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A HARD RIDE ALL THE WAY
Bill Hartack
March 27, 1967
Crowded though it is with colorful personalities, sport rarely produces as provocative a figure as Bill Hartack. Bold, outspoken, often arrogant and rude, he has alienated large segments of the press, most of his fellow jockeys and nearly every prominent owner and trainer in horse racing with what he describes as his "honesty." Yet he is the gentlest of men with children, happiest when playing games with them, openhanded in support of boys' sports organizations. Today, after a career that includes four Kentucky Derby victories, four national riding championships and more than $20 million in purse earnings, he has difficulty getting an ordinary mount on a routine racing card. Hartack has always been sparing with words for publication. On the following pages, however, in the first of three articles, he tells a remarkable story. Perceptive, challenging, highly self-revealing, it is the story of Bill Hartack .
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March 27, 1967

A Hard Ride All The Way

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"O.K., you asked for it," he said, and he made me gallop six other horses that day. The next morning I couldn't walk—I absolutely couldn't walk.

From then on I was an exercise boy, but it was a year and 10 months from the time I came on the racetrack until I rode my first race. We moved around to a lot of other tracks like Bowie, Laurel and Pimlico and also to Waterford Park and Cumberland, Md. and Randall Park. Trainers like Junie Corbin sometimes didn't have many horses in their barn, and so I often found myself working as exercise boy for other trainers on this circuit—like Stanley Greene and Frank Wright. When Stanley Greene took me to Randall Park, he was paying me $40 a week and that was a lot of money to me. It seemed I always had money on me, and I guess I got to gambling a little on the horses. When I got to be a jockey riding in races I never bet on them except if I was out at the track socially on a day off. I just never had any desire to bet on races that I was riding in.

During those early days I weighed only about 100 pounds—I was light. I made most of my money by working for trainers who wanted real light riders on horses, because the majority of exercise boys were fairly heavy. I had plenty of time on my hands and I enjoyed Randall Park, so I stayed there awhile and freelanced. They paid $1 for galloping a horse, and sometimes if you worked him right they'd give you $2. It was kind of a cheap circuit and you didn't make too much money, but it was enough for me. If you worked at it you could make $10 or $12 a day. And, to tell you the truth, I had made some money betting on horses and I was walking around with a couple of hundred dollars in my pocket, which was more money than I had ever had in my life. That's why I didn't want to go back to Charles Town.

Then I moved down to Sunshine Park outside of Tampa. By now I was really learning about horses pretty good. I still made plenty of mistakes, but I took pride in my work and enjoyed it. When you're happy with your work you can always do a better job, and I liked it. I galloped an average of 15 horses every morning for that whole winter season and was perfectly happy with what I had. I never wanted to be a jockey. When I first came on the racetrack I thought I was going to be a jockey, but as soon as I was around for three months I felt exactly the opposite. I see boys around a track now that are just itching to ride. All I wanted to be was an exercise boy. I'd get up at 5 in the morning and work until 10. Then I didn't have any more work to do except if I had to walk the horses after a race in the afternoon, and that was maybe an hour or two only on certain days. Why didn't I want to be a jockey? I had absolutely no confidence in myself, none, absolutely none. I still think I am a better exercise boy than I am a jockey. I galloped more horses in my first year than the average boy does in three years, and down there at Sunshine Park I found there wasn't a horse on the grounds that I couldn't gallop. There's not a horse alive that I've ever been on—after I learned how to gallop horses—that I couldn't handle.

It was at Sunshine that I started breaking a lot of horses out of the gate, and this is where I actually learned most of the things that really came in handy when I started riding. I spent some time that year breaking yearlings for an owner named Virginia McKenney, who owned a farm in Manassas, Va. She took her stable back to Charles Town, and I went along. I only met her a few times, and she was kind of a funny person. She didn't want you to hit her horses. She had a great love for her horses, and there's nothing wrong with that, but when you're dealing with racehorses, if you start loving them and you don't discipline them, you're not going to get the best out of them. I don't believe in being cruel to them, but there's no reason why you shouldn't hit a horse during the running of a race if it may mean the difference between winning and losing.

Well, we didn't exactly have disagreements, but her way of thinking about love for a horse and my way of thinking—they were a little bit different. And, of course, she owned the horses, so I had to do it her way, which I did. When we got back to Charles Town, our horses were in good condition and I knew as much as anybody else did about each of them. Every time one of these horses won and I had bet on him, I wouldn't tell anybody. Because when you're on a racetrack and you have money in your pocket you learn fast to tell everybody you're broke. Nobody ever had any money, and if you exposed the fact that you had some, everybody in your barn and in every other barn would borrow from you.

I had now gone exactly a year without talking to my father or having any correspondence with him. We had no phone at home, and I had never written anybody in my life. I guess I was so happy to get away from home that I completely cut myself off from my family. I was just taking it easy at Charles Town, going to the racetrack and palling around with Charlie Caniford and Alkie Darlington, and all of a sudden my father shows up. Damn, was he mad at me! He had traced me back to Charles Town, and he didn't come down to see me; he came down to take me home is what he did. When I walked out the door of the house I was staying at, there he was. I says to myself, "Oh, oh." I don't know whether he was happy to see me or whether he wanted to beat the hell out of me—one of the two. And after he found me there and saw I was safe and everything, then he got mad. He was mad because I hadn't ever contacted him in over a year. I became some independent. I just told him, "Dad, you can take me home, but the first time you turn your back I'm just going to leave again. So the only thing we can do is just work out something between us." He was really on my back, and he was probably right, but I was just so bugged about Pennsylvania that I just didn't want to hear anything about it.

This was the first time I'd ever talked back to my father in my life. I then promised him I'd call him from time to time, after he told me we had a phone in the house now. So that kind of settled him down. After that the relationship between my father and myself was a hundred times better. He stayed on a couple of days and we went over everything, and when he was satisfied he went home. From then on we had a terrific relationship. Some years later, when I was making real money, I bought him a place of his own so he could quit the coal mines.

Soon I was back with Junie Corbin again, and he took me to Cleveland with him. One day, while backing up Junie's car when the door was open, I tore the door half off. I was wondering whether I should tell him or not tell him. I was absolutely petrified. It was the first time I had ever done anything wrong like that, and I was responsible. When he saw the damage I told him I did it, but I also told him I'd work for him until I made enough money to pay for the door. That's how I went back to work for Corbin. He was paying me $50 a week, and I had some money of my own saved up. But he absolutely would not permit me to pay for the car. That's the kind of a man he was.

This was the summer of 1952, and my pal, Alkie, had ridden five races for Junie. When we got to Wheeling, we won 15 races, but Alkie wasn't on any winners. Junie was getting some pressure from his owners. They didn't want to ride somebody who had not won a race. So the only solution they could figure out was for Junie to give Alkie his contract. Alkie went to work for another man, and he ended up winning a couple of races in Wheeling, and Alkie and I were still friends. We were still at Randall Park, and I knew what was coming next. Junie asked me if I wanted to ride a race, and I said, "No." And he says, "How come? You gallop a horse pretty good. Don't you think you're ready to ride?" I said, "I don't know anything about it—I don't want to ride." I told him that for two reasons: 1) Alkie was a very good friend of mine and I was a friend of his parents, and I knew if Corbin rode me after riding Alkie in five, and if I did happen to win a race, I just didn't want it to look like I took Alkie's job away from him; 2) I said, furthermore, that I was happy with my job, and I just had no confidence in myself. Exercising was great, but I didn't want to ride.

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