Hang up your tack, John Longden,
Hang up your tack and quit.
Hang up your tack, John Longden,
Pack up your bit and git.
Some years ago Willie Shoemaker sang this parody at the annual jockeys' ball to a man who supposedly was about to retire. But it was not until last Saturday at smog-shrouded Santa Anita that John Eric Longden, the 59-year-old grandfather with more victories than any other jockey in the history of Thoroughbred racing, finally did pack up his bit and git. Before he did, however, he had one last race to ride.
Literally, he had four more, for he had accepted mounts in the fourth, sixth and seventh races, but it was the eighth, the San Juan Capistrano Handicap, that was to be his last, the one that mattered. As was his custom, Longden arrived in the barns by 7 a.m. It was a gloomy morning, with clouds hanging so thick over the track that clockers were unable to catch a number of early workouts. Longden spent the time mingling with exercise boys, grooms, trainers and walkers. "John knows every one of their jobs better than they do," said Joe Hernandez, the announcer at Santa Anita and Longden's first agent in California back in 1931. "He can clean tack, muck out a stall, feed a horse, bandage a cut or walk out a hot horse better than anyone."
To the boys in the barn Longden's attention to detail was not surprising, for they had long regarded him as synonymous with Thoroughbred racing itself. Indeed, to all southern California racing fans Longden has become a legend. His career began in 1927, when Lindbergh was making headlines, when Gene Tunney was heavyweight champion and Willie Shoemaker was not yet born. Longden himself was born in England and moved to Canada, where he went to work in a coal mine before becoming a jockey at 20. His first stand in California was at Tanforan near San Francisco during the winter season of 1931-32, and he became the meet's leading rider with 54 wins in 51 days. However, it was not until 1936, two years after Santa Anita opened, that Longden came to southern California. On the day after Christmas that year he made Santa Anita's winner's circle for the first time, having ridden a horse named War Letter. In the years that followed, the 4-foot-11 Longden became a giant in southern California horse racing and a millionaire in the process.
Now, on Longden's final day, the mood of the occasion was reflected by a sign posted on the jockeys' board late in the afternoon: "John, Only 969 more [victories] to 7,000. Sure you want to quit?" It was signed "Shoe."
Willie insisted he had not written it. "Well, if it wasn't you," said Longden, "that's the way you'd think, Bill."
There was more levity and friendly conversation in the jockeys' room than there had been in years. Longden, who many thought should be taut, nervous and perhaps a bit impatient with those chronicling his final hours, was more relaxed than ever.
People from every segment of racing stopped by to reminisce—stable hands, patrol judges, owners, trainers and writers. Even President Robert Strub of Santa Anita came by. "John," he said, "they're paying you a great tribute today. We would like to have you come to the directors' room after the ninth race. Come up in your silks. Come up and chat for a minute and have some champagne." Longden thanked him and began to get ready.
In his first race of the day, the fourth, Longden rode the favorite, Chiclero, and beat Bill Hartack on Valiant Man by a head. He was out of the money in the sixth, then finished third in the seventh. It was just 4:30 when Longden marched out of the jockeys' quarters for his last call.
"This is it, John," yelled a seasoned admirer. "Go get 'em."
John flicked his whip in acknowledgment, smiled and walked on.
"Bring him in, John. Win one more," yelled another, as a wave of applause spread over the paddock circle.
Three minutes later, as the call to mount up came, John turned to his wife and friends.
"This is it," he said softly, a warm smile crossing his weathered face. "It's been a long time."
The field, anchored by Longden's horse, George Royal, moved through the tunnel to the track. An ancient, neatly groomed Negro remarked:
"Is he going to try?"
"Man," shot back a friend looking intently at the gnomelike jockey, "he's all try."
As the pink-and-black silks of the Hammond and Hall entry became visible to the crowd, a shattering roar shot out from under the steel deck of Santa Anita.
It was the wish of many, probably most, for Longden and George Royal to win, but the odds on the tote board said otherwise. When it closed at 4:48, George Royal was listed at 6 to 1. Most of the money at the track was on Hill Rise, Cedar Key and Tom Cat.
Much of Longden's riding reputation over the years has centered on his amazing ability to outbreak the field at the gate and ride a front-running race. Yet everyone knew that John would never try such tactics in a grueling mile-and-three-quarters race aboard a horse whose only way of running is to come from many lengths off the pace They were right on that score—but wrong in underestimating the finishing kick still left in an amazing old jockey and the Canadian-bred George Royal.
At the break it was Bobby Ussery aboard Plaque who took the lead, followed by Polar Sea and Bill Hartack. Favorite Hill Rise lay well back, as did Cedar Key, with Shoemaker up. And behind all of them, in last place as the field thundered down the hill to pass the stands the first time, was George Royal. But Longden was readying himself for as masterful a riding performance as he has turned in since those days in 1950 when he rode Noor to phenomenal victories over the great Citation. Skillfully, and with perfect timing, Longden moved George Royal up to seventh place after a mile and to fifth as the weary field went into the far turn. Plaque was still the horse ahead, but Longden caught him at the head of the stretch. From there home it was Longden against Bobby Ussery in a Hollywood finish down the lane in front of the crowd. Then, just as the horses crossed the wire, Longden managed to put George Royal's nose in front. No scriptwriter in the world could have improved the climax.
When George Royal shot across the finish, the noise from the crowd drowned out the public-address system. There was not a disappointed spectator at the track, losers included, nor were there many dry eyes. Longden waved wildly to the sea of faces as he came back in triumph. In the winner's circle for the 6,032nd time, Longden was kissed by his wife Hazel. "What a gratifying win," Longden said. "The greatest race of my life."
As he left the circle for the jockeys' room, two of Longden's contemporaries, Kenny Church and Milo Valenzuela, ran down the tunnel in street clothes to greet him. "Old man," Church said, "you rode the hair off that horse."
Later, Jockeys Hank Moreno and Bill Harmatz came into the pressroom to ask Longden for his autograph. Shoemaker appeared and threw his arms around his old friend. "John," he said, "you're the greatest."