The price I’ve paid to stay in racing
Longden has been thrown, kicked and rolled on by wild-eyed thousand-pound thoroughbreds for thirty-one years. Five times doctors have said he would never ride again. Now the famous jockey tells how he always came back
Ten hours after a horse spilled under me on a muddy track at Arlington Downs in Texas in 1935 I regained consciousness in a Dallas hospital and realized I'd never again ride a race horse. I was paralyzed from the waist down and the doctor came into my room and told me as gently as he could that I was through as a jockey.
JOHNNY LONGDEN TELLS HIS OWN STORY • PART III
Longderfs legendary horsemanship
a V er t s neard i sa ster
in this unique photo-sequence
Ten hours after a horse spilled under me on a muddy track at Arlington Downs in Texas in 1935 I regained consciousness in a Dallas hospital and realized I'd never again ride a race horse. I was paralyzed from the waist down and the doctor came into my room and told me as gently as he could that I w'as through as a jockey.
This was the worst accident I ever experienced in my thirty-one years as a rider but the strange thing is I can't remember that horse’s name. It was a Hawaiian name and the spill set in motion one of the most fascinating periods of my life, but I haven't been able to lay tongue to that horse's name for years.
Well, no matter. For a month 1 had no feeling in the lower half of -my body and as I kfy there in the hospital 1 wondered what I w'as going to do with my life. I know I w'asn't afraid. I hated the knowledge that a crippled man could not race a thoroughbred but I rejected all thought ot going back to the mines of Taber, the little southern Alberta town where I grew up.
1 had a fierce yearning to stay in racing, one way or another.
This wasn't my first serious spill, nor was it to be the last. In fact, over the years there have been five separate occasions on which doctors have told me I’d never ride again. But this was the only time I ever felt they might he right. I've been stepped on. kicked, rolled on and throwm by wild-eyed thousand-pound thoroughbreds. I've had a broken back, a broken collarbone, a broken foot twice and a broken leg three times. Ribs? I couldn’t even guess the number of ribs I've had broken or the number of times I've been knocked unconscious. Once, at the old Whittier Park track in Winnipeg, I was in a coma for ten days after a spill. I’ve had half a dozen concussions, and just three years ago 1 had arthritis so bad that I couldn't move my left arm back past my hip and therefore wxis unable to use my whip on the left side of my horse.
A jockey must accept these things. Racing is a dangerous game and injuries have ended the careers of many men and ended the lives of others. I was there at Santa Anita the day my boyhood friend, Georgie Woolf, one of the greatest riders I ever saw, was killed in a spill twelve years ago. Gcorgic's dad kept horses on a farm near Raymond, not far from Taber, and we used to ride them as kids. Years later, when George had become famous as "The Iceman” because of the cold disregard he had for danger, he sneaked up on the rail on a horse called Bymcabond to beat me out of the $100,000 Santa Anita Derby when I figured I had it won on the best filly I ever rode, one called Busher.
That was in 1945 and less than a year later Georgie rode his last race. It was on Jan. 3. 1946. The accident itself was a freak as race-track accidents go. As the field of six horses swung into the clubhouse turn after racing down past the grandstand in the fourth race. Georgie had Please Me running well, winging along on the rail clear of all interference, w'hen suddenly he seemed to stumble. The unexpectedness of the move
threw Georgie off balance and he fell to the track on his head. I kept watching for him to get up but he just lay there. He never regained consciousness and the next day he died in hospital. But. as I say. danger is inherent in our business, and not many of us think about it. In my own case, there was just that one occasion, in 1935. when I figured my own career might be ended.
That time, feeling began returning to my lower body after about a month, and 1 started getting around on crutches. One day I read in the paper that there was a horse sale at Houston so 1 went over, thinking there might be one I could pick up cheap and that way stay in racing as an owner. 1 saw' a horse I liked and after some early bidding 1 offered a thousand dollars. The horse looked too good to go at that price but. to my surprise, there were no further bids and 1 had myself a race horse. His name was Crow n Head. I learned soon enough why no one had topped my bid.
At the Arlington Downs track the next morning I took Crown Head to the startinggate and he simply went wild when a groom tried to lead him into it. It was then that an assistant starter, who was working the gate, told me that Crown Head was an outlaw.
An outlaw is a horse that for one reason or another has been barred from the tracks. Crown Head’s reason was that no one had ever been able to get him into the gate. The stew'ards can't hold up races indefinitely for one horse so they rule him off.
I had been riding for the Winnipeg owner A. G. (A1 f) Tarn when I'd been hurt and he was shipping his horses from Texas to Florida. He told me he'd take Crown Head to Miami with his horses if I still wanted to keep him. I decided to keep him but 1 recognized what a pathetic pair we made: a jockey who'd never ride again with a horse who'd been branded an outlaw.
In Miami I began to grow' stronger and I started walking horses and ponying horses for Mr. Tarn. Then one day when 1 felt real strong 1 jumped on Crown Head’s bare back and took him for a gallop. What a wonderful feeling it was; old Crown Head just seemed to fly. It took me back to the days I'd ridden bareback in Alberta w'hen I'd herded cows as a boy and later ridden in the quarterhorse races at the fairs in Raymond and Lethbridge and Taber and the other southern Alberta towns.
Around the barn I began talking softly to Crown Head as he stood in his stall and I started bringing him apples. Pretty soon he began to look for me in the mornings. I went to the starter. Buddy Windfield, and I asked him if he'd help me school Crown Head at the starting gate. Buddy consented but the horse simply wouldn’t go near that gate.
One morning I was standing with him in front of the gate and I had an inspiration.
"Hey, Buddy.” I said to Windfield. "how about if you open that gate and I try backing him in? " The normal method of entering a horse in a gate is to lead him into his stall from the rear side.
Buddy opened the gate and Crown Head backed into one of continued on page 32
Johnny Longden tells his own story continued from page 23
ought about what those steel-shod hoofs can do to him
the stalls as calm as a lamb. Then we closed the gate and he stood there nice and easy. When Buddy sprang the doors, old Crown Head came thundering out of that gate like Man o’ War.
Galloping Crown Head bareback seem-
ed to help me, too, and soon I had my strength completely back and was ready to ride again. The rules of racing do not permit a jockey to own a horse so I sold Crown Head to Mr. Tarn. We satisfied the stewards that he would behave at the
gate, and entered him in a race. A groom backed him into his stall and he went in without a fuss. We won the race. As a matter of fact, Crown Head won nine straight races and turned out to be one of the best buys Mr. Tarn ever made.
And, of course, I kept right on riding. I guess it was because of this experience that I’ve never been able to go along with the doctors who tell me I'm through. My own philosophy about the dangers of riding is that you’re as apt to be hit by a car on the street as hurt by a horse on the race track. No jockey would last long if he stopped to think about what steelshod hoofs that can travel a mile in a minute and a half might do to him. I guess I’m a fatalist. I used to like that popular song, Whatever Will Be, Will Be. That sums it up. A jockey does give it some thought, I’ll confess, when it happens to him. I remember once I won a race with a horse called With Regards and I was unsaddling him when he suddenly turned so that his back was to me and let me have it in the stomach with both hind feet. I keeled over, the wind knocked out of me. This is a weird sensation, as though someone has slammed a door full in your face. For a split second you see a pool of white light and then a dark curtain drops across the pool. But in the great majority of my accidents everything seems to be numb when it first happens and then afterward, in the ambulance or in the hospital, the pain starts to come. I was riding a filly called Dine and Dance at the Jamaica track outside New York one time and I was about four or five lengths in front. We were heading down the stretch when a piece of paper blew across the track and the filly reared. She went right over the rail and I landed on it and bounced back on the race track. Eddie Arcaro was coming up behind me and he couldn’t do anything but run right over me and so he went down, too. They took us to the race-track hospital and they were looking us over when the pain came in my foot and I knew it was badly hurt. But I didn’t want to say anything about it because the next day I was booked to ride in the $50,000 Butler Handicap on a horse called First Fiddle. A man named Eddie Mulrehan owned First Fiddle and he didn’t want anybody else to ride him because the horse seemed to run for me where he wouldn’t run for anybody else. That night I called up a doctor I knew and went over to see him. He took X-rays and, as I’d suspected, my foot was broken. I called up Eddie Mulrehan and told him. “My gawd, John, that’s awful,” Eddie said. “How are you feeling?” I knew what he was getting at, so I told him I’d ride First Fiddle the next day if he wanted me to. “Well, I want you to, all right, but do you want to risk it?” “Listen, it’s your purse,” I said. “If you’re game enough to let me ride him, I’ll ride him.” The next day I got the doctor to stuff my foot full of novocaine, and he pumped it in till I thought he’d break his needle. Boy, that foot was “dead” for sure. We got a bad start in the Butler, but First Fiddle was a game horse and we began picking up the field one by one and we came on in the stretch to win the race. That night I had to go to the hospital to have a cast put on my foot and the next morning I wanted to get out of bed but I couldn’t. My back bothered me.
They took X-rays of it. I had two broken vertebrae. So I’d won the Butler Handicap with a broken foot and a broken
I had to be put in a cast. The doctor said I might never ride again. And I was out for six months.
Sometimes you’re more scared when a horse doesn’t go down than when he Joes. I mean when he falls it happens so fast that you’re really not aware of it until afterward. But when he doesn’t fall but feels as though he might you can sometimes feel the beginnings of panic. 1 remember riding a horse called Rich Mixture at Santa Anita who hit the stretch four lengths on top. But the horses that pull the starting gate had begun to move the gate in the infield in preparation for the next race. Their movement caught my eye and I guess it taught Rich Mixture’s eye because he ¡just went haywire.
He bolted toward the outside fence, iway from the frightening movement in the infield, and I thought for a moment lie was going to jump the fence and run vild in the grandstand area. I went to vork on him with my hands and whip md with my right leg, and I beat him hard on the right side of his head to keep liim from crashing the fence. I got him straightened out, but he was wild-eyed. He went right down the outside rail and he won the race in a photo-finish. Sure, 1 was scared for a minute there. I just didn’t know what that horse was going to do.
No time to bail out
Another time, a couple of years ago at Hollywood Park, I was in front on this horse Tribal Chief when, for no apparent reason, he started pulling up at the eighth pole—that is, with an eighth of a mile to go. I got into him with the whip and when I did he ducked sideways and bounced into the aluminum rail, put a dent in it and bounced right back onto the track again, still running. The collision jarred me loose from the saddle and I went right over the side of the horse.
But some sixth sense told me the horse wasn’t going to go down, so instead of bailing out I grabbed his mane. They told me afterward that I’d gone over so far that no one could see me from the grandstand while that horse was roaring down the track.
Well, I was clutching his mane and then my feet hit the rail and I used it as a springboard to vault back up into the saddle. I’ll tell you frankly, I don’t know how the hell I did it. My horse was fourth as we went under the wire and I finished the race without my feet in the stirrups or my hands on the reins. I was still clutching that handful of mane.
Back in 1949 I was up on a horse called Kit Carson. This was more than just another horse—it was owned and trained by my son Vance. Kit Carson was really the first horse Vance had trained since he'd graduated from college as a veterinarian. He had, naturally, a great sentimental attachment for it.
Anyway we were racing at Tanforan, near San Francisco, and we were in front by five lengths and in no trouble. Then I could feel this horse start to go. One of his front legs seemed to be crumbling and he was behaving like a table that suddenly loses one of its legs. I took hold of the reins with everything I had in my arms and shoulders and hands; I kept his head up and he didn't go down although he felt like he had to go down all the way to the wire.
As we discovered after the race, he’d somehow broken a whole mess of bones
around his knee. We realized we’d have to have him destroyed. This was an awful blow to Vance. But he called the track vet and I’ll never forget the picture of him standing in the stall beside his horse, holding him while the vet prepared a needle of strychnine. The tears were rolling down Vance’s cheeks, and then he and the doctor quickly jumped back when the vet plunged the needle into Kit Carson’s neck. The horse reared straight up in the air, as they do. and then he fell down dead the instant the strychnine hit his heart.
I’ve had many a near-spill like that one on Kit Carson, but it's not always the horses that provide a sense of danger in a race, not directly anyway. You feel it when you're in a race with new jockeys just starting out. They don’t quite know what they're doing or where they’re going and they can make it bad.
You kind of have to ride for those new jocks, figuring all the possible things they might do and being ready for anything. With an old rider, like Arcaro or Westrope or Shoemaker, you know exactly what he's going to do in a given
situation. A young boy might head for a hole and then change his mind and go the other way or pull his horse up quickly. When he does that he’s apt to go down and if you’re not anticipating him you're apt to go down with him.
I suppose I caused the older boys more than their share of trouble when I was a young jockey. Back in the early Thirties on the prairie circuit of western Canada I remember an afternoon at Whittier Park in Winnipeg when I went down three times in the first three races! One of those horses, Silent Sweetheart, was
in front by a full ten lengths, and fell.
But there were unusual circumstances that day. The weather was murky and drizzling, and the track was deep in mud. After the third race, Judge George Schilling, the presiding steward, held up the races and ordered that the track be disked. After that, I won four races in a row. There are stories, apparently, that I was known as Jockey Fall-Off in those days but I must say I never heard the term until just recently when somebody asked me about it. It was news to me.
I had one bad spill at Whittier on a horse called Brookwood. When he went down the horses behind us had no way of avoiding me as I lay on the track, cradling my head in my arms. Their hoofs kept thudding into my back and into the back of my neck. Then I was out cold. I was in a coma for ten days, and that was another time the doctors said it was unlikely I’d ever ride again if, indeed, I ever came out of the coma. But no bones were broken and I was all right once I came to.
I suppose the closest call I ever had —although what I’m about to tell you is only hearsay because I was unconscious —came up at San Francisco’s lavish Golden Gate Fields. It was two summers ago and we had just walked onto the track from the paddock and were parading to the post. I was riding a horse called I’m Going which had a tendency, during a race, to pull to his right. To try to correct this, the trainer had put a blinker on his right eye. The left side was clear—a one-eyed blinker, in other words.
Well, I guess I’m Going didn’t agree with the therapy because he suddenly broke off from the post parade and bolted toward the rail. He jumped the rail, throwing me clear over his head, and I landed in a deep drainage ditch on the other side. The horse fell into the ditch, too, with his right rear leg hung on the rail and the rest of him draped over me. I guess I lost consciousness when I hit the ditch because I don’t remember anything about this.
Jockey Ray York dismounted quickly and ran over to the ditch. When he got there the horse’s rear left leg was pawing convulsively and every time he moved, his foot hit me in the head. Luckily, the horse hadn’t panicked and he hadn’t yet kicked hard with that left hoof. Ray York jumped the fence and then very gently straddled I’m Going and talked soothingly to him while he took hold of his left leg with both hands to prevent him crushing my skull. Then other track hands arrived and the ambulance came and they got me out from under the horse.
Oh, there was one other thing. Usually those drainage ditches contain water. We’d had a long dry spell of weather, however, and the ditch was hard-caked with mud. Otherwise, I suppose I could have drowned.
The summer of 1955 produced my most painful experience, and it had nothing to do with an injury. I developed arthritis. I couldn’t move my left arm farther back than my hip. It seemed to settle in my elbows and knees and shoulders and it would bother me particularly after I’d come out of the sweatbox where I’d have to steam every day to keep my weight down. I hated that box. It made me mean and nasty. It was an ordeal for me to get into that box day after day and sweat off three or four pounds, and then be so dehydrated that I’d drink a couple of Cokes at home at night and that would put the weight right back on. My friend, jockey Jackie Westrope, told me one day, “John, if you don’t lay off that sweat-box and those Cokes, you’re finished.”
But I had to keep my . weight down and I had to quench my thirst and it was the well-known vicious circle.
Then one afternoon Wendell Cassidy, director of racing for Hollywood Park, called me into the stewards’ office. I hadn’t been riding well and the fans at the tracks had begun to boo me. This hurt deeply, although I tried not to show it and I told newspapermen who asked
me about it that I figured it was the prerogative of a racing fan who cheers a jockey when he wins a bet on him to boo the jockey when he loses. So I suspected what Mr. Cassidy wanted when he called me, and I was right.
“Give it up, Johnny,” he said, “before I’m forced to make you.”
It appeared that at last I really was through as a rider. Then a friend of mine, W. G. Gilmore, who’s head of a steel company in California that bears his name, suggested I consult a San Francisco doctor, Dr. Thomas Schulte, who had had some success with arthritics.
We were racing at Bay Meadows which is at San Mateo, just south of San Francisco, and Dr. Schulte came up to my apartment every other day and gave me a shot of something. I don't know what it was and Dr. Schulte declines to let me name it here because he says it is no panacea and he doesn’t want people who read this to think he has made some new discovery and feel he can help everybody.
Anyway, in addition to the shots he told me to get out of the sweat-box and go on a diet he prescribed to control my weight.
Well, sir, that was in January of 1956 and I got down to a hundred and five pounds, which I haven’t weighed in years, and I began slowly to feel better. The pain left me and I began to win again and it turned out that 1956 was the greatest racing year I ever had. I won three hundred and twenty races worth $1,609,627 in purses, both all-time highs for me. On Labor Day in the Del Mar Handicap I rode Arrogate for my 4,871st visit to the winner’s enclosure, which enabled me to pass Sir Gordon Richards as the world’s leading rider in point of races won.
I went along fine until last Aug. 9, again at Del Mar. By then I’d ridden 5,090 winners and people had begun to give up asking me when I was going to
retire. But on Aug. 9 a two-year-old filly named Royal Zaca, making her first trip to the post, reared and pinned my right leg against the starting gate, and broke it in two places just above the ankle. It twisted my foot to an angle of ninety degrees in relation to my leg. Jockey Willie Harmantz told my wife Hazel later that he thought he was going to be sick when he looked down into my stall and saw me reach down and straighten my foot and hang onto it until they put me on a stretcher. It didn’t hurt much until I was nearly to the hospital. Then it began to hurt real bad. I was two hours in surgery getting it straightened out. That was the fifth time it was suggested that I’d never ride again, mostly because of my age—forty-seven, or thereabouts.
But last February I fooled them. Although my leg was sore and caused me to limp considerably, I rode three winners at Santa Anita in my first couple of weeks back, one of them the Washington’s Birthday Handicap last Feb. 22 for a purse of $57,300. I rode an Irish-bred grey horse named Tall Chief II, and we came from dead last in the mile-anda-half race on the turf to win by half a length at odds of twelve to one. There was an added gratification for me: the horse is owned by William Gilmore, the friend who suggested I visit the San Francisco doctor in 1956.
I suppose the greatest thrill a jockey gets from a winning ride is when he comes from far behind on a long-shot. I’ve had my share of those thrills, particularly on a great Irish-bred named Noor who beat the illustrious Citation four straight times. One of those victories represented the most grueling and in some ways the best horse race I ever rode. I want to tell you about it, and about how a jockey can turn a horse into a winner, in the next article. ★
Part IV of Johnny Longden’s story will appear in the next issue of Maclean's.