I consider myself a lucky rarity among those who have taken up sports for both pleasure and as a profession. I don't mean that being a jockey hasn't been hard work, because it has. But I've enjoyed the hard work and everything about it. I've ridden a lot of horses—some 23,500 of them—over a period of 21 years. One year, 1953, I rode over 1,600 horses and won 485 races, a record that still stands. I've ridden about 1,000 horses in each of those 21 years, and I've enjoyed every minute of it, which puts me, I suppose, with the minority of people in the world who can get up each morning and honestly say to themselves, "I'm going to be happy doing what I have to do today."
In return for what I have been able to contribute to horse racing, the sport has been good to me. At the age of 38 I live a certain life of luxury, with a wonderful wife and children. Unlike the majority of professional athletes who spend many years in the minor leagues of their sport and often find themselves in slumps that may last months or even years, I somehow have been different from the start. When I got my first riding break, I managed to make it stick. In 21 years my mounts have accounted for a world-record $41 million plus in purses. My cut of this has been over $4 million, and I'm told that no athlete—even old-timers like Dempsey and Tunney, or my own contemporaries like Willie Mays and Arnold Palmer—has come close to earning $4 million purely through his own athletic accomplishments.
I mention this only through a sense of pride and not at all in a bragging way, because I am proud of my profession as a jockey and I am the first to realize that without lots of luck and assistance along the way it would have been impossible. After all, it is a pretty unlikely situation: a kid from Texas standing 4'11½" and weighing only 100 pounds, who today finds himself in the position of never having to lift a finger for the rest of his life. But I have no desire to quit. As long as I feel good and feel that I can perform well, I will probably go on riding.
Considering the number of races I've competed in, I'm lucky I haven't been injured more often. The fall I had at Santa Anita in 1968 was the result of a freak accident, and I'm lucky I suffered nothing more serious than a broken leg. Last year, a few days before I would have ridden Arts and Letters in the Derby, a horse flipped over backward and landed on top of me in the paddock at Hollywood Park, injuring my pelvis and bladder. But I came back sooner than expected and I feel better now than I ever did.
I have achieved most of my ambitions—outside of a few Kentucky Derbies I managed to lose—and along the way I've won 5,855 races. I'm only 177 behind the record held by my boyhood hero, Johnny Longden, and if I can keep on I might get his record and still go another seven or eight years.
Luck plays an important part in everyone's life, but at no time did it serve me better than on my first day on earth. My father was a cotton farmer and he lived in a little town called Fabens, about 30 miles from El Paso. I was born there on Aug. 19, 1931. My father was an average-sized man, about 5'11" and 180 pounds; my mother was about 5'3". But I arrived one month prematurely and I weighed only 2½ pounds. I was born at our house, not in a hospital, and the doctor said that I wouldn't live through the night. He just left me on the bed and told my parents, "He's going to die before the night's over. We'll take care of the arrangements tomorrow." Then my grandmother got in the act. She picked me off the bed, put me in a shoe box, turned on the oven and put the shoe box in there with the door part open so the air could get in. And I didn't die.
There was nothing unusual about my early boyhood. My parents separated when I was 3 or 4 and for a while I lived with my grandfather, who managed a cattle and sheep ranch in the little town of Winters, near Abilene. I went quite a way to school by bus—like everyone else—and did my share of helping out with the chores around the ranch. By the time I was 7 my grandfather was letting me ride a couple of ranch ponies he had on the place. I never did graduate from high school. When I was about 10 I moved to California with my father and went to El Monte High School in a suburb of Los Angeles. Sports had always interested me in school more than studies and, although I wasn't big enough to compete in most games with the other guys, we did have boxing and wrestling teams on which even little guys like myself could participate. I really liked boxing. Before I quit school in the 11th grade I won a Los Angeles boxing championship. It was in the 95-to-105-pound division, and I weighed just 90 pounds. I still have the little pair of golden gloves they give you.
I never went on with boxing because about this time—I was about 13 or 14—I started becoming interested in horses. There was a girl named Joyce in my class at school and she first put the idea in my head about being a jockey. She was dating a jockey named Wallace Bailey, and she did a lot of talking to me about the races. I used to listen to sports on the radio every night, and suddenly I began to listen to the race results to hear which jockeys had won. The big rider at that time was Longden.
Joyce introduced me to Bailey and she insisted that he help me find a part-time job at the nearby Suzy Q. Ranch, which was owned by Thomas Simmons, then the president of Hollywood Park racetrack. I started at the Suzy Q. at the age of 14 in 1945. I used to go there every day, before and after school, and from the first day I loved it. I used to get up at 5. They had a little training track and we'd harrow and water it before we got the horses out. Later we cut and baled hay and fed the horses. Looking back on those days, I realize that I was learning the basic fundamentals of horsemanship. It was the greatest thing in the world for a young kid to start out that way. If you start in the middle—like hanging around a racetrack waiting for a shot at becoming an exercise boy—you miss most of the fundamentals.
I must have realized subconsciously that I was on my way to becoming a jockey because I found myself ducking away from school more and more. Without my father knowing it, I transferred from El Monte High School to La Puente High School. But I never went there. I would get up and go to the ranch, work all day and come back at night just as if I was coming home from school. My father didn't know about this until a year later when I told him I was moving to the ranch permanently. I stayed about two years and was making $75 a month and room and board. It doesn't sound like much money, but when you're 16 or 17 years old and you honestly want to do something, you can't worry about how much you're making.