He has just turned 60. His mother is 82, but aside from the deafness she is undiminished, and she is sitting at the dining-room table, dealing solitaire. Behind her, when the little man utters a mild profanity or while he briefly tells of sowing wild oats in New Orleans when he was a teen-ager, 45 years ago, he drops his voice, lest his mother have revealed to her, at 82, these flaws in his character.
It is hard to believe that this fellow, so charming and sentimental, was once Don Meade, the scourge of the tracks, the jockey who invented the behavior that Bill Hartack later copyrighted. For a time Don Meade was the best jockey in the land, maybe in the whole world, but he came too fast from the backwoods scrub of South Dakota, and he never learned to lay off. Finally, everybody—trainers, owners, stewards—just said to hell with it; nobody, no matter how good, is worth that much aggravation. "He couldn't be told nothing," an old trainer recalls. "That S.O.B. knew who the Unknown Soldier was."
Times are not so palmy for Meade now—although he is not complaining, mind you. The stomach operation has hung him up; the only horse he has to train is the one he owns. His wife is in the hospital with a broken neck from an automobile accident; a son is busted up in another hospital from a motorcycle accident. But Donnie Jr. is the top rider in New England, and there are five good kids, all grown now, all initialed DLM, all bearing a greater resemblance to their mother, which the father counts as a distinct blessing. Mrs. Meade was a Copa show girl when he met her. He calls her "Madame Queen" on account of "she must be a queen to put up with me for 29 years."
He is still sure and cocky; maybe if you are only five feet tall and out of South Dakota you never figure you're far enough ahead. But the brazen kid who won the 1933 Derby, the most turbulent of them all, has been overhauled. That day, Meade, a teen-age man-child with a puckish comic-strip face and the educated hands of a second-story man, rode Col. E.R. Bradley's Brokers Tip to victory, hand-fighting Jockey Herb Fisher on Head Play down the stretch. Few in the stands noticed the skirmish and the track stewards would not consider the claim of foul by Fisher, who left for the jocks' room in tears.
Although Meade and Fisher barely knew each other at the time, their notorious shared moment joined them in perhaps the most symbiotic relationship in sports. Only Don Meade can appreciate what Herb Fisher has had to put up with. Meade knows that almost every day someone will ask him about the '33 Derby. It is a tedious imposition but, as Meade points out, at least he won the race. Herb Fisher has to endure it, too, and he lost.
Fisher lives only a few miles from Meade. While he was not as talented a rider, Fisher has had more success as a trainer. But here it is the 100th Derby, and all anybody asks him about is the Derby he lost 41 years ago.
The phone rings at Herb Fisher's house. He picks it up and listens dutifully, and then answers quite firmly—not rudely, but with sufficient edge to inform the caller that he feels intruded upon. "Do we have to always dredge up these memories?" he asks. "They're gone. I don't want to live back there. My remarks have been on the record for 40 years, and I'm sure there's nothing to add now."
"You can understand what he goes through, can't you?" Meade asks solicitously, in Fisher's behalf. He is concerned for Fisher, which is part of the burden of having won. Talking of himself, Meade says:
"I still weigh 109. I never had any weight trouble. When I was 12 years old I started riding quarter horses, 50� a race, $2 if you won, down at the bush tracks in Nebraska, and I was really in demand because you got catch weights there, and I only weighed 48 pounds. I left home at 13. I really had no one to tell me what to do. I had to make my own way, so I just grew up fast. I broke my maiden out in Vancouver when I was 16. July 5, 1930. By that winter, that's 1930-31, I was the leading rider in New Orleans.
"I was patterning my style then after Laverne Fator. He was the greatest rider ever. I don't care who they say, he was the best. I was just on my way then, like a young DiMaggio coming in, but Fator was going out, drinking. We were riding together in Maryland, the fall of '32, and he had a mount for Col. Bradley in the last race one day. It was a nothing race, a stumblebum race, but it was the reason I won the Derby the next year. Because Fator was drinking, and he couldn't ride, and they put me up, and that's how I started riding for Col. Bradley.