Somehow my career progressed without a hitch from the beginning. I got a lot of mounts and a lot of wins, and at times it almost seemed that I could do no wrong. In San Francisco one year I remember they were having a difficult time filling the races because my agent, Harry Silbert, was putting me on so many good horses. He'd have to wait until the last minute each morning to name the horse that I was going to be on so that the other fellows would already have their horses in. Otherwise, if everyone knew I was on the best horse, most of the other horsemen would back off and the race wouldn't fill.
I got my first $100,000 win (the first of 80 in 21 years) in 1951 in the Santa Anita Maturity, which is now called the Charles H. Strub Stakes in honor of the founder of Santa Anita. It was on a horse called Great Circle, owned by Mr. and Mrs. John Wack. Before that time I'd been mostly riding cheaper horses, and when I got on Great Circle I thought he was the best horse I'd ever ridden. I was amazed at the way a top-caliber horse reacted and ran compared with a cheap horse—how much easier he was to handle and how much more juice he had when you asked him to put the run in. The action was so much smoother. Years later, when I rode Damascus for the first time, it took me back to the time when I first got up on a good stakes horse and felt the difference between the action of an animal of quality and one of ordinary class.
After that I rode many more good horses, including some for Calumet Farm in California...and then came Swaps. No question about it—for a colt to have done what he did, with one bad foot throughout most of his career, Swaps was truly great. His owner, Rex Ellsworth, and Trainer Mesh Tenney and I knew this before we went to the 1955 Kentucky Derby, but most of the Easterners in Louisville believed—as they often do about California horses—that he simply couldn't go a mile and a quarter against class competition. Bill Woodward's Nashua was the big favorite of everyone that year and his trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, told Arcaro that from what he knew of Swaps the California horse would stop after a mile. According to Fitz, the only colt Eddie had to worry about was Summer Tan, who had been beaten by Nashua by a neck in the Wood Memorial in New York.
Well, that afternoon Swaps showed he was better than everybody thought he was. I hadn't planned to put him on the lead. I wanted to be about third for the first part of it and figured Nashua would be right with me, or even in front of me. But at the start, after Swaps broke well, I tried to ease him back and he got a little rank. So instead of struggling with him, I let him take the lead, and as soon as he got the lead he relaxed. Eddie and Nashua weren't ever very far off me, but the point is that I was on a completely relaxed horse and coasting on the lead, and Nashua wasn't as relaxed as Swaps. Arcaro made a move around the far turn, but he had to work on Nashua to get to me. He got right up to me at the quarter pole and probably thought, because he had made a hell of a run, that he was going to win. But I had a lot of horse left. When we straightened out in the stretch, I just hit Swaps and—phew!—he took off again and won, going away, by a length and a half.
I'm not going to make excuses now, after 15 years, for Swaps' defeat in the match race that summer at Washington Park in Chicago. But there's no doubt that he was not at his best that afternoon. He worked in the mud the morning before and threw a shoe and reinfected his bad foot. But even if he had been at his best, he might not have beaten Nashua that day. And, believe me, Eddie rode a great race. It goes back to what I said last week, that experience really counts when the chips are down. Arcaro had the experience and I didn't. If you look back on other match races you'll notice that the horse on the lead from the start wins nine out of 10 times. And despite the fact that I knew Eddie was going to try and take the lead, I let him do it. The start was so sudden that it really didn't give my horse a shot. He was fidgeting, and when the gate opened he jumped in the air and came out of there like a snake. Then Eddie immediately did the right thing. He got on the dry path where the trucks had been driving over the muddy track, and he kept me to his outside on the deep part. And my own inexperience helped him carry me wide around each of the turns. He gave me a riding lesson that afternoon, there's no question.
But you are supposed to learn through experience, and I try never to forget this. Let me give you a more up-to-date example. In the spring of 1967 I rode Damascus and was beaten by Dr. Fager in the one-mile Gotham at Aqueduct. I rode him badly that day, not in his style of running at all. He broke well, but instead of letting him relax I sent him for about a sixteenth of a mile and he got rank and outran Dr. Fager. That was the day they decided to take Dr. Fager back. After laying second I took the lead around the three-eighths pole, which left Dr. Fager behind me and in perfect position to control the race. He made me move when he wanted to.
Well, I didn't let this happen again the only other time Damascus met Dr. Fager that year. Good horses like these two run truer to form than cheap horses, and everyone knew just about how the mile-and-a-quarter Woodward at Aqueduct that fall would be run. But even in such a race a jock has to be ready to change his plans. For example, in a classic race, if one of the contenders is two or three lengths in front and just breezing, you simply can't let him stay there forever without making a run at him. A cheap horse can be expected to stop and come back to you, but in a classic like the Woodward if you wait you'll never catch this kind of front-runner.
In the Woodward it was obvious that Dr. Fager, ridden by Bill Boland, was going to take the lead at the break, because that's the way he runs his best races. It was just as obvious that my trainer, Frank Whiteley, would send Hedevar, who was Damascus' stablemate, out to run with Dr. Fager—and really make him run all-out. The complaining about so-called "rabbit" tactics that came from Johnny Nerud, Dr. Fager's trainer, didn't make sense to me. He used a rabbit with Gallant Man to help beat Bold Ruler in the 1957 Belmont Stakes, and he knows very well that entries, for one purpose or another, are as old in racing as the sport itself. What really surprised me about this Woodward was that Nerud didn't order Boland to take Dr. Fager right back after the break. If I'd been on Dr. Fager and knew they were going to run a real speed sprinter at me and that the horses I had to beat were Damascus and Buckpasser, I'd figure that my only shot at the money would be to stop Dr. Fager before he got going. If you let the two real contenders outrun you, then you have some chance of being able to control the race later on. You might not beat either of them, but neither would you stagger down the stretch on a tired horse who had been forced to make all the pace for the first mile. That's what happened to Boland, and we won.
All this is part of what I mean by experience. A sense of pace, for instance, is not acquired overnight. It takes years and years but, believe me, if you have an idea how fast your horse is going and whether he's running smoothly or not, you can get by with quite a lot. I think that my sense of pace accounted for my winning two of the races I am most proud of. One was the 1962 mile-and-three-quarters turf race, the San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita, with Rex Ellsworth's Olden Times. The other was the 1967 mile-and-a-half Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park with George Pope's Hill Clown. Olden Times was not a proved distance horse, but he was extremely fast. I popped him on the lead right away and he relaxed so much that I could take a long steady hold on him and let him nod along in a big, high lope for the first mile and a quarter. He went that steady, even lick, and when the others moved at him he had enough left. If he hadn't relaxed right away, there's no way he could have gotten beyond three-quarters of a mile in that company. Frankly, I thought it was one of the best rides in my career.
In the Sunset the one to beat was Liz Tippett's Pretense, one of the top handicap horses in the country. Hill Clown was no great shakes. He had never won over a real distance and didn't figure to have much of a chance. He usually came from off the pace, but when we left the gate I looked around and saw that all the other jocks were throwing their horses down, so I let Hill Clown kind of ease off and take the lead. I think we went the first quarter in 0:24[4/5], the half mile in 0:49[4/5] and the first six furlongs in 1:14[2/5]. Again, when the contention finally came up to challenge, I still had a fresh horse and we won. It was a satisfying victory because Pretense was one of the best horses in America and I felt that I personally engineered the right tactics to beat him.