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Still another feature of the Hartack system of producing winners involves the warmup before each race. Many riders are content merely to parade to the post but, as many horsemen have pointed out, when Willie warms up a horse it's almost the equivalent of a workout. When Hartack's mount approaches the gate he has worked up a good sweat and is loose and limber and ready to run. Hartack also uses the warmup for experimentation and further fact-finding. Some horses are sore-mouthed and shy from a tug on the reins; others run best with their heads held high; still others have peculiarities of gait and stride and habit which only an alert boy will discover.
Hartack is a superior whip rider. He'll teach a horse to respect his stick during the warmup and has the additional advantage of being a natural lefty. Horses are, for the most part, accustomed to severe sticking from the right side, and the surprise of a sharp rap on the port flanks frequently accomplishes wonders in getting that little extra out of them that wins races. In addition many horses lug in, that is, veer toward the inside rail during the running of a race. A hard, left-handed whipper will bring them out to a straight, true course and incidentally save himself from many suspensions caused by bothering competitors along the inside where most of the action takes place. On the other hand, sticking left-handed presents certain problems, particularly through the stretch where the whip hand is obscured from view of the stands. Many trainers have indignantly asked Hartack why he didn't go to the whip as ordered, and Bill has to show them the welts that his stick left before they believe him.
The trade knows Hartack as a busy, intelligent rider. Watch him during the running of a race. He will scrub on one side of a mount, switch to the other side immediately if he feels he is not getting the proper response. He will stick on the legs, on the flanks, on the withers, peppering his shots to keep a horse going. Occasionally, when he has a lot of horse in hand, he will whirl his stick in a rapid arc. Riders behind him are frequently deceived into believing that he is calling on his mount and has nothing left for the drive. They come up to challenge, squandering their reserve prematurely, only to see Hartack let loose a notch on his reins and draw away again.
Courage is another vital requisite of a top rider, and patrol judges around the nation observe that Hartack has the heart of a lion. He will come through narrow openings on the rail time and again to save valuable ground, risking serious injury, intent on only one thing—winning the race. Hartack's single-mindedness carries over into whatever he does. When he plays baseball, when he plays cards, when he reads the paper—that's the most important thing in the world for him at that moment, and he resents distraction. Trainers have thrown him up on a horse who is starting for the first time that season and cautioned him, "Don't abuse this colt. If you can win it, go ahead, but don't kill him." Billy has told them all the same thing: "You've got the wrong boy, Mister, if you expect me to take it easy. I just hope you have him fit to run." And the word has gone around that Hartack is death on a short horse. But it is his tremendous desire and pride in performance that makes Hartack the great rider that he is, that has tinted his personality into sharply contrasting blacks and whites.
As a youngster he and his family had no easy time of it. Billy's father was a coal miner, and the Hartacks made their home in a small house in Black Lick, Pa., not far from Johnstown. His mother died in a tragic accident when a truck parked on the side of a steep hill broke loose without warning and crashed into a car carrying his parents and his younger sister, Maxine. All were injured, none but the mother fatally. So Hartack's father, William Sr., was burdened with the task of raising the family. He changed to the night shift so that he could be with the children (there is an older sister, too) during the day and get them off to school on time. The father, a small, wiry, athletic man who came from the old country as a boy, was a strict disciplinarian, still watches over Bill carefully whenever his son visits at home in Charles Town, W. Va. Bill is called Sonny around the house, incidentally, and hardly revels in the juvenile nickname.
An excellent student in school, Bill rarely ever brought a book home, as his father recalls, yet had a retentive mind and graduated from Black Lick Township High School as valedictorian of his class. Always a small boy, he never participated much in sports but was very interested in music and made the all-county band as a drummer on a number of occasions. When he was 18 he tried to enlist in the Navy but was turned down because of his weight. It was one of the luckiest breaks of his life. A friend of the family, Andy Bruno, whose father worked in the mines with the senior Hartack, was a jockey's agent and eventually persuaded Bill's father to let him take the boy to the race track where money was to be made. Bill saw his first race at the small track at Charles Town, began by walking hots (cooling horses after exercise) for Norman (Junie) Corbin, a young horseman who made the West Virginia and Ohio circuits.
Corbin, a tall, easygoing sort, hit it off with Bill from the start. After a period of apprenticeship around the barn Bill began to exercise horses and naturally made mistakes. Yet Junie never criticized him openly or told him in specific terms what to do. He suggested certain techniques but left Bill largely to his own devices, and the intelligent boy would rarely repeat an error.
With the 1951 winter of experience with the McKenney horses behind him Billy went back with Corbin that spring and was ready when he got up for the first time at Waterford Park on October 11, 1952, just two months shy of his 20th birthday. He rode 36 winners out of 172 mounts that fall for an excellent percentage of .21 (.20 or more is considered good) and hasn't been stopped since. He was the sensation of the half-mile tracks in the eastern U.S. in 1953, rode some 80 winners during the fall meeting at Waterford Park.
Usually when a rider loses his five-pound allowance, as Hartack did on October 14 (a year from the day he rode his first winner), he tends to slow down, and the heavy play goes to another rider or hot bug boy at the meeting. Here was another break for Billy, because he was about the only one doing well at the Waterford Park session, and he continued to get the live mounts. Without the horses even an Arcaro can't win.