Hang up your tack, John Longden,
Hang up your tack and quit.
Hang up your tack, John Longden,
Pack up your bit and git.
Some years ago Willie Shoemaker sang this parody at the annual jockeys' ball to a man who supposedly was about to retire. But it was not until last Saturday at smog-shrouded Santa Anita that John Eric Longden, the 59-year-old grandfather with more victories than any other jockey in the history of Thoroughbred racing, finally did pack up his bit and git. Before he did, however, he had one last race to ride.
Literally, he had four more, for he had accepted mounts in the fourth, sixth and seventh races, but it was the eighth, the San Juan Capistrano Handicap, that was to be his last, the one that mattered. As was his custom, Longden arrived in the barns by 7 a.m. It was a gloomy morning, with clouds hanging so thick over the track that clockers were unable to catch a number of early workouts. Longden spent the time mingling with exercise boys, grooms, trainers and walkers. "John knows every one of their jobs better than they do," said Joe Hernandez, the announcer at Santa Anita and Longden's first agent in California back in 1931. "He can clean tack, muck out a stall, feed a horse, bandage a cut or walk out a hot horse better than anyone."
To the boys in the barn Longden's attention to detail was not surprising, for they had long regarded him as synonymous with Thoroughbred racing itself. Indeed, to all southern California racing fans Longden has become a legend. His career began in 1927, when Lindbergh was making headlines, when Gene Tunney was heavyweight champion and Willie Shoemaker was not yet born. Longden himself was born in England and moved to Canada, where he went to work in a coal mine before becoming a jockey at 20. His first stand in California was at Tanforan near San Francisco during the winter season of 1931-32, and he became the meet's leading rider with 54 wins in 51 days. However, it was not until 1936, two years after Santa Anita opened, that Longden came to southern California. On the day after Christmas that year he made Santa Anita's winner's circle for the first time, having ridden a horse named War Letter. In the years that followed, the 4-foot-11 Longden became a giant in southern California horse racing and a millionaire in the process.
Now, on Longden's final day, the mood of the occasion was reflected by a sign posted on the jockeys' board late in the afternoon: "John, Only 969 more [victories] to 7,000. Sure you want to quit?" It was signed "Shoe."
Willie insisted he had not written it. "Well, if it wasn't you," said Longden, "that's the way you'd think, Bill."
There was more levity and friendly conversation in the jockeys' room than there had been in years. Longden, who many thought should be taut, nervous and perhaps a bit impatient with those chronicling his final hours, was more relaxed than ever.
People from every segment of racing stopped by to reminisce—stable hands, patrol judges, owners, trainers and writers. Even President Robert Strub of Santa Anita came by. "John," he said, "they're paying you a great tribute today. We would like to have you come to the directors' room after the ninth race. Come up in your silks. Come up and chat for a minute and have some champagne." Longden thanked him and began to get ready.
In his first race of the day, the fourth, Longden rode the favorite, Chiclero, and beat Bill Hartack on Valiant Man by a head. He was out of the money in the sixth, then finished third in the seventh. It was just 4:30 when Longden marched out of the jockeys' quarters for his last call.
"This is it, John," yelled a seasoned admirer. "Go get 'em."