After years of astounding success, one of America's finest athletes has vanished from the newspapers as suddenly and as thoroughly as Sonny Tufts. Not a day goes by that some fans do not look up from their hot-eyed perusal of tip sheets to ask the rhetorical question: Whatever happened to Bill Hartack? Sure, they know where he is riding. But they really mean: What happened to him? He did not have a mount in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont. He had a poor season at Hialeah (he finished sixth in the jockey standings) and at Gulfstream (third). Poor seasons, that is, for Bill Hartack, a 113-pound superstar who, at 30, can look back on 3,200 winners, 200 stakes victories, three Kentucky Derby triumphs and something like $18 million rung up on the cash registers of owners who thought he was a headache but a pleasant one. Then, almost overnight, eclipse.
But an eclipse does not happen silently to someone as controversial as Bill Hartack. He has never been a student of Amy Vanderbilt, and he has not absorbed the golden lessons of such works as How to Win Friends and Influence People. In the avalanche that has been his career, he left behind more enemies than any athlete since Ted Williams (whom, by no coincidence, he admires deeply). And now every railbird he ignored, every jockey he insulted, every writer he refused to talk to, every trainer he tried to give unwanted advice, every owner he addressed patronizingly and every steward he snubbed are in the pack nipping at his spurs. As Hartack said recently in what he insists will be his only interview about his riding:
"The thing that bothers me is I came on the racetrack when I was 18 years old and I knew nothing about horses, absolutely nothing, and I really made a dedicated thing out of it. I swore to myself, I swore on my mother's grave, I swore that I'd do everything I could to be honest and to try to win. Not hope to win. Hoping, man, hoping doesn't get it. I'm not gonna hope that my horse wins. I've seen too many people hope. They live on hopes and they live on dreams. I don't. I go out there to do everything in my power to win, not to hope. And then I'm disliked for my attitude. Evidently the way I operate is distasteful to certain people. It insults 'em, and the funny part about it is that insulting anybody is the last thing that's on my mind. I don't believe in being insulting to anyone, but I do believe in telling the truth, and if it's taken as an insult, well, then I can't help it."
Hartack's full biography will have to be written by a war correspondent. A few examples of his behavior will suffice to show that he is on a par with Alexander of Macedonia for belligerent independence:
?In front of Hialeah's biggest racing crowd in two years, Hartack climbed off Fred W. Hooper's Greek Circle, a 4-to-5 favorite, and announced that the horse was not fit to ride. A vet examined the horse and announced otherwise. Hartack refused to ride, told Hooper "The horse is sore," and walked away. Greek Circle was scratched and track officials, kicking and screaming, had to refund $136,089 that already had been bet on the horse.
?At Tropical Park, Hartack dismounted from First Fair at the starting gate and told the starter that the horse was sore and had tried to "fall down behind." The track vet examined First Fair and said that Hartack was wrong. A substitute jockey took over and First Fair finished last.
?Hartack feuded famously with his former agent, Chick Lang, once bawled him out loudly in front of hundreds of people. Lang stayed quiet until he got Hartack alone, then said, "You little s.o.b., you do that again and I'll break your skull." Later Lang said, "I don't think it made the slightest impression on him."
?Hartack was so surly with track personnel at Pimlico that he became the subject of a memorandum unique in the history of racing. The director of publicity, Charles Johnson, wrote his staff: "I cannot in good conscience instruct you to make any effort in connection with photographs, interviews or quotes from W. Hartack inasmuch as his frequent ungentlemanly conduct makes it likely that your effort would be rewarded only with unprovoked abuse and insult."
The net result of such behavior is the pickle Hartack now finds himself in. The simple fact is that he is not getting good mounts. The big owners, with few exceptions, are using other boys. Is he riding poorly? A few trainers say yes, but the closer one gets to the track where Hartack is actually working, the more one hears that his riding is as skillful, as knowledgeable, as bold as ever. There is unanimity on only one point, and it is expressed by a prominent trainer: "The feeling against Hartack has been building up for a long time, a sort of slow process of souring on him. Nobody denies that he's a good rider, a very good one. But the trouble is that too often he's opened his mouth when he should have kept it shut."
For years, even when he was winning everything in sight, Hartack was annoying trainers by telling them, often in the flattest, bluntest terms, what was wrong with their horses. He does not intend to change. "I've been riding horses for 10 years now," he says, "and to change would only hurt me. How can I change something that I think is right? I've hurt people's feelings and they don't want to use me on their horses. That's their prerogative. It would be very easy for me to change. I could come back after a race and tell the trainer something that is so intangible it wouldn't hurt his feelings. I could very easily ride a horse that finishes up the racetrack and I could say, 'Well, he didn't like the racetrack.' Now, that would be just an alibi. That excuse is overused. A lot of times there's a particular reason why the horse didn't run, and it wasn't the racetrack. If I choose to use this for an excuse it would be so easy. To me it's not right. I'm not saying it's not right for other jockeys. But it's not right for me. I could have furthered my career by doing it. But I don't want that kind of success. I don't want success by lying."