,500 wins. His mounts have earned $20 million, and wise investments have left him worth far more than his 10% share of those purses. He might comfortably have quit his dangerous profession 15 years ago, but money has nothing to do with why he rides today. Pressed hard for a reason, he admitted last week, "I guess I am riding for the thrill of it." Then he added defensively, "Why should I stop? I'm still good."
He is more than good. "Longden has never been better," says an official at Golden Gate Fields in San Francisco. They were still talking of how, in a single week there last month, he had possibly saved the life of Jockey Pete Moreno, and nearly saved a horse. At the 3/l6ths pole of the fifth race one day Moreno fell directly in front of Longden's mount. Movies show Longden instantly jerking his horse hard to the right to keep from going directly over Moreno's body. "Few could have reacted that fast," said a judge. In the other incident, Longden's horse, Ardent Love, broke a leg and started to fall. With his surprising strength, Longden yanked up the horse's head so that his mount regained its balance, standing on three legs. He saved it from additional injury in a fall. Though Ardent Love eventually had to be destroyed, Longden has been able to save several horses in similar circumstances.
Longden rides today just as he always has: as if the hounds of hell were at his heels. He has no peer at getting out of a starting gate. Sitting high on a horse's withers, where it feels his 109 pounds the least, he pushes and pumps his mount smoothly out of the gate in that first second when other horses are off-stride. "You can't beat him at the start," the jockeys say. "You must catch him later."
Once in front, he likes to stay in front all the way. Crowds boo him for it, not realizing that he knows how to handle a front-running horse better than any jockey today. When he tries to come from behind and loses they boo, too. Longden tries to ignore it, but he can't.
"I don't want to ride up here again," he raged in the jockeys' room at Golden Gate Fields a week ago, after odds-on favorite Flutterby had lost in the California Derby by a neck and the crowd had jeered. "You ride your heart out for them, and they think you're a thief or something." Recently, he looked up at a booing Golden Gate crowd, drew himself up to his full 4 feet 11 inches and stuck out his tongue, a surprising display for a basically shy man. He feels the crowd is essentially impugning his courage by tabbing him as a front-runner. "Pardon me if I say I think I can do just as well on horses that come through the pack," is his answer.
And his courage is indisputable. Three times in the past four years he has broken his left leg. He'll roll a sock down to the top of his size 4½ shoe, point to a soft lumpy spot and say: "That's the latest one. Compound fracture, both bones." It is a very small leg.
Last fall at Del Mar a horse pitched him into an infield sprinkler. It cost him $4,000 for a mouthful of new gold fillings, and he has a permanently stiff lip. He has ridden with a cast on his foot, with a broken back (though he didn't know it until a day later) and come out to ride so befuddled by a concussion that he couldn't remember a phone call he had received minutes earlier. "I never think about the danger," Longden says. "It might get into your system."
Longden may be having trouble retiring to the silk pajama set because he remembers all too vividly his early years of struggle. Born in England, he was raised in the little town of Taber, in southern Alberta, Canada. "When I was 12 I worked in the coal mines after school, greasing wheels on coal carts a mile underground," he says. "We worked until 11 p.m. I made 75¢ a day." He was also a pre-teen cowboy. "There was a $1 fine if your cow got loose in Taber. Everybody had a cow. I charged $1.50 a month to round them up in the morning, take them far out in the prairie and then pick them up after school."
Matching a maharaja
His first racing was as a carnival Roman rider, standing on the backs of two horses as they raced around half-mile tracks in little Canadian towns like Raymond and Cardston. The winning jockey got $5. It was a long way from the likes of Cardston to becoming the leading jockey in 1938, or riding Noor to victory in those memorable races against Citation, or to winning the Triple Crown on Count Fleet in 1943. (That was, it turned out, Longden's only Derby win in eight tries to date.)
Longden became so proficient that Narragansett race track once limited the number of mounts he could take, thus making the meet more interesting. And he became so rich that he could indulge in his lone financial foible, buying high-priced cars. Once he met a maharaja at a Paris party, inspected his $11,000 custom-built Chrysler with its Italian Ghia body and bought the only other one on public sale the next day. This is most uncharacteristic for conservative Johnny Longden. They call him Moneybags around the tracks and claim he is racing's counterpart of that frugal golfing Croesus, Sam Snead. Yet his closest friends say he is a soft touch at a track, where a dollar loaned is a dollar usually gone.
Longden's house, at 247 Lemon Street in Arcadia, Calif., is only a mile from Santa Anita. It has a long, plain white stucco front and small lawn. It expands in the rear. There is a kidney-shaped swimming pool, a bath house, a small cottage and even a barn. Thoroughbreds have grazed in the backyard.
The Longden household includes his attractive blonde wife, Hazel, to whom he has been married 19 years, two children (18 and 13), five toy poodles, a bird, a cat and seven very young and unwanted kittens. For Johnny there are seven television sets, including one in the master bathroom. For Hazel there is an electric organ. When she puts on the organ earphones she hears only the music she plays, shutting out the clip-clop of the TV westerns.
Longden seldom varies from the Spartan routine that he has followed for years. He is up at 5:30 a.m., has a breakfast hat is often only chocolate Metrecal. By 6:30 he is at the track, whichever California track is running, pleasantly greeting everybody from valets to owners in his hummingbird-high voice.
For three hours he inspects and works out the horses of the Vance Longden stables. By 11 he is in the sweatbox, then racing, and ready for dinner at 6 p.m. By 9 p.m. he is ready for bed. He never smokes and almost never drinks.
Longden does gamble, chiefly at a card game called race-horse rummy, which is as fast and risky as a quarter-horse stretch run. Four hands can cost $50. Jockeys respect him as much at the card table as at the starting gate, but the game is essentially a pastime with him, something to keep him occupied. "He has to keep moving," says Hazel. "Even when he's home in Arcadia he isn't really home. He's usually at the ranch."
The ranch is the Bar JL, two tracts totaling 44 acres that are the heart of a growing Longden business. Johnny has brood mares there. The ranch is the headquarters of the Vance Longden training stable and is also the place where the Alberta Ranches, owned by Canadian millionaires Max Bell and Frank McMahon, boards horses. Flutterby, Four-and-Twenty and 14 more of the 20 horses trained by Vance Longden are owned by the Alberta Ranches.
The father gives advice
Old Alberta associates Bell and Longden have been close friends for years. Longden has let Bell invest considerable money for him, investments which turned out very well. But Longden insists, as he must, that he owns no part of the Alberta Ranches. If he did, he would be violating racing regulations, which prohibit a jockey from owning a racing horse. Longden also denies, perforce, that he runs Vance Longden's training stable. But everybody around California's racing barns knows who the boss of the Longden stables is, and who can blame a son for listening to his father's advice? The unquestionable honesty of Johnny Longden has likely been a factor in the California racing commission's willingness to view Longden as a nonowner, nontrainer and 100% jockey.
If John Longden is an aging phenomenon, riding for thrills while carefully preparing for a very active retirement, son Vance, who will be saddling the two horses in the Derby paddock next Saturday, is a Longden with quite a different style. Born in 1929 of Johnny's first marriage, Vance was taken along on the leaky roof and pothole circuit, living in a tent at trackside. Eventually, he was sent to a California military school. It was a terrible way to raise a son," said Johnny last week.
In his teen-age summers Vance rode in rodeos, though his father didn't approve. Later he grew too big to be a jockey (5 feet 5 inches), quit college and started, largely on his own, as a trainer He has trained many stakes winners, with his father offering some close supervision.
In 1953 he married a Miss San Francisco, divorced her and then married an Oakland beauty queen. He has one child by his first marriage, three by his second. He lives at a quick pace. He tells of the day in 1956 when Hindu Wand, which he trained for Max Bell, lost the International at Laurel. Vance drowned half his sorrow, then shinnied up the flagpole in front of the Laurel clubhouse to get the Canadian flag flying there for a souvenir. He found the flag locked at the top, wrapped his arms around it, jerked it loose, and let go of the pole, dropping 30 feet.
He may be quieting down some now. "I would like," he said recently, "to have some of the courage and some of the convictions of my father."
Training a Kentucky Derby winner might be the spur Vance Longden needs to insure for himself a long career as a successful trainer. But if Johnny Longden brings the purple-and-white silks of Alberta Ranches across the finish line first, would he possibly consider that a fitting final triumph to his career?
In 1947 Grantland Rice, appraising much the same situation, wrote: "Longden figures he has at least two more years to go, possibly three. By that time, he expects to have his 3,000 winners all filed away." At a jockeys' ball some 12 years and 2,000 winners later, Willie Shoemaker, 29, who wasn't even born when Longden won his first race, shattered the house with a song, to the tune of Tom Dooley, that went:
Hang up your tack, John Longden,
Hang up your tack and quit.
Hang up your tack, John Longden,
Pack up your bit and git.
"Now that he's got Flutterby," said Willie Shoemaker in feigned disgust this spring, "he'll never quit."