John Larry Sellers, a genial, fresh-faced youth with haze-blue eyes and an engagingly toothy grin (see cover), bears an easy resemblance to any young man on his way up. He also bears a great deal of watching, and the members of the elite corps of jockeys shown on the next two pages are doing just that. For Johnny Sellers is a jockey who, long unnoticed, has suddenly and quietly intruded upon the intensely competitive top ranks of Thoroughbred racing. He has won more races than any other rider this year and if, at year's end, he still holds that lead, usurping the prestigious position recently associated with either Bill Hartack or Willie Shoemaker, it will be exactly as the boyish, 24-year-old Sellers has planned it all along.
Sellers was the first to ring up purses totaling $1 million this year, though it is sometimes said that seldom has one man owed so much to one horse. The horse in this case is Carry Back, that excellent brown colt who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness under Sellers, as well as the Flamingo and the Florida Derby. Certainly it is true that Sellers' sudden fame is directly connected with Carry Back (and the half a million dollars they have won together), but it is also true that of the 245 races Sellers has won this year, he won only six with Carry Back.
Jack Price, Carry Back's outspoken co-owner and trainer, sniffs at these wins, saying, "Actually, Sellers just steers the horse; anyone else could probably do just as well." Says John Sellers, a trifle more realistically, "I know perfectly well that a lot of winners won't make you a leading rider. I know some people say I wouldn't be anybody if I hadn't lucked onto T.V. Lark [with whom Sellers won five races and $300,000 last year] and Carry Back. Well, sure, maybe I did luck onto those horses. But I got the job done, didn't I?"
There is no doubt that Sellers got the job done, too, with scores of lesser horses this year (at last count, he was 39 ahead of his nearest rival, Shoemaker, and 46 ahead of Hartack). While it may be premature to proclaim him a great jockey, there is ample proof of his steadily growing ability. Sellers' credentials include a deft sense of balance, an enviable coolness under pressure and a well-disciplined intelligence. On the tall side for a jockey (he's 5 feet 6), he has a high seat that gives him an awkward look when rating, but in a drive he levels out remarkably well. Altogether, his closest rivals share a high regard for the upstart. "He's one of the finest boys riding," says Shoemaker, a man of few words. Hartack concurs: "Sellers doesn't make many mistakes. He's a capable rider who does everything well."
August 27, 1961
Almost like a Carry Back race, in which that colt is likely to win by coming out of nowhere at the last instant, Johnny Sellers' seven-year riding career has been a measured, orderly process that all at once has spurred him ahead of the pack. "I've been much longer getting to be a leading rider than either Shoemaker or Hartack [who won the riding championship in their second and third years respectively]," says Sellers, "but all my life I've tried to move along by degrees, and this has been especially true of how I built up my confidence. After I did all right in Detroit, I came to Chicago, where things are that much tougher. Now I guess I'd like to go to New York—I think I'm ready to ride in that league." Before tackling New York, Sellers is spending August and September in Atlantic City—because he figures he can ride more winners there than in Chicago, where Shoemaker and Hartack are.
Sellers' determination to go for the top was not in evidence until 1955, but he began riding when he was 5, the year his father gave him a pony. "From the start I rode all the time," he says, "and even though I was a little bitty squirt my father made me saddle up myself and do all the work." By the time he was 12, Sellers was galloping Thoroughbreds on a schoolmate's ranch, in Tulsa, his boyhood home. Three years later he left the Thoroughbreds of the Southwest for the faster, classier ones in the bluegrass country of Kentucky. There he signed up with Harry Trotsek, trainer for Hasty House Farm. Trotsek has a reputation for being a fine developer of riding talent, and he appraised young Sellers with a practiced and calculating eye. "I didn't do anything to discourage him," Trotsek recalled the other day. "On the contrary, I told him all the good things that could happen to him, such as all the money to be made by a boy with ability."
Sellers' first job was exercising the Hasty House horses at Churchill Downs. He slept in a tack room not far from the winner's circle where he and Carry Back were escorted after their victory in the Derby last May. ("I looked at myself in the circle," says Sellers, "and then I looked over to that barn I used to live in. 'Man,' I said to myself, 'you've come a little ways since then, haven't you?' ")
In 1955, when Johnny got his first chance at competitive track riding, he finished 11th in a race at Sunshine Park. He rode 37 more times before he had his first winner in March—and then only because the first horse under the wire was disqualified. But from then on, Sellers' progress, while not always spectacular, was satisfactorily steady: 113 winners his first season, 148 the next, 169 in 1959. Last year Sellers found himself with 234 winners and in fourth place among all riders. Moreover, he was sixth among the money winners. Horses he was on earned $1,464,550, of which he got the usual 10%.
Sellers is so confident he will win the riding title this year that he took a week's vacation not long ago with his wife Janice and their 2-year-old son, Mark. The indulgence probably cost him a few winners but isn't likely to handicap him too much unless he is hit by a suspension. He has been suspended only four times, and not once in the past two years.
The only other things that might rattle his composure are recent developments concerning two of his usual mounts. If Carry Back goes to Paris for the Arc de Triomphe in October, it is probable that Jack Price will engage a jockey who knows the course. In addition, Ridan, a brilliant 2-year-old on whom Sellers has ridden to victory three times this year, will henceforth carry Hartack, who has ridden so successfully for the Moody Jolley family, which owns the horse.
But perhaps such reverses do not worry John Sellers because, for all the success he has had in racing, he does not have the real passion for horses that characterizes a Johnny Longden—who at 54 does not count it a full day unless he starts it by galloping horses at 6 a.m.
"I find," says Sellers, "that there's always a constant fight and argument within myself to keep going. I know I have the ability, but I have to exert myself all the time to be sure I go on and do my best." So far he has managed to maintain the necessary competitive zeal.
But, unlike the venerable Eddie Arcaro (45) and the truly ancient Longden, Sellers has no intention of going on forever. He has set himself a limit of six more years of race riding, plans then to retire (at the age of 30) to the 100-acre cattle ranch he owns in Tulsa. "I would like to raise quarter horses and cattle," he says, "and be financially independent, so I won't have to spend the rest of my life walking hots around a stable or tending a filling station.
"After all, I'm making more than $100,000 a year, none of which I put back into racing because I don't bet. My interest is investing in some stocks and in an education for myself—and, of course, in the ranch and the chance to settle out in the country in a life I really love."