Sports sometimes fade and die out, just as institutions and ideas, fashions and towns and memories. To be with steeplechase riders is to sense that same morbid edge of helplessness that must come while visiting in the wild with the last of the peregrine falcons or the Bengal tigers or any other kind of endangered species.
Boys in America grow up to ride cars now, not horses, and it is just as well that they do, because for any boy who grows to average height there are no horses and no races left to ride. Although steeplechasers exhibit truer form than flat racehorses, although they are unquestionably a more exciting entertainment, the battle to delay the extinction of the breed is harder all the time. The difficulty is that despite statistics that prove jumpers are more consistent performers, bettors consider them a chancy lot and inexplicably prefer playing the even-chancier daily doubles, exactas, quinellas, superfectas, pic-sixes and all the other numbers games that are dressed up as horse races.
Only Delaware, Monmouth and the three major New York tracks suffer the jumpers anymore, and then on a backdoor basis—one race a day, some of the days. Otherwise, the riders scurry about like traveling tinkers to catch a $25 ride at the fancy hunt meetings that are scattered over the country landscape from Pennsylvania to South Carolina. Most of the jump riders must depend on exercising flat horses in the gray chill dawn for the bulk of their livelihood, such as it is. Only three or four ever make much over $10,000 a year, and none has ever managed as much as $40,000. The jump jockeys pay their own expenses, hustle each other shamelessly for what few rides there are—no self-respecting agent considers them worth his time—and disdain medical niceties.
It is not unusual for riders to strap on a figure-eight bandage and compete with a broken collarbone a few days after an injury. Yet they make no claim to heroics, only the need to keep the wolf from the door. A broken collarbone is merely an occupational inconvenience, like a secretary temporarily running out of carbon paper. "The first race I rode, in '55, I broke my collarbone; I broke it two times that year and I think six times altogether, but I only got hurt real bad once," Joe Aitcheson Jr. says dispassionately.
November 8, 1971
And the tone is typical, if Aitcheson is not. He has been the nation's leading jump rider seven of the last 10 years and, many will say, the finest ever in his profession. Appropriately, last year he won the first $100,000 U.S. steeplechase, the Colonial Cup, in Camden, S.C. That is the one bright beacon on the dark jump horizon, a race that will have its second running on Nov. 20.
Aitcheson—the first syllable is an a as in ale, but most fans and even a few friends refer to him as in the song Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe—is 43, with beautiful wavy jet black hair. His one concession to vanity is sideburns: he wears none because gray hairs show there. "Watch him, lady, he's older than he looks," another jock tells a pretty girl. Aitcheson's face is the mournful, rugged kind one usually associates with Indians. He is lean and sinewy, 5'10" and 143. He has green eyes and two bluebird tattoos, one over each nipple. Whether he is or not, one comes away from Aitcheson with the impression that he is strong and handsome.
He has never been recognized as a technically outstanding craftsman. For instance, a jockey such as the aggressive young Virginian, Jerry Fishback, would be considered a more stylish study. Aitcheson, however, is the consummate professional, careful and bold—one and the same—absolutely determined and singularly dedicated. Bobby McDonald, bald, weak-eyed, yet still riding though he is almost 50, sums up his buddy Aitcheson in nearly stilted Runyonese: "Joe is devoted very much to his business of riding."
It is bad enough that the jump rider is permitted to exist only on the periphery of his sport—but worse, he is never permitted to enjoy a civilized regimen. Each day is Balkanized, so the rider lives a 14-day week. He is finished exercising horses at an hour when most people are just punching in, then it may be six or seven hours later before he gets into his one real race of the day.
"Well now," McDonald begins. He is an engaging and verbose butterfly of a man—5'6", 120—who started out riding flats years before a lot of the jockeys he works against were born. "Well now, I can't speak for what the others do, but I might play a round of golf, a complete 18 holes, or I might just go home and keep some company with a bottle of rum. Then take a nice nap, and I'm fit and ready to ride. Not a bad arrangement at all."
Aitcheson, listening, smiles. What does he do with his long daily interim? "Kill time," he replies at some length.
"I'll tell you what Joe will do any day," says Doug Small Jr., one of his main riding rivals until he gave up the fight against weight and went into training horses this year. "He'll go home and stare at a wall, and he'll think all afternoon about how he's going to ride that horse, and it doesn't matter whether it is a stakes or a cheap claimer. He'll shut out the world for any race."
Aitcheson enjoys the happy estate of standing at the top of a profession that he relishes and honors. When they were much younger, his nephews started calling him "Jockey Joe" instead of Uncle Joe, and the nickname stuck back in Laurel, Md., where Aitcheson, divorced, lives with his parents and his daughter. Such an unimaginative name might seem too simple and undignified, but Aitcheson is one of those rare people who embodies his profession. He really is Jockey Joe.
Although its universe is limited, steeplechasing is layered with social strata and complicated interrelationships. At the nucleus, there is a handful of professional jocks who take up almost all the mounts at the major tracks. So small is this community that Bobby McDonald himself has been involved in a close way with every professional who has been killed jumping in America in the last two decades.
One young rider died in the backseat of McDonald's car at a toll bridge. "He made a bad fence at Monmouth," McDonald says, "and the horse's head jerked back and hit him in the chest. He stayed on and finished the race, but that was like a sledgehammer hitting him in the heart." The jockey spit up blood, but the doctors failed to diagnose a ruptured heart, so McDonald put the rider in his car to drive him home. "Right before the tolls at the Goethals bridge—oh, it was right there at the tolls, with the rain beating down, it was pouring so—right there was the last we heard from him. I didn't know it then, but that was the death rattle."
The jockeys are, naturally, aware of the hazards, but the menace sits easily with them. "Ah," says Leo O'Brien in his Dublin brogue, "you must not let yourself ever forget that the horses aren't so stupid that they want to fall. Now, if they wanted to fall, I wouldn't have anything to do with them."
"There's only one way to go at it," McDonald says. "We're a band of cutthroats. We're all trying to submarine each other, both getting the mounts and riding them. If I can outdo you, I will, and I expect the same from you. I seldom claim fouls. I'll have my opportunity to get back. But you leave that on the track. Joe, I've probably shut you off and you've shut me off." Aitcheson nodded. "But I don't remember any arguments afterward." Joe nodded again.
The fibers of this compact are stretched tightest by young Fishback, a confident 24-year-old who has been riding professionally since he was a high school junior. Brash as Aitcheson is taciturn, Fishback has pulled ahead in the 1971 jockey standings and figures to deny Aitcheson the crown for the first time since 1966. Earlier this year, in an uncharacteristic outburst, Aitcheson slugged Fishback following a race in which he felt the younger rider had carried him unnecessarily wide to benefit the other half of the entry Fishback was riding for. Aitcheson was fined $100. Another time this year, at the conclusion of a race at Delaware, Jockey Larry Bates leapt from his mount to Fishback's, as in the cowboy movies, and dragged him to the ground.
The echelon of top jump riders is so restricted, even intimate, that it could not for long bear the strain of any sustained contentiousness. The riders must learn to get along lest their whole society fly apart. Jump jockeys have their own special hangouts, their own fans, even a coterie of bookies who travel to the hunt meetings that do not offer pari-mutuel betting. The fact that so many flat riders are of a different ethnic strain, Latin American, surely encourages this exclusivity, but other factors—notably economic and an abiding interest in the sport—have conspired to set them apart.
Even when they party together, which is often, their congeniality is underlaid with competitiveness. At one soiree following a hunt meeting a few years ago, a rider named Tommy Walsh began to boast to McDonald of his exceptional speed afoot. Despite the fact that Walsh was more than 15 years younger, McDonald demanded a race. The additional fact that McDonald was hobbling on crutches with a recently broken pelvis, did not, apparently, dim the older man's confidence.
Walsh agreed to spot McDonald a few yards head start in view of this infirmity, and they laid the bets. They were to run to a shed—actually, it was an outhouse—some distance away. At the starting signal McDonald stunned the assembly by simply letting his crutches fall away, and with an effort seen nowhere this side of Oral Roberts lit out full tilt with his broken pelvis. As the race progressed, alas, Walsh edged closer, and appeared ready to take the lead. He probably would have won, too, but the condition book listed the finish as to the shed. Walsh slowed down in the final stride to brace himself, but McDonald just ran headlong into the building, bouncing back off of it the winner by inches. It was a predictable result. The first 10 jumping races McDonald rode he fell off, but he has ridden another 26 years. He is not easily intimidated.
Beyond this close society of professionals, there is a pool of amateur, or "gentlemen," jockeys. A tradition centuries old is still upheld at hunt meets, and when an amateur rides against pros a "Mr." is always prefixed to his name in the program. (There is an old tale about the kid professional jockey who was looking for an opening in the stretch and screamed: "Let me through, you sons of bitches—and you too, Mr. Bostwick.") The amateur riders are often wealthy, often society types, often owners of the horses they ride. They are lawyers and brokers—or even more basically professional. John Fisher, who owned and rode the country's 1970 champion timber horse, Landing Party, is a veterinarian and is always referred to by the pros as "Dr. Fisher."
The two groups coexist comfortably and accept each other at face value. An amateur will occasionally leave his job in Baltimore and pop up to Belmont to ride—which is rather as if he would fly out to Detroit to pinch-hit for the Tigers every now and then—and the pros all learn to be comfortable performing at the hunt meets. These meets are a world apart from the shopping-center flat tracks; they are relics from a more titled time, places where men still wear cuffs on their pants and where the money—no less than the clothing—is substantial rather than loud. The meetings are called Rose Tree or Unionville, Far Hills or Fair Hill, Middleburg or Rolling Rock.
The hunts appeal to the pros if for no other reason than that they offer them more rides, up to a dozen in a two-day meet. Aitcheson once won five races one afternoon at Middleburg. The jump jockeys must pay their own way to these meetings, passing up their usual exercise and schooling fees for the chance at real competition, and if they do not get a mount or two in the money they might not break even.
There are no valets to attend them, or carpeted quarters or commodious dressing areas. At Rolling Rock, once a Mellon preserve about an hour southeast of Pittsburgh that has been described, and not facetiously, as a "rich man's Saratoga," the jocks must dress in a quaint little Hansel-and-Gretel hut. Aitcheson and several of the others will take their tack and toss it in a pile outside on the ground, lounging on it between races. It resembles, more than anything else, a National Guard weekend bivouac. Between races, the riders strip to the waist and change into new silks under the cool autumn sun.
The scene is gloriously pastoral, antiquated, even innocent, and most years it is ringed by a forest of leafy spangled hues, as if the Devil had set fire to the whole outside world and let only this green bowl stay untouched for the horses and the men who ride them.
Oh, there are some concessions to today. The local beauty queen, topped with her crown, is in honored attendance, and a high school band, scarlet pompons on the majorettes' boots, performs. Friendly bookmakers, chalking odds on their McGuffey's Reader blackboards, cluck a midway come-on. Up on the hill the tailgate set mixes gin and juice and eschews the bookies for more convivial betting pools and the comfort that somebody in their Country Squire thus will win every race. Like everyone else, the jockeys wear tweed coats, buttoning them over their silks when not riding. After the last race, they pile into their rented cars and rush to Pittsburgh for the flight back to New York so they can be up early the next morning to gallop flat horses in the mist. Some kid, sleeping in, who goes 112 pounds and makes $100,000 a year, will get these mounts a couple afternoons later and pick up another few grand.
"You get to know some of the flat boys pretty well," Doug Small says. "Anyway, you do if you are like I was, stuck in the sweatbox with them for hours. They feel sorry for us. They know what kind of money we're making. They don't understand why we do it."
Small is a 6-footer and was trying to weigh under 140. He would sweat out his hours, then endure an agonizing rub-down with regular table salt to force him to sweat some more. Jump jockeys get in automobiles, turn on the heat full blast, add the caldron of an auxiliary heater and drive that way for hours to the races, melting off pounds at 150°.
As soon as he quit, Small picked up 30 pounds and once again became a good-humored individual. "It's great," says his blonde wife Susan. "It's like having been married to two men without ever bothering to get a divorce." Their devotion to their craft, their indigence and their battles with weight do not make jump jockeys the most palatable of spouses. The wife of one, in exasperation, at last gave up and clouted her husband in the head with a golf club. "It was a nine-iron, I believe," says one rider. "No, she used the wedge," says another.
What possesses these men is a spirited kind of pride, even elitism. They can tolerate the second-class indignities, the ignorance of the betting public, the slights of purse and publicity, simply because they are convinced that they are the best riders. Horsemen is the word they fall back on sooner or later. They are proud to call themselves horsemen. Pressed, they flaunt it.
They are not just blowing smoke, either. Many trainers prefer them to exercise their flat horses because, despite the added weight, their savvy makes them assistant trainers on the hoof. Beyond that, an absolutely extraordinary number of jump riders have on retirement become fine trainers at the flats. They include in the East: Sidney Watters Jr., J. Bowes Bond, Scotty Schulhofer, Evan Jackson, Downey Bonsal, Allen Jerkens, Mike Smithwick and Jim Maloney. Of special notice abroad are Vincent O'Brien, who handled Nijinsky, and Ian Balding, who saddles the current Horse of the World, Mill Reef. Younger hurdles riders, such as Fishback, are already planning ahead to careers as trainers.
Nonetheless, although the jumpers have given much more to thoroughbred racing than they are paid in return, their game, is inexorably being phased out. Next year there will almost surely be only three races a week in New York. The Colonial Cup, which will be an off-track betting special and, hopefully, televised back to New York, is just one small cut against the sad grain of recent history.
Perhaps only a full demise of the sport can remove Aitcheson from the saddle. He grew up with horses on his father's farm in Laurel, riding the Maryland point-to-points as a teen-age amateur and breaking into the pros after a Navy tour. Joe Sr., in his 70s, still operates a farm, complete with a half-mile galloping track, and Joe's sister, Mrs. Jane Curley, trains jumpers herself. Aitcheson's daughter Jody, who is 12, rides in children's shows, but he seems prouder of the fact that she cooks dinner for him when he comes home to Laurel. He is an infinitely private man, and reveals himself behind his becoming shy smile only when he talks of the child. His peers hold him in that deep respect that is given to men who are as personally compassionate as they are professionally tough.
"I just love riding," Aitcheson says. "I don't ever want to stop. Oh, if ever there aren't enough races, that would be so boring, but I guess I'd have to stop. It would just be so boring."
There have been times, late in the year when Aitcheson was battling for the riders' title, when he has gotten other jockeys to give him their mounts—but not their fees. "That's right," says Doug Small. "He'd actually ride for free. It means that much to him."
"I just want to ride," says Jockey Joe, crossing his bluebirds with the protective pads for his collarbones.