An old, old athlete leaned against a locker at Vancouver's Exhibition Park. He wore a jade-and-diamond ring as a token of the good days past, a wavy brown toupee that hid his baldness but not his years and flannel long Johns, because an old man's legs grow cold. At 59, short John Longden had just ridden his 6,000th winner, and he had done it at the track in the Pacific Northwest where 38 years, 31,000 races and five broken legs ago his spectacular career had its first spectacular moment. Old John had Exhibition Park in an uproar last month when he brought Prince Scorpion in first for No. 6,000, just as he had caused an uproar there back in 1928, when he was aboard an infamous gelding named Gabardine, and he never got to the starting gate, never mind to the finish.
Those were the days when one of the track's attractions was a roller coaster that upped and downed within 100 feet of the eighth pole. As Gabardine, Longden up, paraded by, the roller coaster roared down. Gabardine shied, Longden got kicked by another horse and when track officials pulled him out of the saddle, he had his first broken leg. Gabardine won that day for someone else, but Longden has been winning ever since.
In the 1920s Exhibition Park was called Hastings Park and was the rough-and-tumble training grounds for an assortment of horse racing's latter-day saints and sinners. That was where Red McDaniel and Willie Molter learned the backstretch rudiments that led them to train 3,000 winners. Jockey Don Meade of rough riding fame got his start there, and so did Johnny Gilbert and Hedley Woodhouse and the Moreno brothers.
Until last year, when the track was redesigned and made 5/8ths of a mile and 208 feet, the turns were so sharp that sore-legged horses often bounced into the outside rail. The program was—and is—noted for its marathon two-mile races in which the field lapped the track four times. The jockeys, possibly dizzy, sometimes lost count and put on driving finishes in the wrong lap. Once the whole confused field wheeled around five laps instead of four. After that, jockeys began putting four peas in their mouths at the start and spitting one out every time they passed the grandstand.
September 19, 1965
That's how it was when Johnny Longden was 21, and for a lot of years since then, too. But at Vancouver Johnny was 59, and the roller coaster was gone, and the grandstand was a glittering $2-million creation of beige concrete and gleaming glass. The infield was bright with marigolds and geraniums and petunias and on the sunny lawn where the roller coaster once stood grannies and grandchildren rested. (One, 85-year-old Agnes Harvey, remembered Longden as the boy who 40 years before had carried water from her pump to his mother's kitchen in the prairie town of Taber, Alta. John spotted her after one race. "Long time no see," he said. She blushed with delight. When the old jockey had gone on, the white-haired lady told the little boy with her: "I dinna think he would know me. I'm so long away and it's a long time since then. You know, he hasn't grown at all.")
It seemed like a golden setting for a golden-ager to win his 6,000th, but it wasn't, of course. Racing doesn't change that much. The new generation of Exhibition Park jockeys is every bit as tough and brash as the old, and it was not about to proclaim "be kind to Johnny Longden week."
Every jockey west of Kicking Horse Pass had only one thing on his mind. As one trainer put it: "My kid will ride this horse after Longden until he drops. It's a big thing for these guys to beat Longden. They're after him, and if they can knock him off it's as if they've made the big time. They feel they could ride any day at Saratoga or Santa Anita or Hollywood Park."
Jack Diamond, co-president of the racetrack and the man responsible for the move of getting Longden back to Vancouver, helped select the horses Johnny rode. Asked why Longden did not have a horse in one feature race, he said, "There are 12 horses in there, and some of those boys riding are hungry. I'd rather John rode in a smaller field"—a bit of solicitude that might have annoyed Longden if he had heard of it.
Longden arrived at the track needing four winners to reach 6,000. The first came on a Friday, in his second race—and the crowd applauded enthusiastically. "What are they clappin' for him for?" said one young jockey at the weigh-in scale. "He's got three more to go." "Let 'em clap," said the jockey's valet. "You won't be bothered with him for long."
Longden's Friday win was on a 2-year-old owned by a Vancouver junk dealer. On Saturday he took No. 5998 on a rickety-boned gelding worth little more than Longden's silver-streaked toupee and No. 5999 on a dubiously bred stallion owned by two East Indian lumber barons. At the end of that day's racing Longden had ridden in eight races, had earned $257 in jockey fees for himself and had made $4,198 for his mounts' owners, the last being a figure that the world's winningest jockey much respects. Earlier that week he had opened the racing program to the place where his riding record was listed. He put on his glasses, took out a ballpoint pen and did some figuring. He found he had finished first, second or third with 47% of the 31,962 horses he had ridden. "That interests me," he said in his high-pitched, dry voice. "A paycheck, even if it's fourth money, takes care of the feed bill." All told, Longden's mounts could have paid $24,381,712 of feed bills.
Since a jockey averages 10% of the purse money, it is obvious that Longden has no feed bills of his own to worry about. But with Longden his own money has never been the point. He goes on riding and risking his crinkled hide not for more money and not for more silverware and not for more publicity. His pleasure is in knowing he does a job well and has done it well for more years than most athletes can dream of. His diamond ring, given to him by the Jockeys' Guild, is engraved "World's Greatest Rider." He likes that ring.
At Exhibition Park that day Johnny Longden carefully took off the ring and handed it to his valet, as he does before every race he rides. Then he slapped his helmet on over his toupee, buckled the chin strap, climbed aboard Prince Scorpion and 1:18 1/5 minutes of running later, Prince Scorpion had won by 3/4ths of a length. Longden's followers at Exhibition Park had been rewarded $3.40, $2.70, $2.40. Prince Scorpion's owner had collected and the world had its first jockey with 6,000 winners. Two days later he got 6,001. Old John rides on and on.