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This guy has gotten too big and too smart. He'll never ride another horse for me."
The speaker was Fred W. Hooper, president of the American Thoroughbred Owners Association. The object of his ire was William John Hartack Jr., one of the most successful jockeys in the world and the problem child of horse racing who has the mount on this year's Kentucky Derby favorite Easy Spur.
It was last February 21 when Hartack astounded Owner Hooper and Hialeah's biggest crowd in two years. He had gone to the post on Hooper's Greek Circle, a 4-to-5 favorite. At the post Hartack said his horse was sore and asked a veterinarian to look him over. The vet examined the horse and pronounced him fit to race. Hartack, however, disagreed and refused to ride Greek Circle. The Hialeah management, worried about television time commitments (TV is the new apprentice dictator at U.S. race tracks), ended the delay by scratching Greek Circle, costing themselves a new pari-mutuel betting record. There was $136,089 bet on Hooper's runner which had to be returned. When Hooper went down to the track to find out what was wrong, Hartack walked away; all he would say was "the horse is sore."
The soreness has never been proved or disproved, but the fact is established that Fred Hooper and a lot of other racing people are sore—at Hartack. He has become the most controversial character in American racing, and American racing doesn't like controversy. He is the Ted Williams of the turf, and, indeed, he professes great admiration for Williams. Hartack was on the same plane as Williams a few weeks ago but didn't care to introduce himself; "I'd like to meet him, but I didn't know how to approach him," Hartack said the other day. "I've always admired him. A couple of times when he spat at the fans he was right. And when he was fined, I think he was right, too. If the fans would only put themselves in his shoes and have to take the guff and stuff they'd go crazy. But as I say, I don't want people coming and introducing themselves all the time."
The Greek Circle incident was only one in a series which has been building Hartack's unenviable reputation. The latest occurred at Gulf-stream Park, where they are running now. Hartack rode in four races, and suddenly told the clerk of scales to take him off his remaining mounts. He failed to ask permission of the stewards, and was fined $100.
The story was headlined as another instance of Hartack's bad behavior, but the jockey's agent, Chick Lang, has a good explanation: "Billy had ridden a 2-year-old in a three-furlong race the day before. Two hundred yards out of the gate he was hooting and hollering and his upper denture fell out and into the mud. He's very self-conscious about wearing his plate, and he had another denture at home. He wore it out to the races the next day and it cut the inside of his mouth. The story in the newspapers said his mouth was full of mud and so he canceled his rides. But his mouth was full of blood, too, and that's why he canceled."
Hartack's personality first became a matter of serious public discussion last September when he and apprentice James Johnson had a post-race fight in the jocks' room at Atlantic City. He drew a 15-day suspension for that, as well as censorious comment from Charles Hatton, a senior racing correspondent, who wrote gravely in The Morning Telegraph: "Jockey-ship as a profession has dignity, a tradition of sportsmanship imparted to it by such great little men as Isaac Murphy, Sir Gordon Richards, Earl Sande, (Eddie) Arcaro, George Woolf, Johnny Longden and Charlie Elliott. Small in stature, they were big enough for success. Hartack, nor any other rider, has the right to jeopardize the higher repute of jockeyship. He will remain Willie here until such time as he matures to Bill." (This last was an allusion to the diminutive which Hartack dislikes—William, Bill and Billy are all right with him, but not Willie.)
Hartack is not afraid to sustain a running feud with the press. Earlier this year, when he was about to serve a 10-day suspension for careless riding, he read in the Miami Daily News a statement by Racing Reporter Dick Kumble that "Hartack bounces up and down like a rubber ball and amazes purists by winning as many races as he does." The jockey retorted on a Miami TV show that "I knew him [Kumble] when he first came around the track. He didn't know anything then. He wouldn't know a horse if he slept with one."
Hartack has quarreled with owners, trainers, jockeys and reporters; now he is at odds with officials. His own attitude is other than remorseful: "I know racing has given me a chance to make a lot of money [over $1 million], but I also know that I'm in my position in racing today because of the fact that I get the horses down in front. Some say that racing has given me everything. It did not. I do not fit into racing's plans, racing fits into my plans. Take a look through the years and you'll see that if you are not near the top in racing then you are not wanted."
This undiplomatic independence is the key to his hard-to-get-along-with disposition. That, and, some say, a slightly swollen head. There is, however, a warm side to his character. His 19-year-old sister, Maxine, who is at the University of Miami, says, "I think he is terrific. He gives me everything I want. For Christmas he gave me a lot of new clothes. And he gave me a beautiful opal ring."