A good jockey, as Eddie Arcaro was always saying with due modesty, is also a good athlete and not just a handy chauffeur. The now-retired master, probably the most skillful ever to ride in this country, was also an expert theorist on his craft. Writing in this magazine nine years ago, Arcaro said, "If generalship is 80% of race ruling, just plain riding ability must account for the remaining 20%. No two jocks can have exactly the same style. The greatest fault with American jocks is that too many of them arc style-conscious and want to look pretty at all times. This is 100% wrong."
What Arcaro would agree is 100% right is that a great jockey is one who best correlates his individual style with the ability of the horse he is riding. All the top ones have a fine sense of balance, whether they are hard-driving jocks, like recently retired Johnny Longden (opposite), or long-holding, sit-still riders, like Bill Shoemaker and Braulio Baeza, who are seen on the following pages. Another critical requisite is known as good hands: the sensitivity to perceive through the reins clues to a horse's potential at a given moment, so that the rider can translate into action the tactics agreed upon with the trainer before the race.
In contrast to the style of European riders, who have grown up in a tradition of long stirrups (and long apprenticeships in horsemanship), U.S. jockeys ride with extremely short irons. "Take an aggressive rider like Manuel Yeaza, for example." says Trainer Hirsch Jacobs. "He's probably not a 'foul' rider by intent, but he rides so short that some of his horses go where they want to, and it often appears that Manuel has no control over them. Some jockeys ride short because they think it looks cute. If they win a few they pull up another notch."
Most observers agree that Longden, who had the quick reflexes of a Pony McAtee or a Don Meade and a special ability to sense the break at the starting gate, played a vital role in changing U.S. riding tactics. Longden rejected the European-style "waiting game" in favor of sprinting out of the gate and killing his opposition with speed. Often, too, he fooled rivals with a false early pace. Today's best-known practitioners of this Style are Wally Blum and Bobby Ussery. In almost complete contrast arc Shoemaker and Baeza. The latter (page 44) gets the most out of his horses with a patient, perfectly timed hand ride rather than by dependence on the whip. "Ninety percent of the time," says Shoe, "Baeza is better off because of it, because 90% of the time horses run their best without a whip."
April 11, 1966
Shoemaker's own assets are considerable. The little man, who seems to transmit his confidence to his mounts, says. "I ride with a longer hold because that way I get a horse in hand, running against the bit. I can feel him and he can feel me. I think a long hold enables both horse and rider to relax more. I also ride fairly short, because I have better purchase that way."
If Shoemaker rarely stirs on a horse, Bill Hartack rolls and pitches constantly, trying to synchronize with the animal's stride. To those who claim he looks like a man struggling to stay aboard, he says, "Looking good on a horse would take away my most important asset, which is to hustle. And, contrary to public belief, over 75% of the horses don't run free and clear. I get results by hustling in my own way."
Form aside, in the fury of a stretch drive all the top jocks would probably agree with Arcaro, when he said, "The guy who can drive at the finish is the important guy. I'll sacrifice my best form to make sure I get there."