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In his years around racetracks Jockey Johnny Sellers has been a puzzle to owners, trainers, agents, his own wife and the betting public. With Johnny you never know one year what he is going to be like the next. The reason seems to be that Johnny doesn't know either. Johnny does a lot of thinking about himself, and these changes in mood and manner happen after he has gone through a spell of heavy pondering. All told, Johnny has led four lives in racing. First he was a very serious and eager country kid out of Oklahoma, grateful for rides at the big-city tracks. Then he was the famous and affluent rider of Carry Back, hauling down some $180,000 in 1961 and living high. Next he was in a slump, and full of mockery. Some people thought him timid on the track and called him "Old Mother Sellers" behind his back.
But meet the new Johnny Sellers. He's serious again, he's rich again, he's winning again, he's married again (to the same wife who had divorced him in 1963) and, as the newly aggressive rider of two of the year's hottest horses, Hail to All and Pia Star, Johnny's famous again. Watch out, though, he's thinking again.
Time was, not long ago, when Sellers contemplated taking up the care and feeding of hybrid beef cattle amid fields of grass as high as Carry Back's eye. He planned to retire at 30 to his 1,050-acre ranch near Tulsa. It was classic Americana; the boy from the country moves to the city to make enough to move back to the country. Johnny came from away out in the country. He rode his first "stake" 14 years ago at Pawhuska, Okla.—on a mare called Talking Girl for a $100 side bet. But now Johnny is eight-and-twenty, and all he envisions growing out of his real estate is something a little more cosmopolitan, like a few apartment buildings. If you ever find him wandering more than a mile and five furlongs from the nearest city, he would appreciate your calling a head doctor.
Sellers' resurgent success this year—he tithed $746,805 in stakes winnings between May 24 and August 25—has placed him in a position where he could retire two years ahead of schedule. "But not on my terms," Sellers said. "Yes, I think big, and I'm going to keep thinking big."
Racetrack hangers-on being the most shameless front-runners in sports, Sellers has been hearing "Hello, Johnny" ever since he rode Our Michael to a six-length victory in the Juvenile Stakes on May 24. The chorus hit a crescendo the other day when he got Hail to All home first in the Travers by five lengths. Sellers is glad the railbirds are glad to see him back where he belongs. He is also mildly amused, not so much by the fair-weather adulation as by the popular concept of his escape from the jockeys' quarters of the glue factory.
He had, a columnist said, "dropped all the way to the bottom.... His income had dwindled to a trickle."
"I didn't realize that I had been that bad," Sellers says. Nevertheless, from the spring of 1964 until he got on Hail to All to win the Hibiscus at Hialeah last February 22, Sellers did not pick up a big pot. He won a mere 159 races in 1964, fewer than half his victories in his national-champion campaign of 1961, and the $804,269 his mounts brought home was a bagatelle compared to the $2,141,729 ($565,349 of it by Carry Back) in '61. Sellers had dropped all the way to 21st ranking among the 1,200 money-winning members of the National Jockeys' Guild.
"No, they didn't have to run any benefits for me," Sellers says. "But I did have a slump. I rode badly for a while, and I know it." It's hard to tell where the slump began, because the year 1963 was not a good one for Sellers. The year before, he had been taken off Carry Back ("he's as good a rider as anyone when he's right," said Owner-Trainer Jack Price, "but he wasn't right"). Still, he finished sixth among the money winners and was awarded a contract by Wheatley Stable. On May 18, 1963 he quit Wheatley in one of those partings that are always described as "amicable" but seldom are.
"I wasn't getting any mounts," Sellers says. "I just didn't get along with Mr. [Sunny Jim] Fitzsimmons. He wanted me out at the barn at 6 a.m. I said I'd work any horse he wanted me to, but I didn't want to go out there just to hang around."
Such reluctance follows the Arcaro maxim, "It's hard to get up in the morning when you're wearing silk pajamas." After making that $180,000 in 1961, Sellers had added another $120,000 or so in '62; the living was good and he was liking it. Success, it seemed, had struck again.