Sports sometimes fade and die out, just as institutions and ideas, fashions and towns and memories. To be with steeplechase riders is to sense that same morbid edge of helplessness that must come while visiting in the wild with the last of the peregrine falcons or the Bengal tigers or any other kind of endangered species.
Boys in America grow up to ride cars now, not horses, and it is just as well that they do, because for any boy who grows to average height there are no horses and no races left to ride. Although steeplechasers exhibit truer form than flat racehorses, although they are unquestionably a more exciting entertainment, the battle to delay the extinction of the breed is harder all the time. The difficulty is that despite statistics that prove jumpers are more consistent performers, bettors consider them a chancy lot and inexplicably prefer playing the even-chancier daily doubles, exactas, quinellas, superfectas, pic-sixes and all the other numbers games that are dressed up as horse races.
Only Delaware, Monmouth and the three major New York tracks suffer the jumpers anymore, and then on a backdoor basis—one race a day, some of the days. Otherwise, the riders scurry about like traveling tinkers to catch a $25 ride at the fancy hunt meetings that are scattered over the country landscape from Pennsylvania to South Carolina. Most of the jump riders must depend on exercising flat horses in the gray chill dawn for the bulk of their livelihood, such as it is. Only three or four ever make much over $10,000 a year, and none has ever managed as much as $40,000. The jump jockeys pay their own expenses, hustle each other shamelessly for what few rides there are—no self-respecting agent considers them worth his time—and disdain medical niceties.
It is not unusual for riders to strap on a figure-eight bandage and compete with a broken collarbone a few days after an injury. Yet they make no claim to heroics, only the need to keep the wolf from the door. A broken collarbone is merely an occupational inconvenience, like a secretary temporarily running out of carbon paper. "The first race I rode, in '55, I broke my collarbone; I broke it two times that year and I think six times altogether, but I only got hurt real bad once," Joe Aitcheson Jr. says dispassionately.
And the tone is typical, if Aitcheson is not. He has been the nation's leading jump rider seven of the last 10 years and, many will say, the finest ever in his profession. Appropriately, last year he won the first $100,000 U.S. steeplechase, the Colonial Cup, in Camden, S.C. That is the one bright beacon on the dark jump horizon, a race that will have its second running on Nov. 20.
Aitcheson—the first syllable is an a as in ale, but most fans and even a few friends refer to him as in the song Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe
—is 43, with beautiful wavy jet black hair. His one concession to vanity is sideburns: he wears none because gray hairs show there. "Watch him, lady, he's older than he looks," another jock tells a pretty girl. Aitcheson's face is the mournful, rugged kind one usually associates with Indians. He is lean and sinewy, 5'10" and 143. He has green eyes and two bluebird tattoos, one over each nipple. Whether he is or not, one comes away from Aitcheson with the impression that he is strong and handsome.
He has never been recognized as a technically outstanding craftsman. For instance, a jockey such as the aggressive young Virginian, Jerry Fishback, would be considered a more stylish study. Aitcheson, however, is the consummate professional, careful and bold—one and the same—absolutely determined and singularly dedicated. Bobby McDonald, bald, weak-eyed, yet still riding though he is almost 50, sums up his buddy Aitcheson in nearly stilted Runyonese: "Joe is devoted very much to his business of riding."
It is bad enough that the jump rider is permitted to exist only on the periphery of his sport—but worse, he is never permitted to enjoy a civilized regimen. Each day is Balkanized, so the rider lives a 14-day week. He is finished exercising horses at an hour when most people are just punching in, then it may be six or seven hours later before he gets into his one real race of the day.
"Well now," McDonald begins. He is an engaging and verbose butterfly of a man—5'6", 120—who started out riding flats years before a lot of the jockeys he works against were born. "Well now, I can't speak for what the others do, but I might play a round of golf, a complete 18 holes, or I might just go home and keep some company with a bottle of rum. Then take a nice nap, and I'm fit and ready to ride. Not a bad arrangement at all."
Aitcheson, listening, smiles. What does he do with his long daily interim? "Kill time," he replies at some length.