Somehow my career progressed without a hitch from the beginning. I got a lot of mounts and a lot of wins, and at times it almost seemed that I could do no wrong. In San Francisco one year I remember they were having a difficult time filling the races because my agent, Harry Silbert, was putting me on so many good horses. He'd have to wait until the last minute each morning to name the horse that I was going to be on so that the other fellows would already have their horses in. Otherwise, if everyone knew I was on the best horse, most of the other horsemen would back off and the race wouldn't fill.
I got my first $100,000 win (the first of 80 in 21 years) in 1951 in the Santa Anita Maturity, which is now called the Charles H. Strub Stakes in honor of the founder of Santa Anita. It was on a horse called Great Circle, owned by Mr. and Mrs. John Wack. Before that time I'd been mostly riding cheaper horses, and when I got on Great Circle I thought he was the best horse I'd ever ridden. I was amazed at the way a top-caliber horse reacted and ran compared with a cheap horse—how much easier he was to handle and how much more juice he had when you asked him to put the run in. The action was so much smoother. Years later, when I rode Damascus for the first time, it took me back to the time when I first got up on a good stakes horse and felt the difference between the action of an animal of quality and one of ordinary class.
After that I rode many more good horses, including some for Calumet Farm in California...and then came Swaps. No question about it—for a colt to have done what he did, with one bad foot throughout most of his career, Swaps was truly great. His owner, Rex Ellsworth, and Trainer Mesh Tenney and I knew this before we went to the 1955 Kentucky Derby, but most of the Easterners in Louisville believed—as they often do about California horses—that he simply couldn't go a mile and a quarter against class competition. Bill Woodward's Nashua was the big favorite of everyone that year and his trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, told Arcaro that from what he knew of Swaps the California horse would stop after a mile. According to Fitz, the only colt Eddie had to worry about was Summer Tan, who had been beaten by Nashua by a neck in the Wood Memorial in New York.
Well, that afternoon Swaps showed he was better than everybody thought he was. I hadn't planned to put him on the lead. I wanted to be about third for the first part of it and figured Nashua would be right with me, or even in front of me. But at the start, after Swaps broke well, I tried to ease him back and he got a little rank. So instead of struggling with him, I let him take the lead, and as soon as he got the lead he relaxed. Eddie and Nashua weren't ever very far off me, but the point is that I was on a completely relaxed horse and coasting on the lead, and Nashua wasn't as relaxed as Swaps. Arcaro made a move around the far turn, but he had to work on Nashua to get to me. He got right up to me at the quarter pole and probably thought, because he had made a hell of a run, that he was going to win. But I had a lot of horse left. When we straightened out in the stretch, I just hit Swaps and—phew!—he took off again and won, going away, by a length and a half.
February 9, 1970
I'm not going to make excuses now, after 15 years, for Swaps' defeat in the match race that summer at Washington Park in Chicago. But there's no doubt that he was not at his best that afternoon. He worked in the mud the morning before and threw a shoe and reinfected his bad foot. But even if he had been at his best, he might not have beaten Nashua that day. And, believe me, Eddie rode a great race. It goes back to what I said last week, that experience really counts when the chips are down. Arcaro had the experience and I didn't. If you look back on other match races you'll notice that the horse on the lead from the start wins nine out of 10 times. And despite the fact that I knew Eddie was going to try and take the lead, I let him do it. The start was so sudden that it really didn't give my horse a shot. He was fidgeting, and when the gate opened he jumped in the air and came out of there like a snake. Then Eddie immediately did the right thing. He got on the dry path where the trucks had been driving over the muddy track, and he kept me to his outside on the deep part. And my own inexperience helped him carry me wide around each of the turns. He gave me a riding lesson that afternoon, there's no question.
But you are supposed to learn through experience, and I try never to forget this. Let me give you a more up-to-date example. In the spring of 1967 I rode Damascus and was beaten by Dr. Fager in the one-mile Gotham at Aqueduct. I rode him badly that day, not in his style of running at all. He broke well, but instead of letting him relax I sent him for about a sixteenth of a mile and he got rank and outran Dr. Fager. That was the day they decided to take Dr. Fager back. After laying second I took the lead around the three-eighths pole, which left Dr. Fager behind me and in perfect position to control the race. He made me move when he wanted to.
Well, I didn't let this happen again the only other time Damascus met Dr. Fager that year. Good horses like these two run truer to form than cheap horses, and everyone knew just about how the mile-and-a-quarter Woodward at Aqueduct that fall would be run. But even in such a race a jock has to be ready to change his plans. For example, in a classic race, if one of the contenders is two or three lengths in front and just breezing, you simply can't let him stay there forever without making a run at him. A cheap horse can be expected to stop and come back to you, but in a classic like the Woodward if you wait you'll never catch this kind of front-runner.
In the Woodward it was obvious that Dr. Fager, ridden by Bill Boland, was going to take the lead at the break, because that's the way he runs his best races. It was just as obvious that my trainer, Frank Whiteley, would send Hedevar, who was Damascus' stablemate, out to run with Dr. Fager—and really make him run all-out. The complaining about so-called "rabbit" tactics that came from Johnny Nerud, Dr. Fager's trainer, didn't make sense to me. He used a rabbit with Gallant Man to help beat Bold Ruler in the 1957 Belmont Stakes, and he knows very well that entries, for one purpose or another, are as old in racing as the sport itself. What really surprised me about this Woodward was that Nerud didn't order Boland to take Dr. Fager right back after the break. If I'd been on Dr. Fager and knew they were going to run a real speed sprinter at me and that the horses I had to beat were Damascus and Buckpasser, I'd figure that my only shot at the money would be to stop Dr. Fager before he got going. If you let the two real contenders outrun you, then you have some chance of being able to control the race later on. You might not beat either of them, but neither would you stagger down the stretch on a tired horse who had been forced to make all the pace for the first mile. That's what happened to Boland, and we won.
All this is part of what I mean by experience. A sense of pace, for instance, is not acquired overnight. It takes years and years but, believe me, if you have an idea how fast your horse is going and whether he's running smoothly or not, you can get by with quite a lot. I think that my sense of pace accounted for my winning two of the races I am most proud of. One was the 1962 mile-and-three-quarters turf race, the San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita, with Rex Ellsworth's Olden Times. The other was the 1967 mile-and-a-half Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park with George Pope's Hill Clown. Olden Times was not a proved distance horse, but he was extremely fast. I popped him on the lead right away and he relaxed so much that I could take a long steady hold on him and let him nod along in a big, high lope for the first mile and a quarter. He went that steady, even lick, and when the others moved at him he had enough left. If he hadn't relaxed right away, there's no way he could have gotten beyond three-quarters of a mile in that company. Frankly, I thought it was one of the best rides in my career.
In the Sunset the one to beat was Liz Tippett's Pretense, one of the top handicap horses in the country. Hill Clown was no great shakes. He had never won over a real distance and didn't figure to have much of a chance. He usually came from off the pace, but when we left the gate I looked around and saw that all the other jocks were throwing their horses down, so I let Hill Clown kind of ease off and take the lead. I think we went the first quarter in 0:24⅘ the half mile in 0:49[4/5] and the first six furlongs in 1:14[2/5]. Again, when the contention finally came up to challenge, I still had a fresh horse and we won. It was a satisfying victory because Pretense was one of the best horses in America and I felt that I personally engineered the right tactics to beat him.
To the general public, of course, the place for a jock to prove that he is a real pro is the Kentucky Derby, and, as everyone is well aware, the Derby hasn't always been the place for me to shine. I've won three of them in 16 tries, which isn't the best average around. I respect the Derby's traditions a great deal. I think it's without doubt the hardest of the Triple Crown races to win. There are two reasons for this. First, you've got a lot of unqualified horses nominated, so their owners decide to run them just for the excitement of it. All they do, generally, is create traffic problems for the real contenders, particularly the come-from-behind horses. Second, in the Derby they run from the word go. Every quarter there's some horse to take up the fight. To survive all of this, both horse and jockey have to be awfully good or awfully lucky—or both.
After my Derby win with Swaps in 1955 I finished 12th the next year on Ellsworth's Terrang. Then came 1957 and I had the mount on Ralph Lowe's Gallant Man, one of the three best horses I ever rode (Swaps and Damascus being the others). Gallant Man was a bad-legged horse, but he had talent and great courage. At times he could beat any horse—once he beat Bold Ruler going a flat mile, and not many horses could do that. But the 1957 Derby, I suppose, will go down in history as the one I blew to Calumet Farm's Iron Liege by standing up before the finish line. Well, I'll agree with those who believe that—I also think I blew it. But let's take it from the beginning. During Derby Week Johnny Nerud, who trained Gallant Man, phoned me out at Bay Meadows and asked me to ride his colt in the Derby. I agreed and flew to Louisville the day before the race. That night John and Mr. Lowe and I went over the race plans and everything. And it is absolutely true that Mr. Lowe told me that the previous night, Thursday, he had dreamed that his rider had misjudged the finish line in the Derby. When he told the story I sort of laughed and said, "Oh, don't worry about that, Mr. Lowe. That's never going to happen to me. I've been riding too long to let something like that happen to me."
The next afternoon it happened—and to me! There can be no excuse for such a terrible and costly moment of hesitation, but I'll try one anyway. I hadn't ridden at Churchill Downs in a year and that day I hadn't ridden a race before the Derby itself. At Churchill Downs the finish line is about a sixteenth of a mile farther toward the first turn than at any other racetrack in this country. I'm used to normal finish lines, and in the heat of battling Iron Liege through the stretch I thought the sixteenth pole was the finish—and I stood up. Right away I realized I had made a mistake and got back to riding my horse. It's debatable whether my mistake was the difference between winning and losing, but I will always believe that it was—the margin was just a nose, you know.
What this human error on my part did for me was probably far more important than winning or losing a Derby. It made a better person out of me. At the time, I was beginning to believe that I was just the greatest, that I couldn't do any wrong or make any mistakes. I wasn't being smarty about it or anything, but in my own mind, you know, that's the way I felt. That Derby experience, that awful thing happening the way it did, really made a better man out of me. Johnny Nerud and Mr. Lowe were terrific about it, too. Mr. Lowe gave me $5,000 and a new Chrysler, and how many guys are you going to find who would do that for a jock who stood up in the wrong place in the Kentucky Derby? Furthermore, he was so sore when they set me down 15 days that he wouldn't run Gallant Man back in the Preakness. "To hell with them," he said. "If you can't ride, I'm not going to run him."
That Derby, incidentally, wasn't the only time I apparently blew a major race. It happened once with Swaps, in the 1956 Californian at Hollywood Park. Swaps hadn't run in about a month and a half, and he had topweight on him. We wanted him to win, naturally, but didn't want to abuse him if he was winning easily, and this day he looked like he was going to win easily. At the eighth pole I looked around and I was about three or four lengths in front, so I kind of eased up and relaxed. I got Swaps to relax also, and he was already a little tired, so when I saw Porterhouse flying to us on the outside I couldn't get him to run again quick enough, and we got beat a head right at the finish. It was my fault, I suppose, but if Swaps had raced recently I wouldn't have had any problem getting him running again and he would have beaten that field easily.
I came to Louisville the spring after the Gallant Man episode with an overrated freak who had run some great races in California—beating mediocre horses and getting more publicity than any horse in America at the time. Silky Sullivan had won at Santa Anita by coming from so far out of it you could hardly believe it, but he was just a flash in the pan. How could he spot a colt like Tim Tam 25 lengths and hope to beat him? He didn't, finishing 12th and beaten about 20 lengths by Tim Tam.
I won the 1959 Derby on Tomy Lee by a nose over Sword Dancer, but I really had wanted to ride Sword Dancer, because I thought he was the best horse. Later, with Arcaro on him, he proved me right by being Horse of the Year. Anyway, before the Derby I was supposed to ride Tomy Lee in a prep race at Keeneland and in the Blue Grass Stakes. My agent, Harry Silbert, told Frank Childs, who trained Tomy Lee for Fred Turner, that if we won both those races I would definitely ride Tomy Lee back in the Derby. So far all fine. But after the Blue Grass, Trainer Elliott Burch asked me to ride Sword Dancer in the Stepping Stone, just a week before the Derby, at Churchill Downs. We won that easily and suddenly I liked Sword Dancer better than I liked Tomy Lee. I told Harry this and he told Childs what I wanted to do. Childs is one of the top trainers in California and I respect him a great deal, but he answered, "You told us Shoe would ride Tomy Lee and we want him." When Harry came back to me and said, "You can't get out of this; you have to ride Tomy Lee," I replied, "Well, that's a shame because I think Sword Dancer is going to win the Derby for sure."
Bill Boland was on Sword Dancer, and the two of us had it pretty much to ourselves after the first mile. As we rounded the far turn into the stretch we were just about head and head. But Boland looked as though he had more horse under him than I did, and as he pulled up beside me I yelled over at him, "Good luck, Bill, go ahead, and I hope you win it." But then, about the quarter pole, before we straightened away, our horses made contact two or three times. It was nobody's fault, but I knew my horse was bearing out into him. It was here that Boland probably made a mistake, but a natural one under the circumstances. He was on the outside, and if he had moved his horse away from me and gone on he would have won the Derby. Instead, when my horse bore out and made contact with him, his natural reaction was to retaliate by bringing Sword Dancer back into my horse. At the eighth pole Sword Dancer hit Tomy Lee so hard that it made him change his lead. To that point he had been on his left lead, and if Sword Dancer had let him alone he never would have changed—and never would have won, either. But after this sudden contact Tomy Lee switched to his right lead and just had enough left to go on and win by a nose. I'm not knocking Bill Boland, because if I had been on Sword Dancer I probably would have done the same thing. Bill claimed foul on me after the race, and if the films hadn't shown that Sword Dancer had been equally guilty they might have taken my number down.
I had a decent shot at the 1960 Derby on Tompion, the favorite, but he threw a shoe around the half-mile pole, and he may have popped a splint in that race, too. I didn't do anything in the next two Derbies on Dr. Miller and Sunrise County, and then in 1963 I finished third on Candy Spots, behind Chateaugay and Never Bend. Although Candy Spots was the favorite, and then came on to win the Preakness, I think he was a far better miler than a classic horse. He was big and strong but very rank. Too often he was guilty of putting in one big run and then either loafing or tiring.
I was involved in another Derby dispute in 1964 when I took myself off E.P. Taylor's Northern Dancer and chose to ride George Pope's Hill Rise, and was subsequently beaten a neck. I thought Hill Rise, who had won the Santa Anita Derby, was a better horse than Northern Dancer, with whom I had won the Florida Derby. That was the obvious reason I wanted to ride Hill Rise. But there was another reason, too. Ellsworth and Tenney had finished second in the Florida Derby with The Scoundrel. They thought The Scoundrel could beat Northern Dancer the next time they met, and they were putting a little pressure on me to ride him in the Kentucky Derby. They definitely didn't want to see me back on Northern Dancer, but they gave me an out by saying, "If you can get Hill Rise go ahead, because we think he's the best of the lot. But if you can't get Hill Rise we'd rather have you ride The Scoundrel than Northern Dancer." So I rode Hill Rise, because I, too, thought he was the best horse. And, you know, he might have been.
In 1965 I won my third Derby, this time with Mrs. Ada Rice's Lucky Debonair. He was a maiden at the beginning of the Santa Anita meeting, but before it was over he had won the Santa Anita Derby, beating Bill Perry's Jacinto by four lengths, and, despite his shin problems, he was a pretty nice colt. Actually, in that Derby the best horse may have been Tom Rolfe, who finished third. His jock, Ron Turcotte, made the mistake of trying to move through on the inside at the three-eighths pole. Bobby Ussery was on the lead with Flag Raiser and I was running second. We were a little off the rail, ready to drop into the turn, and suddenly we saw Turcotte trying to get up in there fast enough to keep from getting cut off. I remember Ussery shouting over to me, "This sap's trying to get by on the inside. He's never going to make it." And Ussery closed the hole on him. Turcotte had got his horse to running, and he had to stop and move around. That doesn't do any horse any good. If he had stayed in there and moved around on a smooth run he might have won it himself.
I took Tom Rolfe after the Belmont for those Chicago races, and he won them all. He was a pretty shifty little horse, small but with lots of heart. He could beat 90% of them, but he couldn't beat a real top horse. He had his chance that fall when we took him to Paris for the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. Considering the wrong way of going, the up-and-down course and the flat French shoes they made him run in, Tom Rolfe really did well. He should have been third or fourth instead of sixth. He was all right going up the long hill after the start, but near the top something spooked him and he got rank with me. He took the bit in his mouth and didn't want to make that right turn down the hill. I had to fight him just to keep him within 12 feet of the rails, and you know that any horse going wide on that downhill turn in the Arc is a lost horse. Still, turning for home after losing all that ground, he was right there with the leaders.
In 1966 the Derby was won by Kauai King, and I finished fifth on Abe's Hope, the only horse to have beaten Graustark. Funny about that Derby—it was supposed to be strictly between Graustark and Buckpasser, and neither of them got to the race. I rode Buckpasser in the Flamingo that spring and in all my years of riding I've never seen a finish like his that day. He was hopelessly beaten by Abe's Hope at the 16th pole but picked himself up—almost like magic—to win by a nose. There's no doubt he was a great racehorse, and Graustark may have been, too, although he never got the opportunity to really prove it.
In the 1967 Derby, when he was beaten by Proud Clarion and Barbs Delight, Damascus was more rank than I have ever seen him and he ran one of his poorest races. He didn't act himself at any time, either on the way to the post or even in the paddock. He took a good deal out of himself during the first part of the race, and by the time the field turned for home he had no finishing kick at all. As everyone knows, he never ran that poorly again.
I've ridden a lot of other good horses, too. After Arcaro quit riding I "inherited" the mount on Kelso, but I never had all that much success with him. Maybe Kelso needed a certain kind of rider—a vigorous, busy jock like Milo Valenzuela—to bring out the best in him. On the other hand, I only rode Kelso a few times, and there's no doubt that I could have adjusted myself to him. Still, good horses, the really top ones, shouldn't have to be ridden by any particular kind of rider.
As I said earlier, I dislike those "baby" races of three-eighths of a mile for young 2-year-olds. When I'm finishing on a horse I try to put a flowing smoothness in my style, but in those quick sprints the jock must be all scrubbing and pushing, and that's against my natural way of riding. With older horses I've always found the small, skinny ones more difficult to ride than a big, strong stud horse. You can balance yourself a lot easier on the big ones, and usually they have a better reaction to the demands of the jock. There is a misconception around that I am a better rider on a filly than on a colt. This theory started, I suppose, because I am supposed to have good hands, and fillies seem to respond better to tender handling than they do to an aggressive, rough style. In fact, I don't prefer fillies at all. Most of them are temperamental and subject to sulking fits, and you have to be so careful that it is a lot harder riding them than some big old colt. You can hit him in the butt and make him do something. Speaking of hitting, I guess I'm not considered to be much of a whip rider, and yet I think I'm good with either hand when I have to be. For some strange reason I can hit a horse better left-handed than I can right-handed.
I see a great future for both international racing and more grass racing. We should have more turf events in this country, but before we do we must improve the existing grass courses by making a better foundation for the turf and possibly also by giving some variety to the design of the courses themselves. It's a real pleasure, for example, to watch a field racing on Santa Anita's grass course, where you come down a hill and even take a slight right-hand turn. Someday, because of better and faster airfreight service, I think we'll see a World Triple Crown, although a lot of differences will have to be worked out before that day comes.
The only foreign international race I have personal knowledge of is the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, which is a mile and a half on grass run early in October. I know I'd love to try it again, especially if it was with a proven mile-and-a-half horse like Damascus. As a matter of fact, the experience of riding in Paris in 1965 was so enjoyable that I've made up my mind—before I quit—to go to France or maybe England and ride a whole season. You know, get in with a top trainer with good horses and a chance to win some races there as well as some of the more important races in England and Ireland. I don't think it would take too long to adapt myself to the French style of racing. Those jocks take it easy the first part of their races, which is about the way I ride anyway when I have a choice. In French races the jocks tend to bunch up their horses a lot closer than we do. They tuck them in behind horses as close to the rail as they can get, and they press right against each other all the way. Then, when they hit the stretch, they fan out. As soon as a French horse is taken out of the closely bunched pack, that's his cue to make his run. I understand their way of racing in France, and I'm serious about giving it a whirl some year before I quit.
Which brings up the subject of when I will quit. I'll be 39 years old this August and might be able to go on another seven or eight years. When Arcaro gave it up he was 46, and he told me at the time he noticed his reflexes weren't as good as they used to be. I get tired, particularly in my back, after a long day of riding, but my reflexes still seem to be good as ever. Eddie once told me, "You and Baeza have such perfect timing that you do things with a knack that other riders must do with brute strength. You have the horse running for you, rather than the other way around." If he's right it might mean that riding doesn't take as much out of me as it does some jocks and that I can expect to last a while yet. I'd like to stay in racing—it's been my whole life, after all—but I wouldn't much care about becoming an official. I might like to take a crack at training, the way Johnny Longden has, but I can't be certain now. Besides, I might not like the idea of getting up at 5 a.m. again!
In any case, no matter what I do, I've arranged my life so that I am well taken care of from a financial standpoint. And I do have a good time. Even the racetrack isn't all work. During Derby Week of 1965, just a few days before I won on Lucky Debonair, I won a bet when a friend of mine said I wouldn't dare ride a horse in a tuxedo. Well, at 5 in the morning when it was still pitch dark and before all the newspapermen showed up at Churchill Downs, I won the bet by working this man's horse five-eighths of a mile in my dinner jacket and topcoat. I had such a ball doing it that I wouldn't have cared even if the press guys had showed up. Mostly my spare time is spent playing golf, either at Palm Springs or at the Riviera in Los Angeles, where I have an 11 handicap.
My wife, Babbs, has been a great influence on my life. We live in a high-rise apartment just off Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills and she has made a comfortable home for me. I can do my work without worrying about domestic things, and Babbs has helped me mature, helped me be relaxed around people and enjoy myself. She's been great for me. We don't socialize much with other jockeys. It's not that I don't want to, but most of them live on the other side of town and it's hard to arrange. Our friends are a cross section of all types—people in show business, businessmen and their wives and other people in sports, too. For a person who spends so much of his time in the world of thoroughbred racing, it's interesting to know people in different fields, to see how they live and talk and so on.
I can truthfully say that I have only one ambition so far unfulfilled. Before I quit I'd like to take the alltime winning record away from Johnny Longden. After that, I don't see why I shouldn't stay in racing. Racing has been very good to me, and I'd like to believe that in future years I can continue to contribute to racing's welfare.