You can find him virtually any Saturday when the horses are running in New York, at Goetz's Cafe on Jamaica Avenue in Jamaica, N.Y.
He's grayer now, the lines are deeper in his weather-worn face and, although he always watches the Race of the Week from Aqueduct on TV, Johnny Loftus, 68, one of the greatest jockeys of all time, admits he has never been to the Big A. In fact, he hasn't been to any racetrack in more than 12 years. Yet Johnny Loftus was the first rider in history to win racing's famed Triple Crown. He did it in 1919 on Sir Barton. That year he won $252,707 in purses, and his average of 37% on winning mounts is a record that still stands.
Paradoxically, 1919 remains—in memory—the blackest year of ex-Jockey Johnny Loftus' life. For it was in the six-furlong Sanford Stakes on August 13, 1919 at Saratoga that Loftus rode Man o' War when the immortal Big Red lost to Upset—Man o' War's only defeat in 21 starts.
Although Johnny doesn't like to talk about it, others have debated, dissected and distorted his personal calamity for almost half a century.
"I've explained that race hundreds of times," he says. "I was the goat. That's all there was to it. It could happen to anyone.
"Heck, if a ballplayer makes an error, it's forgotten. Why can't they forget that race? What hurt me most was the vicious gossip that there was something crooked about the race.
"Man o' War was very fractious at the start that day. He never could wait to get running, and the Sanford was no exception. He broke through about three times before the starter warned me to quiet him down—or else.
"I wheeled Man o' War around for another try. My head was turned when the field was sent away. I wasn't ready, and we got away fifth in the field of seven."
Most of the calamity howlers—who had never held a losing ticket on Big Red—demanded to know why Loftus had not rushed his horse right up to challenge the leaders.
"Hell, I could have gone up and taken the lead anytime I wanted," said Loftus. "But Mr. Riddle [Owner Samuel D. Riddle] had instructed me to lay off the early pace.