"I don't think I was spoiled," Sellers says. "Of course, the money changed my way of living. I don't know, you just feel you should do some things differently when you have the money." Quitting a stable of Wheatley's stature is something different, not calculated to endear a rider to trainers who call jockeys "boys" and expect them to act the part. In any case, Sellers' business suffered. His 1963 winning percentage slipped to 13.1, far below the 24% of 1961, and he barely cleared $80,000.
John Sellers does not look like a jockey. A shade over 5 feet 6 inches, he is slim enough to do 113 pounds without scourging his body with diet, steam and self-induced nausea as so many must do, but not gaunt enough to be conspicuous. He has the intelligence to know that trainers are not infallible in the preparation of their steeds, and the integrity not to give them the consolation speech most of them expect after a losing race. Plucked off the farm at 16, he attended enough night classes to come within one English credit of a high school diploma before the big money began rolling in "and it seemed to make sense to concentrate on racing." Even with the big money in the bank, he studied for a real estate license. He was, without being stuffy about it, a serious young man. And then suddenly in 1963 he wasn't anymore.
Sellers' change of mood became evident after an allowance race at Aqueduct that November. He finished third on something called President Jim, but the race was such a rodeo that nobody tore up any tickets. When the stewards had unscrambled the double foul, they disqualified President Jim from third and placed him third. Like the umpire who said, with the bases loaded, "Ball four, you're out," they had no other place to put him.
Sellers thought that was pretty funny. It could have cost him a 10-day suspension, but suddenly Sellers was considering everything pretty funny. "I got in with the wrong people," he says. "You get to be—you know, famous—and all these people are around. Important people, people with money. It's funny: I don't think of myself as a big deal, but it seems that the little people, the ordinary people, are sort of afraid to come near you. Anyway, I seemed to lose my sense of values. I was with the wrong people, doing things I shouldn't have done—things I wouldn't have done if I'd been evaluating properly."
The principal loss to Sellers in his scramble of values was his wife, Janice, and their son, Mark, then 4. "Things weren't going well at all. I sent her home in November. The situation didn't have to go as far as it did, but Janice was pretty upset." Janice was still serious; Johnny very shortly found out that he was divorced.
On any backstretch, any morning, you can see exercise boys, hot-walkers and stall-muckers who were, or were going to be, race riders. Some of them didn't have the strength or the guts or the power of concentration for an exacting, perilous, venal game in which death rides every race every afternoon.
Johnny Sellers had the strength, the guts and the head, but he had tried to convince himself that he really didn't give a damn. When they closed Aqueduct that December 1963, he was still trying; in the badinage in the jockeys' room, in which he had been only a peripheral, jovial participant, there was a cynical, almost nasty edge to his remarks. Nothing mattered very much, he was telling himself, everything had gone flat.
Sellers took his troubles onto the track, as they all do. "When I took him off Carry Back," Jack Price says, "it wasn't just because he got beat in the Widener. He had put in four bad rides. He's a good rider, but he had problems. One time, I know, his kid was sick. I don't know what the rest of it was, but a man can't do his best when he can't concentrate on his work."
"I know I rode badly," Sellers says. "I wasn't paying attention to my business. But what the hell did I have to work for? To pay alimony?"
Sellers' world had fallen apart, but there was a glue that held it together. Around Miami that winter there were more than a few double takes when Johnny was seen squiring this pretty blonde. It was Janice, no longer his wife but still his date. "There was something there," he says. "It took me some time to realize it, but it was always there."