This is merely a footnote to the Kentucky Derby, something midway between the headlines and nostalgia. It is, to be sure, nothing significant. But somehow it is very vivid, and so it seems worth the telling.
I was with Bill Hartack on Derby Day. Oh, I didn't speak to him. I had met him only once, and on that occasion he was in a whirlpool and at some social disadvantage. He could not have been more civil; I remembered to call him Bill. But he doesn't care to speak to writers, and so, on this Derby Day, I don't suppose I would have intruded upon him even if I had had the opportunity. I didn't. The closest I came to him was several yards, when he was on a horse in the paddock. He only had this one mount, 70 to 1, in the first at Happy Valley, the front end of the double. Happy Valley is the track in Hong Kong. Yes, on Derby Day Bill Hartack was riding Hong Kong.
And this is the point. Willie Shoemaker, 45, is still riding the Derby, and Eddie Arcaro was there, riding shotgun with Howard Cosell, and Isaac Murphy and Earl Sande are at peace in their graves and in the Hall of Fame, but on Derby Day 1977, Willie Hartack was riding Hong Kong (yes, Willie, and be damned the one last time), and it should never be forgotten that no one ever rode the Kentucky Derby like this boy.
He and Arcaro are the only jockeys with more than three winners. They have five apiece. It took Arcaro 13 mounts to make his five. Hartack did it in his first nine (and had a second, too). This is like Chamberlain averaging 50 points for a season, Unitas throwing touchdown passes in 47 straight games. These things will never be done again. And yet, here is Bill Hartack riding Hong Kong on Derby Day.
I had heard he had gone over there with his tack, and so I checked the Happy Valley entries when I got in. Races are held Wednesdays and Saturdays. And there he was, up in just this race, the worst event on the card, bar one. Hartack was on Viking, a 6-year-old bay mare owned by the Seaward Woos and trained by Ng Chi Lam. She had finished 11th last time out, at a distance more to her liking. It hardly seemed worth the journey to Happy Valley, but then I remembered that Saturday was Derby Day, Saturday was Hartack's day, and so I went, drawn as much by the irony as by the greedy assurance of a hunch bet. From the mainland I took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong island, walked past the rickshaws and caught a shaky old double-decker bus to Happy Valley.
I thought to myself: What is Willie Hartack doing in Hong Kong today? He should be in Louisville. The 1957 Derby would have been enough to ensure his place in history. Riding Iron Liege, he stole that one on the rail by a nose from Gallant Man, Round Table and Bold Ruler. Venetian Way in '60 was next: Hartack held him just off the lead and then roared outside in a drive. Decidedly in '62: he brought him from way back, 10 lengths off the pace. Northern Dancer in '64: he rated him for a mile, took a good lead and then staggered home by a neck with left-hand whipping. Majestic Prince in '69: he beat Arts and Letters and Braulio Baeza in a duel through the stretch. Each one different, each one superbly executed. No one else ever did it so well when it counted the most. You can tell me about Babe Ruth in Yankee Stadium and Big Bill Tilden at Forest Hills and Jesse Owens in Berlin, but don't stop until you have told me about Willie Hartack at Churchill Downs.
What is he doing in Hong Kong on Derby Day?
Happy Valley sounds like a place rich people visit to dry out in Fairfield County. Once, I suppose, it was a bona fide valley. Well, it is still a valley, but it is full of high rises and other eyesores. The track, with its seven-tiered grandstand and an infield full of chewed-up soccer fields, seemed about as Oriental and exotic as Liberty Bell. The place was jammed. There was no breeze in the valley, not a zephyr, and it was about a million degrees Celsius, not counting the humidity, if you are one of those who like to say, "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." I thought of the day in 1959 I saw my first Derby, when it came up 94�, the hottest ever. I looked it up when I got back to the States. Hartack was there that day, too, on a horse named Easy Spur. It was one of the rare times he ran out.
But as hot as it was in the paddock in Happy Valley, all the men with badges appeared very cool. And they were in suits. The only men at the track in suits were the officials, and they looked the most comfortable. Everybody else, in short-sleeved shirts and whatnot, was sweating like a bandit. The guys in the paddock in suits and ties, with sandy hair and French shoes and binoculars around their necks, looked as though they were at Ascot in September. Or in Manitoba, for that matter. I bring this up because it made me feel at home. I had noticed it in America, too. No matter how hot it is at a racetrack, the people in suits in the paddock never sweat.
And then I saw Hartack. He was standing in line with the other jocks, P. F. Yiu, K. S. Ho, P. Gumbleton, C. C. Chan and so forth, ready to weigh out. He was at 128, a middling figure at Happy Valley. A lot of horses were carrying more than 130. The weight was one reason he went to Hong Kong. It gets tougher to take it off as you get older, and Hartack is 44 now. It was a long time ago that he came out of the mines of Pennsylvania. Now he was laughing with an attendant by the scales. He looks good laughing, although he rarely has been noted for humor. But let's not go into that here. You probably know all about his history, how he always fought everything and everybody. If you don't know all this, never mind. It doesn't matter anymore. Except, of course, I had to think: If you had learned to laugh, Willie, if you had learned to go along more, if....