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Huston Horn
June 08, 1964
They may be no bigger than children, but the tough little athletes who sweat off ounces in a steam box and then steer 1,000 pounds of cantankerous Thoroughbred down the stretch are not playing a kid's game
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June 08, 1964

The Men They Call Boys

They may be no bigger than children, but the tough little athletes who sweat off ounces in a steam box and then steer 1,000 pounds of cantankerous Thoroughbred down the stretch are not playing a kid's game

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Roger Cox is 17 years old, 5 feet 3 and, counting his curly brown sideburns, he weighs a mere 100 pounds before breakfast. Of course, by the time he gets to breakfast it is going on lunchtime—10:30, maybe 11—and he has been out on the job since dawn. Still, when it is set before him, he toys with the eggs, nibbles at a doughnut and sips tentatively at sweet, blond coffee. Mostly Roger bites his nails and smokes a lot—the skin on his left index finger is on its way to becoming leather—and watches the racetrackers come and go through the door of the Belmont Diner on New York City's Hempstead Turnpike. The diner is directly across the road from gate 6 of Belmont Park, where Roger works mornings as an exercise boy, and his particular preoccupation at the moment is that he wants to be a flat-race jockey. He has been up North for two months, and he hopes it will not take forever to get "that little break" he needs. In the meantime, it will help considerably if he does not put on weight, if his widowed mother in Miami does not worry and if his girl keeps up her letter-every-day routine.

Not that Roger is altogether brand-new to either going it alone or racing; he has been around a little already. His father, who died a year ago last month, helped get him started. Mr. Cox was a baker in Miami, and he delivered cakes and rolls to the restaurants at Hialeah and Gulfstream Park. He also asked questions and kept his ears open. One thing he heard paid off. Following it up, Roger dropped out of high school and took a job with a trainer who shipped him up to Delaware and had him taught to ride. After about a year of raking out stalls and cleaning tack and galloping horses, Roger went home and in the best tradition of riders everywhere blew $800 in savings on three weeks of high living. That out of his system for the moment, he came to New York to look for work as an exercise boy at Belmont. The uniformed guard at the trainers' gate scribbled him out a pass, and after calling at three barns—and being turned down—Roger got what he wanted in the fourth. He did not bother to ask about salary. "I'm happy now," he said. "I've got a future."

What Roger Cox might better have said is, "I think I've got a future." For the chance that he—or anyone else starting out—will make a lasting success of race riding is so slim it gives knowing insiders the shivers. "I'd rather risk the rent money on the longest shot in the eighth race than go through that again," says an oldtimer who tried and tried and never made it. What he is getting at is that, of the 1,200 active jockeys riding on this country's 101 Thoroughbred tracks, barely two dozen have any national reputation or make the super-substantial sums of money one hears about. If maybe a third more enjoy some sort of here-today success and prosperity, 95% of all riders find their money gone tomorrow when they retire. But a young man must necessarily overlook such down-in-the-mouth realities; otherwise he would never get anywhere. It is far more to his purpose to think about a Cincinnati Dead End Kid named Howard Grant, who made more than $50,000 when he was 18, or Eddie Arcaro, who never went to high school but wound up winning $30 million in purses.

Nor does it discourage a beginner to know that Bill Shoemaker earned $300,000 last year from riding, easily making him the richest man on four legs. And Bill Hartack has said that he stops working for money at the middle of the year and just keeps going for the experience. And what about Kokomo's own Tod Sloan, who once threw a party for Lillian Russell that set him back $25,000? There was a fun guy. George M. Cohan thought so much of him, in fact, he wrote a song called Yankee Doodle Boy about him. Nowadays, of course, Ed Sullivan will have you stand up and take a bow, provided you win the Kentucky Derby, the sacred cow of horse racing. Or, for real style, you can be like Hartack and refuse to show up; after all, he has won the Derby four times and some people have plans for Sunday night.

Which in no way, shape or form is supposed to mean the pleasures and treasures of race riding can be totted up in bank accounts and guest appearances. "I loved sports as a kid," says Eddie Arcaro, "but look at me. Who needed somebody my size on their football team? So I went to a place I was wanted." Says James L. Petty, a race rider who hails from Arkadelphia, Ark.: "I used to let it get me, but I'd be more than dumb to be put out now 'cause I'm little. Heck, my frame is my fortune."

A question better ignored by the beginner, perhaps, is how sturdy is that frame? Well, if you are a jockey, an insurance company would prefer that you did business with the agency down the street. The Jockeys' Guild, a benevolent organization for all professional flat riders, has paid out almost $200,000 for medical care of crippled members, and, on the average, two riders are killed in racetrack accidents every year. A somewhat more fortunate guild member, Tony DeSpirito, was calculating his riding aches and pains the other day. He has lost his spleen, two ribs and a kidney, broken his back, broken his jaw and had his brain lacerated. "I'm lucky I can still ride," says Tony, who must be given to understating the case, "because it's the only thing I know how to do."

For whatever comfort it was, Eddie Arcaro liked to remind himself, "If you want to make it real big in racing, you can't be afraid of dying." Says Jockey Ronnie Baldwin, the father of two sons: "I hold that if you're going to get hurt, you're going to get hurt. So there's no use worrying. I'm lucky to have a wife who never says, 'Be careful, do be careful,' as I'm going out the door to work. That can get you down and ruin your riding." The cautious approach is sometimes called the "married man's style" and can best be described as the diametric opposite of bachelor Bill Hartack's hell-for-leather technique. California Racing Secretary Jimmy Kilroe gives an example—of a sort. One day at Santa Anita a jockey named P.J. Bailey zipped in on the rail coming into the stretch in a race he had no chance of winning. His daring tactic merely moved his mount from seventh place to fifth. Later someone asked in bewilderment: "P.J., what in the world were you trying to do?" P.J. tipped back his racing helmet. "I dunno," he allowed. "I was just testing myself for nerve, I guess."

As defined in the dictionary—and in a recent edition, at that—to "jockey" means to execute by trickery and cheating, and it has not been too very long since mothers got their daughters in the house before dark if there was a race meeting in town. The wife of the great Ted Atkinson was the daughter of Ohio trotting-horse people, and it was just short of a scandal when she took up with that running-horse boy, never mind his good manners. And as anyone who was around will tell you, racing in the '20s and '30s, before the advent of film patrols and spying plainclothes Pinkerton detectives, was a thoroughly cutthroat affair. There was no hesitation at all about slashing another jockey in the face with a whip, or grabbing his saddlecloth, or driving him into—and, if possible, over—the rail.

The 1933 Kentucky Derby was won by Jockey Don Meade punching and kicking at the man beside him, and not a word was said by the stewards. (The same Don Meade, a kind of classic performer when it came to bending the rules to fit the situation, was later suspended from racing for betting on the outcome of races he rode. The trouble was he was betting on the other fellows' horses.) Says Ex-Jockey Willie Knapp: "Many of the guys who rode with me wouldn't last two races before being set down for a year these days. In my day [1918] we got a boy in a pocket and left him there. None of this business about giving racing room."

Many of America's first jockeys were slaves, and the rise from that low estate has been slow. "Even as late as the 1880s," says Ted Atkinson, "the rider was just a sack of oats. His name wasn't even mentioned." Great gobs of relative prestige have been captured by jockeys since then, and for some people the name of the jockey nowadays is important to the exclusion of all other factors. At California's old Tanforan track, for example. Bill Shoemaker was so hot a few years back that trainers would avoid entering their mounts in races they knew he was in. To put a stop to their cowardly—but sensible—attitude, the Tanforan stewards made jockeys' names top secret until a race had been filled. Conversely, Chris Rogers, now a jockey in Canada, was riding for Calumet Farm at Hialeah one day and had a mount named Top Lea that was about to go off at 60 to 1, the worst odds in years for a Calumet horse. Before the race, Trainer Jimmy Jones looked up at the tote board and back at Rogers and said: "This horse can't be that bad, Chris. It must be you that's 60 to 1."

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