Hall of fame jockey Johnny Longden has always thought he had a guardian angel, one that perched precariously on his shoulder whenever he rode. "There he is now," the 87-year-old gnome rasps, pointing his cane toward the shimmering California sky. "He's got wings, and he's wearing white silks. He looks just like me." Longden tilts his head. "Actually, he's taller than me."
Longden believes the tutelary started looking out for him one day in the spring of 1912, in his native England. Johnny, his four siblings and their mother, Mary, were scheduled to sail to their new home in Canada, where they would join Johnny's father, Herb, but their tram to the Liverpool dock was running late. The tram arrived at the dock just as the ship sailed off. Longden remembers his mother in tears, clutching six tickets in her hand, as they watched the ship steam off, the word Titanic barely visible on its bow.
The angel was on Longden's shoulder as he won 6,032 races, among those the 1943 Triple Crown aboard Count Fleet, in a career that spanned five decades. And the angel was there, too, in 1935 when Longden took a terrible spill, was paralyzed for a month and was told that he would never walk again. "Ah, they always told me that," he says.
By now Longden, the only man to have both ridden and trained Kentucky Derby winners, seems at least as old as his guardian angel. But while he uses a cane because of the arthritis in his back, the old jockey exudes vitality as he shuffles about the saddling ring at Santa Anita Park in suburban Los Angeles. As he removes his sunglasses to appraise a heavy-lidded horse rocking drowsily in stall number 5, he tells Vance, the horse's trainer and one of Longden's sons, "Count Fleet never slept before a race." Johnny walks behind the offending animal, lifts his cane and administers three sharp cracks to the horse's rump. "Wake up, Blue!" he shouts.
Though he hasn't ridden a racehorse in almost 30 years, the Pumper, as Longden was known in his riding days because of his hard-driving style, can still rouse one, even one as phlegmatic as Our Blue Michael. Longden paid $5,500 for the 3-year-old colt last year, and thus far there is little evidence that he was a bargain. "He's too damn smart, that's the problem," says Longden. "He knows he's going to get treated like a king no matter how he runs."
Yet Our Blue Michael has done much more for Longden than his paltry $33,775 in lifetime earnings would indicate. This ordinary little horse has given the extraordinary old jockey a new lease on life. "They've got penicillin for sick people; they've got horses for guys like my dad," says the 64-year-old Vance. "When that horse runs, Dad walks and talks like he's 30 years old. You'd think he owned Citation, the way he carries on."
Three years ago it wouldn't have seemed possible.
In 1984, Johnny and his wife, Hazel, divorced after 48 years of marriage. Under the terms of the dissolution, Hazel would remain in the couple's $800,000 house in Arcadia, Calif., while Johnny would become outright owner of a handful of racehorses they owned. The couple's savings would be divided equally.
But both Johnny and Hazel were lonely and never quite adapted to life without each other. In 1985, after Hazel was found to have breast cancer, they remarried. Johnny assumed that the divorce agreement would now be void, but when Hazel died in 1989, he was shocked to discover that she had left a legally binding will naming Eric, their only biological son, as the inheritor of the family home.
Eric, who is a part owner of a restaurant in Carlsbad, Calif., sold the Arcadia house in 1991 and bought his father a small duplex in a retirement village in Banning, 1� hours from Johnny's beloved Santa Anita. "Before my mother's death we talked about what to do [after she died]," says Eric. "She left it up to me to take care of Johnny. She knew how he squandered money, and she felt that this was the only way to make sure he'd always have a roof over his head. And it was smart. He's not out on the streets, and that's what is important."