"I'll tell you what Joe will do any day," says Doug Small Jr., one of his main riding rivals until he gave up the fight against weight and went into training horses this year. "He'll go home and stare at a wall, and he'll think all afternoon about how he's going to ride that horse, and it doesn't matter whether it is a stakes or a cheap claimer. He'll shut out the world for any race."
Aitcheson enjoys the happy estate of standing at the top of a profession that he relishes and honors. When they were much younger, his nephews started calling him "Jockey Joe" instead of Uncle Joe, and the nickname stuck back in Laurel, Md., where Aitcheson, divorced, lives with his parents and his daughter. Such an unimaginative name might seem too simple and undignified, but Aitcheson is one of those rare people who embodies his profession. He really is Jockey Joe.
Although its universe is limited, steeplechasing is layered with social strata and complicated interrelationships. At the nucleus, there is a handful of professional jocks who take up almost all the mounts at the major tracks. So small is this community that Bobby McDonald himself has been involved in a close way with every professional who has been killed jumping in America in the last two decades.
One young rider died in the backseat of McDonald's car at a toll bridge. "He made a bad fence at Monmouth," McDonald says, "and the horse's head jerked back and hit him in the chest. He stayed on and finished the race, but that was like a sledgehammer hitting him in the heart." The jockey spit up blood, but the doctors failed to diagnose a ruptured heart, so McDonald put the rider in his car to drive him home. "Right before the tolls at the Goethals bridge—oh, it was right there at the tolls, with the rain beating down, it was pouring so—right there was the last we heard from him. I didn't know it then, but that was the death rattle."
The jockeys are, naturally, aware of the hazards, but the menace sits easily with them. "Ah," says Leo O'Brien in his Dublin brogue, "you must not let yourself ever forget that the horses aren't so stupid that they want to fall. Now, if they wanted to fall, I wouldn't have anything to do with them."
"There's only one way to go at it," McDonald says. "We're a band of cutthroats. We're all trying to submarine each other, both getting the mounts and riding them. If I can outdo you, I will, and I expect the same from you. I seldom claim fouls. I'll have my opportunity to get back. But you leave that on the track. Joe, I've probably shut you off and you've shut me off." Aitcheson nodded. "But I don't remember any arguments afterward." Joe nodded again.
The fibers of this compact are stretched tightest by young Fishback, a confident 24-year-old who has been riding professionally since he was a high school junior. Brash as Aitcheson is taciturn, Fishback has pulled ahead in the 1971 jockey standings and figures to deny Aitcheson the crown for the first time since 1966. Earlier this year, in an uncharacteristic outburst, Aitcheson slugged Fishback following a race in which he felt the younger rider had carried him unnecessarily wide to benefit the other half of the entry Fishback was riding for. Aitcheson was fined $100. Another time this year, at the conclusion of a race at Delaware, Jockey Larry Bates leapt from his mount to Fishback's, as in the cowboy movies, and dragged him to the ground.
The echelon of top jump riders is so restricted, even intimate, that it could not for long bear the strain of any sustained contentiousness. The riders must learn to get along lest their whole society fly apart. Jump jockeys have their own special hangouts, their own fans, even a coterie of bookies who travel to the hunt meetings that do not offer pari-mutuel betting. The fact that so many flat riders are of a different ethnic strain, Latin American, surely encourages this exclusivity, but other factors—notably economic and an abiding interest in the sport—have conspired to set them apart.
Even when they party together, which is often, their congeniality is underlaid with competitiveness. At one soiree following a hunt meeting a few years ago, a rider named Tommy Walsh began to boast to McDonald of his exceptional speed afoot. Despite the fact that Walsh was more than 15 years younger, McDonald demanded a race. The additional fact that McDonald was hobbling on crutches with a recently broken pelvis, did not, apparently, dim the older man's confidence.
Walsh agreed to spot McDonald a few yards head start in view of this infirmity, and they laid the bets. They were to run to a shed—actually, it was an outhouse—some distance away. At the starting signal McDonald stunned the assembly by simply letting his crutches fall away, and with an effort seen nowhere this side of Oral Roberts lit out full tilt with his broken pelvis. As the race progressed, alas, Walsh edged closer, and appeared ready to take the lead. He probably would have won, too, but the condition book listed the finish as to the shed. Walsh slowed down in the final stride to brace himself, but McDonald just ran headlong into the building, bouncing back off of it the winner by inches. It was a predictable result. The first 10 jumping races McDonald rode he fell off, but he has ridden another 26 years. He is not easily intimidated.