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
My first few years I spent kind of a nomadic life. I wasn't born in what was considered a racetrack state. Pennsylvania had no racing, and I spent the first 18 years of my life in Pennsylvania.
First I lived in a small house outside of Ebensburg, Pa. Actually, right after I was born, in the Depression in 1932, we lived in Colver. Then Ebensburg, then back to Colver, and finally on a farm outside the coal-mining town of Belsano. I spent from seventh grade through high school on this farm outside of this small town of Belsano.
My childhood wasn't ever much fun, and I wasn't able to do the things that a normal child would do because of the fact that I had no mother. My father was extremely strict with me, I guess because I was the only boy in the family. I had two sisters. So it was more work than anything else. My father worked in the coal mines for 30 years, from the time he was 14 years old. On Friday the 13th of December, when I was 5 years old, my father was driving over to Colver to pick up his pay when they had the car accident. They were driving up this hill, and a semitrailer truck was coming down. The truck's brakes didn't hold, and when it hit the car it just demolished it—picked it up and threw it over the top of a high embankment. I was 5 years old and my mother died on Christmas morning.
My father was in the hospital for over a year following the accident. And my sister had her hand completely crushed. Our house burned down the next year and it was not insured. Eventually, however, my father got back on his feet, and he bought a piece of farm property, about 50 acres, from my grandfather. When I look back on it now I realize how severe he had to be with me. As a matter of fact, it's probably one of the things I'm thankful for. My father was so tough on me that when I finally left home the world was easy. Compared to my father, the world was absolutely a cinch.
He kept the three kids together, and he never remarried. He worked anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day in the mines, and when we were alone he had to be sure that we knew how to take care of ourselves. He and I farmed our ground by ourselves. He worked week-about, which means that one week he'd work night shift and the next week he'd work day shift. We had chickens, pigs and milk cows, and hay, corn and potatoes. I would guess that his income varied between $3,000 and $5,000 per year. The house, which he built himself, wasn't even completed. It had no cellar, which is very unusual for any place in Pennsylvania; it's important to have a foundation there because of the cold weather. There was no furnace in the house. No central heating. No air conditioning. No phone. No electricity. No bathroom. There was really nothing.
We went to the Blacklick Township High School, and I think one of the reasons that I didn't really enjoy school, to be truthful, is that I had no enjoyment in my home life and I just got sick and tired of the same old drag. I had to get up early in the morning and take care of everything on the farm if my father was working. Then catch the bus and go to school, and when school was over I had to take the bus home and work till 9, 10 or 11 at night. I had to do the farm work and my homework by lantern light.
I was a fairly good student even though I disliked studying. I could get by even by being lazy. There were certain subjects, such as English and history, that I wouldn't put any effort into, but I passed. On the other hand, I always got high marks in all forms of mathematics—plane geometry, solid geometry, trigonometry—and biology, physics and general science. One thing that my father insisted upon was that all three of us kids went through high school. I know it was very good for me. I'm happy I did. I didn't particularly want to go, but in subsequent years it came in handy, I can tell you that. Not exactly the knowledge of the books, but just the exercise of the brain that gave you the thinking power and the scope to think. I think it helped me quite a bit. It got me into some trouble, too, but it helped me. Sometimes it pays to be a little dumb—particularly in racing.
Going into my senior year, I gave some thought to what I wanted to do. I enjoyed artistic work in school, drawing and creating things for decoration and things of that nature. I also was adept at blueprinting and draftsmanship. I hadn't the opportunity to see which I could do best because our family economic situation put college completely out of the question.
There wasn't ever a close relationship between my father and myself because it was all business, all work. He didn't take me to football or baseball games or things of that nature, because he never enjoyed them. He didn't ever go to any, and he never had time to take me to any. Actually, I don't think I would ever have done any good in sports in school. Even if I had been big enough I wouldn't have been able to play, because my father considered I had no time for sports. The sports I did were hunting and fishing and swimming, because they were close by. I just didn't have any time for social activities. I never dated too much in school, because I was sort of an introvert. And, not being around many people, I guess I was somewhat frightened. I liked basketball and football, but the only way I could ever get to a football game was to join the band. I played the drums. I played them for 12 years, and I hated it. I absolutely hated it. But I stuck it out. I picked up sticks about four or five years ago, but I forgot everything I learned. I enjoy music. But drums—I absolutely hate and despise them.