Johnny Rotz is 29 years old and weighs 112 pounds. In 1963, not his best year, he earned $56,410 more as a jockey than Mickey Mantle did as a ballplayer.
One bright morning during the early days of the meeting at Hialeah last month, Johnny came sauntering along near the paddock with his new agent, Bud Aime. Ordinarily Johnny does not come out to the track in the mornings unless an owner or trainer specifically asks him to work a horse. But this day Johnny and Aime had some business to discuss and some horses to look at as they were ridden in the morning workouts.
They stopped and talked earnestly for a moment, Johnny looking up at Aime, a big man. They had things to talk about, for a jockey's agent is a sort of sales manager. He represents only one rider but may also handle one apprentice. His job is to study the condition book, watch workouts, contact trainers of mounts he believes best for his boy. For these services he is paid a percentage of a jockey's gross earnings, usually about 20% for handling a top rider.
Johnny had not yet ridden a winner in 1964. He had taken a vacation after Aqueduct closed last December. He returned to riding during the last days at Tropical, and when Hialeah opened he began getting three or four mounts every day. Now, as he talked to Bud Aime, Johnny looked at the papers Aime was exhibiting and nodded. After a moment they parted, Aime hurrying off to the stable area and Johnny walking over and sitting down in a lawn chair outside the jockeys' room to pick up a conversation where it had left off a little while before.
March 23, 1964
"Of course," he said, his face relaxing into a puckish smile (opposite), "I guess I should have said my first mount was the pony my father gave me, on my eighth birthday, back on the farm near Warrensburg, Ill. That pony and the fact that I was small made me decide to try to become a jockey. My first real mounts were quarter horses and an occasional Thoroughbred in the fairs around Illinois. I started riding in the fairs when I was 13 and rode the circuit until I graduated from high school. You got $5 for a mount and $10 for a winner, provided you could catch the owner. My father approved of my ambition. In fact, he took me to the Fair-mount track, near St. Louis, to help me look for a job. We went from stall to stall and finally met a trainer named W. W. Morrow. He looked me over and said he could use a boy to walk hots and do other chores around the stables. I learned a lot from Mr. Morrow before I went on up to Chicago and started working for Mr. Harry Trotsek. He took me down to Kentucky to break yearlings, and when I was 18, he gave me my first mount as an apprentice rider. That was May 1953. A year later I lost the bug [the asterisk that denotes an apprentice in the race charts]." Harry Trotsek—Ken Church, John Heckmann, the Cook boys, John Sellers and Johnny Rotz. What was Trotsek's secret? What did he teach his boys about riding that made them all standouts among the top jockeys?
Johnny Rotz threw a leg over the arm of his chair. "Well, as I see it now," he said, "Mr. Trotsek taught you more about living than he did about riding. He could be pretty strict, and I suppose if you lived the way he taught you you would just naturally ride better. Mr. Trotsek is a wonderful man, a real gentleman, a great horseman."
Did he ever dream, back in those days, that he would be riding in all the big stakes—the Flamingo, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont and the other $100,000 races?
"I didn't dream I'd be just riding in them," Johnny said. "I dreamed I'd be winning them all. Every young rider's hero was Eddie Arcaro, who had won the Triple Crown on Citation in 1948. No horse has won it since. Let's see, 1948—I was just 13 years old at the time. If Eddie Arcaro could do it, I didn't see why I couldn't do it. Now remember, I said I was 13 at the time.
"I've had three Kentucky Derby mounts. Of course, that's the big one every jockey dreams of winning. So far, my favorite race is the 1962 Preakness—the only leg I've won on the Triple Crown. I won that Preakness on Greek Money, and I'll never forget the instructions I got from Buddy Raines, the trainer. Buddy said to me, 'Johnny, go out and ride him as if you owned him.' That was all. Now those are the kind of instructions I like to get."
That 1962 Preakness was the one in which Manuel Ycaza was on Ridan and claimed interference. But the films showed that he had leaned over and shot his left elbow squarely into Johnny's chest. Rotz shook his head. "Ycaza never touched me. His elbow was out there, all right, and I was riding right into it, but then the horses bumped and separated. There was no physical contact between Ycaza's elbow and my chest."
He looked at his watch. "I got to get home now," he said, "and be back here about one o'clock. I'll be free right after the last race."
Does he ever take a drink after he gets through for the day?
"Yes, I do," said Johnny.
How about this new place down near the airport? Lenny's Hide-A-Way? Tommy Roberts, the television broadcaster, does a radio show from there every evening. Buddy Jacobson, the trainer, was on Tommy's show last night, and he said jockeys are overrated, over-publicized and overpaid. He said any one of a dozen competent riders can win on a horse if he is ready to run and is in company where he belongs, that when a fit horse gets beat, the jockey deserves 90% of the blame.
Johnny grinned and nodded. "Lenny's Hide-A-Way about 6:30." He shook hands and left.
There was plenty of time now to visit around Hialeah and bring up the subject of Johnny Rotz with some of the people who knew him well.
Jimmy Jones, trainer for Calumet Farm, was sitting in the cramped cubbyhole that serves him as an office in Calumet's barn. He put down his Morning Telegraph and, after pondering a moment, said:
"I judge riders in somewhat the same way that I judge horses and, in the case of Johnny Rotz, the first horse that comes to mind is Citation, Calumet's great Triple Crown winner. You could ship Citation anywhere, run him over any distance, under any track conditions, and count on him to give you the very best race that was in him. Now, I would put Johnny Rotz in the same general category. He is not flashy, but he is dependable under any and all conditions. He has character and integrity. He has a nice personality. Polite and well-spoken. He is bright, he is intelligent, he is alert and quick to take advantage or make the best of some unforeseen development in a race. I don't see a weak spot. I would put him right up there with the top riders of today. He rides good solid races. I don't load a boy like Johnny down with too many instructions, and I value his own opinions before and after a race. As I say, he puts me in mind of Citation. At least, that was my first reaction to the mention of his name, although I must say that I have never thought of Johnny Rotz in connection with Citation before this moment. But there you are."
Jimmy Jones cocked his head in the direction of a calendar on the wall. He seemed to be thinking hard in extension of his off-the-cuff remarks. (Johnny Rotz had not yet ridden for Calumet in 1964, but a few days later Jones put him on Princess Arle, and Johnny won the Virgin Islands Purse for fillies and mares, paying $27.60.)
Down the line from the Calumet barn Harry Trotsek, trainer for Hasty House, the man who had given Johnny Rotz his first mount, had finished his morning routine.
"I knew Johnny would make the grade when he first started riding for me as an apprentice in Chicago," said Trotsek, a benign, fatherly-looking man. "He had natural ability and good manners. Good manners are a plus for a boy just starting to ride. With Johnny, they were unaffected, the result of a good upbringing in a good farm home." Trotsek chuckled. "I recall that Johnny had a jeep. I believe he used to sleep in it when he was riding from fair to fair in Illinois. The first order I gave him when he came to work for me in Chicago was to get rid of that jeep. He was only about 17 years old at the time, and I didn't want him jeeping around Chicago and maybe getting himself hurt. He put up a mild little fuss, but he wanted to ride horses more than he wanted to drive a jeep, so he got rid of it. Well, sir, Johnny came along fine, and he won quite a few nice races as an apprentice. When he lost his bug and the weight allowance that goes with it, he didn't win as frequently for a while, but pretty soon he was going fine in Florida and New York."
At the Harbor View Farm barn, Burley Parke, trainer for Owner Louis Wolfson, was asked to speak on the same subject just as he was preparing to take out a final set of horses for their workouts. "Johnny Rotz," said Burley Parke with one foot in the stirrup, "is a good boy, a good horseman, a good thinker. He was on Roman Brother when he won the Champagne Stakes last year at Aqueduct. Johnny rode Roman Brother six times as a 2-year-old, won four times and was second twice."
Would it be fair to assume, Parke was asked, that Johnny Rotz would be riding Roman Brother in some of the 1964 stakes and, all being well, ride him in the Kentucky Derby?
"No," said Parke, "we are going to use Ycaza all the way." He swung up on his pony. "I suppose people want to know why we switched to Ycaza," he said. "Well, I can't discuss that just now. It is a little involved."
When things seem "a little involved" around a racetrack, the quickest way to find some sort of clue as to what is going on is at the track kitchen. The matter was taken up with a red-faced man-about-the-barns as he eyed a plate of eggs. What was to be made of the fact that Johnny Rotz had not had a winner for some time?
The red-faced man slashed at his eggs, destroying them utterly. He gulped down his coffee, lit up a cigarette, pondering the proposition as he tapped his ashes into his plate as elegantly as a clubman.
"What is the old maxim," he mused, staring up at the ceiling, "that used to hang on barbershop walls? If memory serves, it said, 'Oh, it's easy enough to be pleasant when life goes along like a song. But the man worthwhile is the man who can smile when everything seems to go wrong—dead wrong.' Now, there is Johnny Rotz for you. Still looking for his first winner but just as polite and friendly to everybody as if he were the leading jock of the year. He's plain as an old pancake. No ostentation about him. Why, the boy is driving around in a 1962 Cadillac."
He took a deep drag on his cigarette and was seized by a coughing fit. He reached for a glass of water and drank deeply. "Excuse me," he said, "but I happen to be allergic to charcoal granules." He cleared his throat and resumed:
"I deal now, not in facts, but in scuttlebutt. The talk among the rake-and-pitchfork crowd here is that Johnny Rotz is going through a period of adjustment. As you may know, Johnny has switched agents. His new man is Bud Aime, a highly respected man in the profession. However, the word along the manure line is that Rotz irritated some people when he dismissed his former agent, Lenny Goodman, who is now handling Mr. William Hartack. Lenny Goodman has many powerful friends. You will notice that Trainer Buddy Jacobson is not using Rotz, but he is using Hartack. There is even some speculation that the dropping of Lenny Goodman may have cost Johnny his mount on Roman Brother. We hear the decision to put Ycaza on Roman Brother came from on high."
Was he saying that irritation over the firing of Lenny Goodman made Mr. Louis Wolfson take Johnny Rotz off Roman Brother?
The red-faced man paled. He jumped to his feet. "I have talked too much," he said. "You're welcome to my opinions, but don't use my name. If word got back to my boss that I was bandying certain big names around the kitchen, it could cost me my pitchfork. Thank you for the eggs and goodby!"
A little later on Mr. Louis Wolfson took the question in stride.
"We did not make a change in jockeys because we were irritated with Rotz for dropping Lenny Goodman. We made a change because we—Burley Parke, my trainer, and I—feel that Ycaza is one of the best riders anywhere, and anybody who can get a commitment from him for the classic races is lucky.
"Here is what happened. After The Garden State, Ycaza looked at the films of Roman Brother with Parke and told him he would like to have the mount. Captain Harry Guggenheim and the Cain Hoy Stable have first call on Ycaza, so we went to Captain Guggenheim and cleared it with him. Then we made the commitment with Ycaza.
"It is true that I had a talk with Rotz about his dismissal of Goodman. Rotz telephoned me and told me that he had dropped Goodman and hired Aime. I told Johnny that it was his decision to make, but I did feel that there was a right way and a wrong way to make a change, and that at least he should have sat down with Goodman and explained the situation to him so that it could all have been done amiably.
"As I said, that is not the reason why we changed mounts on Roman Brother. We did it because we thought we were getting the best in Ycaza. As a matter of fact, Rotz still rides for us and will continue to do so when we have a horse that he suits, and vice versa."
(Later events proved the Wolfson reasoning to be sound. Ycaza won the $25,000 Bahamas and the Everglades on Roman Brother for Harbor View, and along about the middle of the Hialeah meeting, Johnny Rotz booted home Nashubah, a Harbor View long shot.)
At this point in the investigation, which was obviously following a devious trail back to Johnny Rotz himself, another clue was urgently needed. Mr. Wolfson had mentioned that there was "a right way and a wrong way" for a jockey to change agents. What had been Johnny Rotz's way?
In the clubhouse dining room a waiter stared at a generous tip. He glanced around nervously, then leaned down and whispered, "I do not vouch for this story. Put it down as coming from an authoritative source. But I have heard that Johnny Rotz gave Lenny Goodman the bad news during a taxicab ride to Garden State. Just told him to get himself another boy, words to that effect." The waiter grabbed the tip and fled.
Over the telephone Lenny Goodman was given a quick briefing and was asked to comment. "Oh, gee," he said, "I don't want to say anything. What's done is done, and everything is settled. Johnny Rotz has a good agent in Bud Aime, and I hope Bill Hartack has a good agent in me. That's all there is to say."
How about the story that Johnny Rotz first told him he was through during a taxicab ride to Garden State?
"That is not quite true," said Goodman. "He didn't tell me during the cab ride. He told me just after we had gotten out of the cab."
In Box 113 in the grandstand Jack Price, who has not seen much to get excited about at a racetrack since Carry Back retired, laughed at the track-kitchen version of why Ycaza had replaced Rotz on Roman Brother. "The idea," he said, "that a man like Lou Wolfson—or any other owner of a big stable—would take a mount away from a jockey because he changed agents is about as ridiculous as an idea can get. But strange stories do get around. I've told some odd stories myself and was amazed to see them taken seriously.
"One story I told was that after the Preakness in which Johnny Rotz won on Greek Money, a group of us were having a bite to eat at the Baltimore airport. Johnny Rotz was at the table, and when the check came he grabbed it. I told people that then and there I decided he was the boy to ride Carry Back, because I had never seen a jockey catch a check before. Of course, the fact was that Ycaza had been set down. So we needed a rider, and Johnny Rotz was the best available. But the story I intended to be funny was repeated as gospel.
"There was another story going back to Carry Back's Preakness. Rotz was on Globemaster. After Carry Back's great stretch run, Johnny was walking toward the scales. He passed Mrs. Price and stopped to touch his cap and say, 'Congratulations, Mrs. Price.' Well, that was true, and it was also true that Mrs. Price was impressed with Johnny's gentlemanly gesture. But it didn't have anything to do with putting him on Carry Back later on."
Jack Price sat silent. He leaned forward and spoke softly, almost in a tone of reverence. "The highest praise that I can give Johnny Rotz is just to say simply that he had the honor of riding Carry Back."
At Lenny's Hide-A-Way that evening Johnny Rotz sipped his Scotch on the rocks. He had gone through another afternoon's racing without a winner, but he seemed relaxed, good-humored and confident. He did not have the appearance or the manner of a jockey who was beginning to press a little bit.
"I would almost rather be guilty of a bad ride," he said, "than of pressing. That's bad. It's like a hitter in a slump. Sometimes he'll start to press and hit at bad balls. I'm not worried about anything. I feel fine. Things will work out. Good mounts mean winners, and I'm sure I'll be getting them."
Was he better on some tracks than others?
"A good horse," Johnny said, "can win on any track. I have had great seasons at tracks like Tropical, which is a whoop-de-do track. That means it has a short stretch, and you have to make your move before the stretch. But I have been just as successful on the tracks with long stretches, like Hialeah and the Big A in New York."
He was asked why he had changed agents, and why some people had been critical of the way he gave Lenny Goodman his notice.
"I had been wanting Bud Aime to represent me for some time," he said. "Bud asked me if I was sure that I had thought about it enough. When I said I was sure, he agreed to represent me. I guess I figured the best way to tell Lenny was to come right out with it without any long preliminaries. After all, jockeys are changing agents all the time. I thought Bud Aime was the best man for me. He certainly did all right with John Sellers and Howard Grant."
The waitress passed by and smiled. It seems to be the policy in the Hide-A-Way cocktail lounge to have waitresses dress as if they were guests at a proper cocktail party. There was not a bunny tail in sight.
Johnny followed her across the room with an appreciative bachelor's eye. "I didn't know that girl was the waitress when she came to take the order. I was about to ask her to sit down at the table."
The waitress came back with a tray of canapés. Johnny looked them over and took two. "Not many calories in these, are there?" he asked the girl.
"Goodness," said the girl, "you certainly don't have to worry about calories, sir."
"Oh, but I do," said Johnny. He watched the girl as she went from table to table offering the tray. "What," he asked after a moment, "was I talking about?"
Racetracks, he was told.
"Oh, yes. Well, that reminds me that I'd love to ride in France. I came within a whisker of going over with Carry Back. I had my passport and was all set. But Mr. Price decided not to send Carry Back that year. I'd like to ride a whole season in France. The trouble is, though, the French don't seem to care much for American riders. I probably couldn't get any good mounts. But I'd love to have the experience. I've never been out of this country except for a vacation in Mexico."
Had he given any thought to some of the things he would like to do after he stopped riding?
"Yes, I have," said Johnny. "I want to be connected with racing in some way. I'd like to go into breeding. I've got two broodmares here in Florida right now, as a matter of fact. I also have a farm in Illinois next to my father's place. He's working my land as well as his own. Corn and soybeans mostly." He nibbled at a canapé. "Another thing that would appeal to me is broadcasting. I would enjoy being on a racing program someday like Eddie Arcaro. But that's all in the future. I've got a lot of riding to do first."
He had a lot of riding to do the next day. And in the sixth race, as things turned out, he got his first winner for 1964 on W. J. Beattie's President Jim, who paid $13.40. It was the turning point for Johnny Rotz and his new agent, Bud Aime. He began to win with increasing regularity—especially for Calumet Farm and Jimmy Jones. Soon he rose from last place to second in the standings of jockeys at the Hialeah meeting.
Johnny won his first stakes race of 1964 and Calumet Farm's first since July 1962 when Jimmy Jones put him on Princess Arle again, for the $50,000 Black Helen Handicap. Trainer Buddy Jacobson began to call on him. Johnny won on Calumet's Kentucky Jug and Ky. Pioneer, thereby suggesting that Jimmy Jones had two strong Kentucky Derby candidates. He signed as first-call rider for the Greentree Stable of Jock Whitney and Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson. He flew to Bowie to replace the suspended Wayne Chambers on Mrs. Marion du Pont Scott's Mongo and won the $109,400 John B. Campbell Handicap in a thrilling nose-finish victory over Gedney Farm's Gun Bow. There was every indication that Johnny Rotz was going to have another year of gainful employment and once again earn considerably more than Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Lyndon B. Johnson.
It figures for the Illinois farm boy who reminds Jimmy Jones of the great Citation.