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Bill Hartack
April 10, 1967
Four times in seven tries—a superlative record—Hartack has won racing's premier event, the Kentucky Derby. Analyzing those triumphs, he offers his own version of the controversial victory by a nose over Gallant Man
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April 10, 1967

The Days Of The Roses

Four times in seven tries—a superlative record—Hartack has won racing's premier event, the Kentucky Derby. Analyzing those triumphs, he offers his own version of the controversial victory by a nose over Gallant Man

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Anyone who has ever watched me ride a racehorse must know that I never tried to style my riding technique after that of another jockey. When I was around the half-milers I had no hero worship for any rider, but I got to be a fan of Howard Craig. In all the time I galloped horses, Craig was the jock that I liked to watch ride. But I don't think I patterned myself on anyone.

I was taught, and I guess I taught myself, too, to treat each horse individually—or try to. There are a lot of horses that have the same habits, but one may lack one habit or pick up another one that's different. There are so many different little things that are alike in horses, but the combination of little things can make one horse entirely different. I like to ride a horse the way a horse reacts to me in running a race. I have found that you get much better results that way.

When some people say that I don't look as good on a horse as some other rider, it doesn't bug me because the easiest thing in the world is to look good on a horse. Absolutely easy. All it takes is a little practice. But I can't see where it gains anything. First of all, to me, looking good would take away my most important asset, which is to hustle on a horse. And, contrary to public belief, over 75% of the horses don't run free and clear. They're not running free. It's very easy to look good on a horse that's running free. But when you have to keep them moving, keep their mind on their business, looking like a picture on a horse doesn't help. I mean, maybe some jocks can do it and still get the run out of them. I can't. I gotta be hustling in my own way. I ride for my own comfort, and I ride where I feel I can do the horse the most good.

No one could tell me how to look on a horse. No one could tell me how to adjust my irons. I ride at a comfortable length, and I may change them four times in a day of racing, depending on the horses I'm riding. I don't stop to see if I'm ace-deuce. I ride the way I'm comfortable. If you want to look good and you want to practice at it, fine. That's not a criticism, just because I do something different from everybody else.

I think, for example, that it's an advantage to be a left-handed hitter. There are more races lost because a rider can't hit left-handed. As you know, on our tracks all the horses run to the left and all of them crowd to the left in order to save ground. So when you're in close on a horse and he's lugging in, you just can't hit him right-handed. I think if the racetrack were run the opposite way the right-handed rider would have the greatest advantage. I'll switch to my right side only if the horse is trying to run out, but I'm not as good a right-hand hitter—just sufficient.

I can recognize things immediately during the five to 12 minutes that a rider has to warm up his horse before a race. You can put me on a horse that I've never seen before in my life and not tell me anything about him, and after warming him up I can talk to you for two hours about that horse. With 2-year-olds, for instance, you must be particularly careful to test the mouth, for there's very little taking hold of a 2-year-old once you're running. I also want to find out if he's spooky. He may shy and duck and dodge and things like that. If he does, you have to school him going to the post, because if you don't get him over some of that spookiness quick you know he's not going to run his best.

With any horse, you test their stride—you see how they're striding out. Not too much with a 2-year-old, because the majority of them are sound, but when you get with older horses you make sure that they warm up so that they're loosened up. I guarantee you 40% or 50% of older horses have a certain amount of stiffness and you've got to warm it out of them properly. Sometimes you start out slow and warm up fast. Sometimes you start out fast and warm up slow. It all depends on your own judgment, but the 12 minutes going to the gate are very important. Of course, you must follow the trainer's instructions about warming up, but if a trainer doesn't tell me what to do, I've got to find out something about that horse. You don't have to be in a wide-open gallop to pick these things up.

There are lots of things prior to the running of a race that must be considered very carefully. It's like Junie Corbin always used to remind me about being on my toes. You must remember, for example, about which horses have a tendency to lug in or lug out. Some horses are greener than others. Still others have trouble changing strides to go into the proper lead in a turn. I don't ever go into a turn without worrying about whether my horse is going to change leads or not. I worry about it because he has to change leads, and if he doesn't I'm in trouble. I'm gonna lose the race. The way they stand in the starting gate is very important. For instance, if they lug in and they're standing with their shoulders to the inside when they break, they're going to break in. They may not bother themselves, but they're going to bother another horse in the race. So you have to be able to compensate for that. Breaking so many horses from the gate during my long experience as exercise boy has been a tremendous help to me in getting off to a good start in hundreds of actual races. For everything that a horse does that's wrong the rider should be able to compensate in some way to make him do what's right. You don't just plunk a horse in the gate and sit there, and when the gate goes, you go. You always have to be thinking and doing things that your experience has taught you.

Actually, you have the same basic problems all the time, but as long as there's racing there will always be something new to learn, because you're always dealing with horses you've never seen before. So it's a matter of sifting out your information and using it on a new horse. As far as learning how to come out of the gate, for instance, I know every way, shape and form to come out of the gate. But each way hinges on what kind of a horse you're riding. So every new horse that comes up you've got to learn about.

Only occasionally in the last few years have I gotten up early in the morning to work horses. I gave up the everyday going out and just getting on horses, but sometimes I'm asked to go out and work a stakes horse, and at other times I've even volunteered to come out and do it on my own without being asked. Ridan was one example. I put in a lot of time on that horse after he turned 3. He had an extremely bad habit of running out. I couldn't keep him in the middle of the racetrack. I put time and effort in so that I could control him, and I actually got no return for doing it because I never won a stakes on him after that and I lost the mount after the second or third race that year.

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