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The millionaire with the weathered face who gazes so pensively out from the cover of this issue will ride in his 26,075th horse race this week. With all the races that are run every day around the country, this may not sound like too staggering a statistic. But think of it this way: when Johnny Longden rode his first winner—a horse called Hugo K. Asher—at Salt Lake City in 1927, Dempsey and Tunney were in their prime; Babe Ruth was setting his alltime record of 60 home runs in one season; Red Grange had only recently graduated from college and turned pro; Rene Lacoste was about to beat Bill Tilden in the finals of the national tennis championship; Tommy Armour was the National Open golf champion and Bobby Jones the amateur champ (he was still three years away from his famous Grand Slam). To be sure, these celebrated athletes of the past were a bit senior to the young jockey in Salt Lake City, but it is noteworthy that Longden's career overlaps theirs. In the course of that career (and as of last Saturday) he has ridden 5,256 winners, 386 more than Sir Gordon Richards, the now retired Englishman, who is his nearest rival in this matter.
Around the barns of the West Coast, where Longden nowadays does most of his riding, the gag goes that "Johnny is 49 going on 60." That's because he lists his birthday as Feb. 14, 1910 (in Wakefield, England). However, everyone knows that Johnny's son, Vance, who trains for Alberta Ranch Ltd., is 28 years old and that Johnny even has a little grandchild. It is also common knowledge from the barns to the clubhouse on the western circuit that Johnny Longden is among the richest athletes anywhere. The horses he has ridden have won at least $18.5 million for their owners, and Johnny has saved easily 10% of that amount. He has accumulated profitable holdings in ranching and oil. He has a permanent place in the record books and the respect of everyone in his profession. In view of all this, and since Johnny has twice broken his leg in riding accidents in the past two years, the question naturally arises: Why doesn't Johnny Longden hang up his spurs?
Longden, who is one of the few great jockeys who actually likes horses and enjoys riding them, simply shrugs when this question comes up. "What else would I do?" he asks, in what for him is a rather long sentence. "Pay to ride?"
Even Hazel Longden, Johnny's pretty blonde wife, just sighs when asked about his retirement. "Johnny will quit when he is good and ready," she says. "And I don't think he is good and ready."
However, the person who may come closest to understanding the phenomenon of Johnny Longden's longevity as a jockey is Alfred Shelhamer, a patrol judge at Santa Anita who has been a friend of Johnny's for 25 years. Shelhamer puts it this way: "Longden's philosophy has always been: 'I don't want to be another race rider; I want to be the best race rider.' I'd say Johnny keeps going for the simple reason that he wants to keep proving himself—and to keep proving his superiority."
Recently Longden's fierce pride glowed angrily over a seemingly unimportant incident at Santa Anita. One morning after Johnny had put in his usual early-morning stint at the track helping to exercise some of the mounts he regularly races, he stalked into the den of his house in Arcadia (a few furlongs from the track), wheeled and addressed himself menacingly to his wife and her brother. "That guy Cox," he bristled in his piping treble voice which a friend has described as an octave above a hummingbird, "better not come around the barn, is all I've got to say, or I'll throw him out of there." It developed that Johnny's pride had been wounded by a horseman whose clunker he had ridden in a $3,500 claiming race. The animal was so faint-hearted that even this lowly company was too much for him, so Longden, who is recognized as an extremely intelligent judge of horseflesh, advised the owner to race the horse against even cheaper horses. Whereupon the owner dropped both the horse and Longden.
As the result of a similar and far more significant incident some years ago, Longden cost Calumet Farm a hefty sum of money and much prestige. A feud developed between Longden and Ben Jones, then the Calumet trainer, and Johnny paid off nicely on it just when Calumet was trying to put the famed Citation's earnings over the $1 million mark.
In the fall of 1949 Longden had got his first look at Noor, the fabulously successful Irish import of C. S. Howard, while riding against him in a race at Tanforan. Johnny was so impressed with Noor that he canceled a plane reservation in order to remain overnight and persuade Howard to let him have the mount on Noor in future races. In the subsequent race meetings at Santa Anita and Golden Gate, Longden on Noor beat Citation four straight times, thereby depriving Calumet of close to $200,000 in purses.
There are those who will denigrate Longden's riding technique on the ground that he is just a front runner with no sense of how to pace a horse. The Noor-Citation races proved otherwise. However, it is true that Longden prefers to race in front whenever he can and believes that most horses share his preference. His style is suited to front running. Shelhamer has observed that when Longden rides, his weight is perfectly balanced on the horse's withers where it won't hinder in any way. Once Johnny gets his horse in front—and there is no quicker jockey out of the starting gate—he urges him on with a curious pumping motion that has earned him the nickname of The Pumper. The Longden craft then manifests itself in setting a pace that will both save the horse and convince the other jockeys that it is too fast. In the stretch when the other horses are coming at him from behind, Johnny has a little trick of making his horse look as if it is staggering slightly and tiring—a ruse that has won him many a race from unwary jockeys. It is still winning for him.
As of last week Johnny Longden stood fourth among all the riders at Santa Anita—behind only Shoemaker, Arcaro and Neves.