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Joe Hirsch
September 17, 1956
The controversial success story of Jockey Willie Hartack—a revealing portrait by the able correspondent of the turf's 'Daily Racing Form'
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September 17, 1956

The Front Runner

The controversial success story of Jockey Willie Hartack—a revealing portrait by the able correspondent of the turf's 'Daily Racing Form'

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What makes Willie run? There is no single answer: it's a combination of many things. Take, for instance, the preparation for his career. When Hartack was still an exercise boy, shortly after his 19th birthday, he spent the winter of 1951-52 at Tropical Park in Miami, galloping horses for Virginia McKenney. She had a sizable stable, but the horses were mostly platers, moderate-priced horses of every kind and description.

"Some were heavy-headed," Willie recalls, "and you had to keep yanking on them while you were riding. Some lugged in to the rail, others bore out, some bucked, others wheeled. Almost all had some trait I had to cope with, traits which I've come across many hundreds of times since." It was the most liberal kind of education a boy could receive in the art of horsemanship with cheap stock, the kind of mount a jockey handles in the average claiming race. There is quite a difference between the characteristics and mannerisms of a good horse and a cheap horse. Many of our younger riders, who have been rushed into the saddle before they were ready because it has become too expensive to take the time to train them properly, are not equipped to handle the many minor emergencies that constantly arise during the running of a race. Chance kept Hartack on the ground until he was ready.

In working the McKenney horses in Florida Hartack also broke from the gate hundreds of times. He took advantage of every opportunity to learn something about the difficult art of getting away from the barrier. He would try a short hold on the reins, he would try a long hold, always testing, always probing. It was not with the idea of becoming a nice rider, either. Hartack admits that he gave little thought to the idea at the time. It was done simply because whatever this boy does he wants to do well. Perfection is a fetish with him, and he wanted to be the best exercise boy on the track.


In the course of his constant work from the gate Hartack discovered something, a formula which he guards closely and which enables him to break on top in most cases even with a horse of inferior quality, an advantage which gives him an important choice of positions on the track from which he can launch his next move. It also has helped to shape his style. Willie is what is known in racing as a gang-buster. He likes to run in front all the way. In this respect, he is in contrast with Shoemaker, who likes to hang back and wait as long as possible with a horse.

Hartack reasons this way: If you're out in front you're usually out of trouble, which is one of a rider's most important responsibilities. In addition he says: "The only thing you can do with most cheap horses is to scuffle all the way and just keep after them any way you can. The second you try to rate them [take them back off the pace] or use a little judgment or any of the things that make a good, intelligent ride of the kind that you can put up on a good horse, they'll spit out the bit." It is this penchant for merely letting horses run which many veteran trainers feel is a major factor in Hartack's success.

Hartack has an active, inquiring mind. He asks a lot of questions, studies the film patrol pictures of races with unusual thoroughness and spots flaws not only in his own technique but that of his opponents. He spots traits of horses, too, in the films and is quick to capitalize on whatever he sees. The pictures often help him to select one mount over another, and he is right more often than he is wrong as his record proves.

He is an avid reader, too, unlike most of his colleagues, and here again he is all business. He spends little time on light matter, pores over trade journals with remarkable thoroughness, and his retentiveness is matched only by his voracity. He is a walking encyclopedia about horses he has ridden or raced against ever since he accepted his first mount. Each evening, wherever he is riding—in Maryland, Florida, Chicago or New Jersey—he will check recent charts and past performances in The Daily Racing Form for hours, discussing salient features with his astute agent, 29-year-old Chick Lang. It is from such data that he learns more about which horse is inclined to be through early, which will go on, which has been bothered in a previous race, and which has no excuse. No surgeon pores over X-rays and clinical histories before an operation with more thoroughness than Hartack does with his information before the next day's work. It is information available to all. Few bother to use it to maximum advantage as does Hartack.

Bill's strength cannot be underestimated either. Of sturdy, Slavic-American stock, he is a bit taller than the average rider at 5 feet 3 inches tall, weighs only 112 pounds, yet has powerful arms and legs. Lang observes that he has won many a wrestling match with much heavier men, a fact which the writer can substantiate from personal experience. The layman may not regard race riding as an athletic sport in the sense that football or baseball is, but for a light boy to control a speeding 1,000-pound package of Thoroughbred horseflesh is no simple task and real fitness is required.

Hartack is also hyperactive, almost a thyroid case. He never sits when he can stand, never walks when he can run, and he can do without food or sleep for amazing periods of time. He wants to ride the complete card, be it eight or nine races, and argues loud and long with Lang when he is forced to sit in the dressing room for even a single race. The 1,702 mounts he handled last year set a new American record, yet before and between races he will play a strenuous game of ping-pong with anyone he can find for an opponent, and after the races will kick a football around or play softball (first base) in the twi-night league that many race tracks set up for riders and employees during the summer months. And, just as with the races, he wants to win these ball games badly and is the picture of concentration in the field or at bat. There are several sports he has nothing to do with simply because he isn't as proficient in them as he thinks he should be, and when Hartack makes up his mind nothing can change it.

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