In his years around racetracks Jockey Johnny Sellers has been a puzzle to owners, trainers, agents, his own wife and the betting public. With Johnny you never know one year what he is going to be like the next. The reason seems to be that Johnny doesn't know either. Johnny does a lot of thinking about himself, and these changes in mood and manner happen after he has gone through a spell of heavy pondering. All told, Johnny has led four lives in racing. First he was a very serious and eager country kid out of Oklahoma, grateful for rides at the big-city tracks. Then he was the famous and affluent rider of Carry Back, hauling down some $180,000 in 1961 and living high. Next he was in a slump, and full of mockery. Some people thought him timid on the track and called him "Old Mother Sellers" behind his back.
But meet the new Johnny Sellers. He's serious again, he's rich again, he's winning again, he's married again (to the same wife who had divorced him in 1963) and, as the newly aggressive rider of two of the year's hottest horses, Hail to All and Pia Star, Johnny's famous again. Watch out, though, he's thinking again.
Time was, not long ago, when Sellers contemplated taking up the care and feeding of hybrid beef cattle amid fields of grass as high as Carry Back's eye. He planned to retire at 30 to his 1,050-acre ranch near Tulsa. It was classic Americana; the boy from the country moves to the city to make enough to move back to the country. Johnny came from away out in the country. He rode his first "stake" 14 years ago at Pawhuska, Okla.—on a mare called Talking Girl for a $100 side bet. But now Johnny is eight-and-twenty, and all he envisions growing out of his real estate is something a little more cosmopolitan, like a few apartment buildings. If you ever find him wandering more than a mile and five furlongs from the nearest city, he would appreciate your calling a head doctor.
Sellers' resurgent success this year—he tithed $746,805 in stakes winnings between May 24 and August 25—has placed him in a position where he could retire two years ahead of schedule. "But not on my terms," Sellers said. "Yes, I think big, and I'm going to keep thinking big."
Racetrack hangers-on being the most shameless front-runners in sports, Sellers has been hearing "Hello, Johnny" ever since he rode Our Michael to a six-length victory in the Juvenile Stakes on May 24. The chorus hit a crescendo the other day when he got Hail to All home first in the Travers by five lengths. Sellers is glad the railbirds are glad to see him back where he belongs. He is also mildly amused, not so much by the fair-weather adulation as by the popular concept of his escape from the jockeys' quarters of the glue factory.
He had, a columnist said, "dropped all the way to the bottom.... His income had dwindled to a trickle."
"I didn't realize that I had been that bad," Sellers says. Nevertheless, from the spring of 1964 until he got on Hail to All to win the Hibiscus at Hialeah last February 22, Sellers did not pick up a big pot. He won a mere 159 races in 1964, fewer than half his victories in his national-champion campaign of 1961, and the $804,269 his mounts brought home was a bagatelle compared to the $2,141,729 ($565,349 of it by Carry Back) in '61. Sellers had dropped all the way to 21st ranking among the 1,200 money-winning members of the National Jockeys' Guild.
"No, they didn't have to run any benefits for me," Sellers says. "But I did have a slump. I rode badly for a while, and I know it." It's hard to tell where the slump began, because the year 1963 was not a good one for Sellers. The year before, he had been taken off Carry Back ("he's as good a rider as anyone when he's right," said Owner-Trainer Jack Price, "but he wasn't right"). Still, he finished sixth among the money winners and was awarded a contract by Wheatley Stable. On May 18, 1963 he quit Wheatley in one of those partings that are always described as "amicable" but seldom are.
"I wasn't getting any mounts," Sellers says. "I just didn't get along with Mr. [Sunny Jim] Fitzsimmons. He wanted me out at the barn at 6 a.m. I said I'd work any horse he wanted me to, but I didn't want to go out there just to hang around."
Such reluctance follows the Arcaro maxim, "It's hard to get up in the morning when you're wearing silk pajamas." After making that $180,000 in 1961, Sellers had added another $120,000 or so in '62; the living was good and he was liking it. Success, it seemed, had struck again.
"I don't think I was spoiled," Sellers says. "Of course, the money changed my way of living. I don't know, you just feel you should do some things differently when you have the money." Quitting a stable of Wheatley's stature is something different, not calculated to endear a rider to trainers who call jockeys "boys" and expect them to act the part. In any case, Sellers' business suffered. His 1963 winning percentage slipped to 13.1, far below the 24% of 1961, and he barely cleared $80,000.
John Sellers does not look like a jockey. A shade over 5 feet 6 inches, he is slim enough to do 113 pounds without scourging his body with diet, steam and self-induced nausea as so many must do, but not gaunt enough to be conspicuous. He has the intelligence to know that trainers are not infallible in the preparation of their steeds, and the integrity not to give them the consolation speech most of them expect after a losing race. Plucked off the farm at 16, he attended enough night classes to come within one English credit of a high school diploma before the big money began rolling in "and it seemed to make sense to concentrate on racing." Even with the big money in the bank, he studied for a real estate license. He was, without being stuffy about it, a serious young man. And then suddenly in 1963 he wasn't anymore.
Sellers' change of mood became evident after an allowance race at Aqueduct that November. He finished third on something called President Jim, but the race was such a rodeo that nobody tore up any tickets. When the stewards had unscrambled the double foul, they disqualified President Jim from third and placed him third. Like the umpire who said, with the bases loaded, "Ball four, you're out," they had no other place to put him.
Sellers thought that was pretty funny. It could have cost him a 10-day suspension, but suddenly Sellers was considering everything pretty funny. "I got in with the wrong people," he says. "You get to be—you know, famous—and all these people are around. Important people, people with money. It's funny: I don't think of myself as a big deal, but it seems that the little people, the ordinary people, are sort of afraid to come near you. Anyway, I seemed to lose my sense of values. I was with the wrong people, doing things I shouldn't have done—things I wouldn't have done if I'd been evaluating properly."
The principal loss to Sellers in his scramble of values was his wife, Janice, and their son, Mark, then 4. "Things weren't going well at all. I sent her home in November. The situation didn't have to go as far as it did, but Janice was pretty upset." Janice was still serious; Johnny very shortly found out that he was divorced.
On any backstretch, any morning, you can see exercise boys, hot-walkers and stall-muckers who were, or were going to be, race riders. Some of them didn't have the strength or the guts or the power of concentration for an exacting, perilous, venal game in which death rides every race every afternoon.
Johnny Sellers had the strength, the guts and the head, but he had tried to convince himself that he really didn't give a damn. When they closed Aqueduct that December 1963, he was still trying; in the badinage in the jockeys' room, in which he had been only a peripheral, jovial participant, there was a cynical, almost nasty edge to his remarks. Nothing mattered very much, he was telling himself, everything had gone flat.
Sellers took his troubles onto the track, as they all do. "When I took him off Carry Back," Jack Price says, "it wasn't just because he got beat in the Widener. He had put in four bad rides. He's a good rider, but he had problems. One time, I know, his kid was sick. I don't know what the rest of it was, but a man can't do his best when he can't concentrate on his work."
"I know I rode badly," Sellers says. "I wasn't paying attention to my business. But what the hell did I have to work for? To pay alimony?"
Sellers' world had fallen apart, but there was a glue that held it together. Around Miami that winter there were more than a few double takes when Johnny was seen squiring this pretty blonde. It was Janice, no longer his wife but still his date. "There was something there," he says. "It took me some time to realize it, but it was always there."
They were remarried six months after they were divorced, and that should have been the happily-ever-after fadeout for the story. Racing, however, is not nearly as sentimental as purported in the Lon McCallister-June Haver movies. Nothing fails like failure for a jockey, whose reputation is forever caught up in a deflationary spiral. If he is losing because he has been riding bad horses, he gets worse horses because he is losing. If he is on a comeback, as Sellers' agent tried to tell the people he was, the trainers say: "Good. I'd like to ride him after he wins a few—for somebody else."
So 1964 crept out its relatively petty pace and Sellers found himself going relatively nowhere. He finally did win a stakes race, with Hail to All, but his other Hialeah experiences this year were indifferent. This occasioned an awkward situation, inasmuch as Sellers" agent was Bill Lyons, who happened to be Janice's father. The awkwardness was compounded by the fact that Sellers had fired Lyons in May 1960, after what may be described as Reappraisal I. He and Janice had decided at that time that although Father-in-law meant well and tried hard, Sellers needed "a real, professional" agent. He hired Bud Aime, a real professional.
An agent must con, cajole and even tell a little fib now and then to get business for his rider, but above all he must hustle. With Aime's hustling, and a little bit of luck, Sellers arrived in 1960. When Willie Harmatz became lukewarm about riding T. V. Lark, Aime was there and Sellers rode T.V. Lark to victory in four consecutive $100,000 races. Then Bill Hartack became disenchanted with Carry Back after the 2-year-old lingered in the gate in the Champagne Stakes. Sellers got on him, won the Garden State, the world's richest race at that time, and the rest is history. John won the first two parts of the Triple Crown on Carry Back and Jack Price does not blame him for being beaten in the Belmont Stakes.
In the fall of 1962 Sellers parted with Aime, who wanted to go back to New Orleans, and in the next two and a half years used no fewer than four other agents. The last was his father-in-law once more. But when he moved from Hialeah to Gulfstream Park last March 4, he bid another "amicable" farewell ("sure, there was some hell to pay") to his father-in-law and hired Duane Murty.
Murty is young, having preceded Sellers by only one year at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, and he hustles. At Gulfstream he hustled Sellers onto the promising 2-year-old Our Michael, and they won four straight stakes. Then he got him on Pia Star just in time to equal the world record for the mile in the Equipoise Handicap at Chicago. Pia Star's subsequent victories in the Suburban and Brooklyn handicaps, contrasted with his merely "useful" status of 1964, seem to support Sellers' appraisal of Murty as "a good judge of horseflesh."
Nothing fails like failure or succeeds like success. The trainers now listened when Murty made his rounds in the morning. In one space of four days (July 21 to 24), Sellers was called upon to win the Great American on Our Michael at Aqueduct, the Hollywood Oaks on Straight Deal at Hollywood Park and the Brooklyn on Pia Star at Aqueduct. The package added up to $122,472.50, 10% of which is right in line with Sellers' big thinking. But there were a couple of things he liked even better than the big money.
"Retire at 30?" he said the other day. "No, I want all I can get. I love this game. I still get a kick out of things like trips to California. You're in New York today, Hollywood Park tomorrow and back east in New York the next day. I couldn't ever go back to a farm. I might have one and visit it, but I don't want to be far from the cities.
"And I like their coming to me and asking me to ride their horses. I don't want to take just what I can get, the way I did the past couple of years. No, I got enough recognition in those years when I rode Carry Back and Yorky and T.V. Lark. That's not the thing. I don't think I got their respect. I think some people believe it was a flash in the pan."
Sometimes, in this game of whim, superstition and suspicion, nothing fails like success. There are jockeys whose reputations are deprecated by some trainers in almost direct proportion to the number and value of races they win. The argument goes like this: the horse won all those races and all that money; he must be a very good horse; if he is such a good horse, what did the jockey have to do with it?
They say Mongo pulled Wayne Chambers out of the saddle. When Milo Valenzuela is given any contributory credit for Kelso's success, it is given grudgingly. And there are doubts about Sellers. Like the Senator asking what Pearl Harbor was doing in the Pacific Ocean, people question why Carry Back always seemed to make his move on the outside of the pack. Why wasn't he crashing along the rail?—"saving ground," an expression that always looks good in the official chart, even if the horse loses.
The implication is that Sellers is "timid," a dirty word at the racetrack because sporting horsemen cannot abide a jockey's reluctance to get himself killed. Sellers knows about that. "I was never timid," Sellers says. "I was cautious, or too polite, or whatever you want to call it. Like if there was a space where only one horse could go through, and I thought I didn't have that much horse left, I'd let the other guy go through.
"But no more. If anybody gets to a hole before I do, he's got to beat me to it. The hell with being polite. I want these people to know that when they put me on a horse they get the best ride they can get. I've decided in the last year or so that I have to be more aggressive. I don't mean I'm going to do anything on the track to get myself set down for 10 days or get into a fight in the jocks' room, necessarily. But I have to convince them that I'm mean enough to get the job done."
Sellers is getting the job done. If Duane Murty keeps hustling, and the luck isn't bad, and Sellers keeps getting meaner, the moving finger may have to write more about 1965 than the fact that the Yankees didn't win the pennant. It may have to point out that it was the year Willie Shoemaker didn't make the most money.