Johnny Longden Up

Meet Johnny Longden, the boy who stepped out of an Alberta coal mine to become one of the most fabulously successful jockeys in the history of the turf

JIM COLEMAN July 15 1944

Johnny Longden Up

Meet Johnny Longden, the boy who stepped out of an Alberta coal mine to become one of the most fabulously successful jockeys in the history of the turf

JIM COLEMAN July 15 1944

Johnny Longden Up

Meet Johnny Longden, the boy who stepped out of an Alberta coal mine to become one of the most fabulously successful jockeys in the history of the turf


IN A BUSINESS which abounds in celebrated screwballs it is notable that two of the world’s best jockeys are Canadians. It is notable, too, that these Canadians are among the coolest, most clearheaded and most, provident representatives of their craft. These undersized gentlemen are Johnny Longden and George Woolf.

Longden and Woolf grew tip together in southern Alberta, a section of the country which has produced many other great riders, but this story is concerned with Longden because he is one of the most fabulously successful figures in the history of the turf.

In the first place, he has ridden nearly 2,200 winners —a feat excelled only by those two Britons, Gordon Richards and the late Fred Archer. In the second place, the mounts which he rode last year won a total of $573,276, a world’s record. In the third place, he has more money than any of the Balkan Countries and the story of his rise would make the average Horatio Alger hero look like an arrant sissy.

Longden was born in Wakefield, England, 34 years ago, but his parents brought him to Canada when he was no taller than a mail-order catalogue. As a matter of fact he isn’t much taller now he stands only four feet 10 inches, a fact which annoys him excessively, and he wears lifts in his brogans to fool the public. His wife is of average height and he demands that she wear low-heeled shoes so that they can appear together in public without causing a traffic jam.

Johnny inherited his small stature. His father was more than a «hade on the small side. In fact it is recorded that when the Longden family first went to work for a farmer in the Taber district of southern Alberta, Longden Père didn’t report for supper one night. This caused some astonishment because invariably he was well up among the leaders in the race for the evening victuals. When he failed to appear even in time for the pie course, it was realized something was amiss and a search party was organized. They found him sitting hopefully in the excavation for a potato cellar—a project on which he had been

working. He had dug the hole so deep he couldn’t climb out.

Being a farm boy, Johnny soon learned about horses, and as a youngster he indulged in some of that whoop-de-doo bareback riding around the smaller country fairs. When he left school to earn a living he went right into the coal mines, where his diminutive stature was a blessing—he was one of the few miners who could stand upright in the underground workings. Incidentally, that hard labor in the mines was responsible for the terrific development of his arms and shoulders, two things which have helped to make him a great rider.

Cardston and Taber are centres of the Mormon sect and, inevitably, Johnny came under the influence of that church. The Mormon “mecca” is Salt Lake City in Utah and in 1925, while still in his teens, he decided to visit the mother temple. He travelled to Salt lake City by railway, but being a keen enthusiast for the open air he patronized the side-door Pullmans.

It was purely coincidental that he arrived in Salt Lake City about the time that the racing season opened there. I hesitate to suggest that he shirked his religious obligations but, in some mysterious manner, he managed to get out to the race track every morning. It was there that he met a stalwart steed named Hugo K. Asher.

Hugo was an individualist among horses. He could run like a gazelle but he objected strenuously to anyone riding him. Jockeys who attempted to ride Hugo K. Asher were considered to be very poor insurance risks.

There was a deep and abiding affection between Hugo K. Asher and his owner but, in his own peculiar way, Hugo was something of a liability. There was no money in the kitty unless Hugo won races, and Hugo couldn’t win races unless he would permit someone to ride him. Things were getting so bad at Salt Lake that Hugo and his owner were sharing the same pail of oats.

At this juncture young Longden approached Hugo’s owner and pleaded for a chance to ride the equine

desperado in a race. The owner looked down at his own ribs, which were protruding through his skin and rattled like a set of castanets when he walked. Hugo’s owner decided to take a chance—after all, Longden didn’t look as if anyone would miss him if Hugo happened to toss him into a low-hanging cloud bank.

Strong men still shudder when they recall the sight that Longden presented on his first trip to the post. Jim Donovan was the starter at Salt Lake and his chief assistant was a salty character rejoicing in the name of “Wampus” Fuller. Donovan then was—-and still is—the official starter on the western Canadian racing circuit and the late-lamented “Wampus” also was a colorfully decorative adjunct to the Canadian racing scene until he departed this life a year ago.

Donovan recalls the scene as if it were yesterday. He was climbing into the starter’s stand when “Wampus,” white and obviously badly shaken, approached. “Lord love me, Mr. Donovan,” said Fuller, “but do you see what I see?”

Donovan took a quick look, wiped his hands across his eyes and vowed that the prohibition beer in Utah was stronger than anyone had imagined. Longden had arrived at the post on Hugo K. Asher. He was wearing the regulation jockeys’ silks, but in addition he was wearing a pair of beaded Indian gauntlets, which came up to his elbows. While Donovan looked on, scarcely daring to believe his eyes, Longden calmly dismounted and proceeded to unsaddle good old Hugo —Johnny was going to ride the steed bareback!

Taking a firm grip on himself, Donovan explained to the bewildered Longden that The Jockey Club was a little bit stuffy about horses being ridden bareback on recognized race tracks.

Well, to cut it short, Hugo K. Asher finished second. Johnny Longden had ridden his first race and, although it was several years before he rode again, he knew then that he was going to be a jockey.

The story of Longden’s return to Canada is a chapter in itself, but, suffice to say, he discovered an Alberta car in the Salt Lake Fair Grounds and sat on

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the bumper until the two owners appeared. He scrambled into the back seat and stayed there for the entire trip. When his benefactors went into hotels at night Johnny slept on the back seat of the car—he was afraid that they might leave without him. Afterward, when he became a wealthy man, he rewarded his unwilling hosts by financing their business ventures.

It wasn’t until 1927 that L. P. Jacques and Fred Johnston, two Calgary horsemen, gave Johnny his chance to be a regular hard boot. In the meantime he had been clerking in a cigar store.

He rode with increasing success on the Western fair circuit and in California but fees were small and he made a bare living. He and his wife were flatter than soup on a plate on Christmas Eve, 1931, when Johnny showed signs of budding business acumen by wagering $2 on an 80-1 shot in California. He rode Bahamas, which set the pace for the immortal Phar Lap in the 1932 Agua Caliente Handicap, and by the end of the winter racing season he had amassed a bank roU of $2,000.

It was then that he learned a lesson. He stuck his money in a California bank. Two days later President Roosevelt declared the famous “bank holiday.” They say that Johnny was the first man in the line when the bank reopened. He put his money in a shoe box and he slept with the box under his bed. When he arrived back in Calgary that spring he was carrying his money in the box under his arm. He conducted extensive research into the Canadian banking situation and eventually divided his money among five or six Calgary branches. Even now he distrusts American banks and patronizes the Canadian institutions—plenty of them, so that he won’t be caught with his cheque book down if one bank collapses.

Johnny rode for many owners but he didn’t gain international prominence until 1936 when he hooked up with Alf Tarn, a Winnipeg horseman, and rode Rushaway, the famous “Iron Horse.” Longden piloted Rushaway to victories in the Illinois and Louisiana Derbys on successive days. In 1938 Longden became the leading rider in America, winning 236 races.

Since then his services have been in demand by the great stables of the country and he struck his own personal bonanza when he signed up with the establishment of Mrs. John D. Hertz and was introduced to a gangling yearling named Count Fleet.

When Johnny is riding Count Fleet he is riding the gravy-train. Count Fleet is a runnin’ boss, suh—the fastest horse of our day—and it doesn’t look as if they’ll beat him unless a rival owner shoots him from ambush. Last year lie won the Wood Memorial, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, the Withers Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. He won them so easily that Longden’s only worry was his income tax returns.

Incidentally, Mrs. Hertz has had singular success with Canadian employees. She has won two Kentucky Derbys, the first in 1928 with Reigh Count, and the other with Count Fleet. Reigh Count was trained by Bert Michel, Calgary, and ridden by Chick Lang, Hamilton. Count Fleet was ridden by Longden and trained by Don Cameron, a native Winnipegger.

Knocks Down $2,300 Monthly

Longden is a wealthy man now. His mounts won $573,276 last year and it is probable that he received $50,000 in

fees and bonuses from happy owners. In addition he received $1,500 per month from Mrs. Hertz, and from Trainer Jim Fitzsimmons, who had “second call” on his services, he received another $800 monthly—which isn’t alfalfa.

In many respects Longden is the antithesis of the average jockey. He isn’t eccentric; he isn’t colorful. He doesn’t eat light globes or razor blades like Paul Keiper, a rider who is held in some awe by his fellows. Unlike Don Meade and Eddie Arcare, he doesn’t get into the newspapers and into jams with the stewards by betting on races. Unlike Conn McCreary he doesn’t blow kisses to his admirers when his mount is galloping along in front of the field.

The problem of increasing weight doesn’t worry him unduly. He has scaled around 105 pounds for many years and he doesn’t show any signs of bulging at the seams. If at times he feels impelled to dine unwisely on lush and fatty viands, he can jump into the steam box and get back to normal within a few hours.

He has a well-proportioned, splendidly muscled torso but his legs are short enough to give the impression that he is walking in a rut. His voice is high and sharp and any tavern waiter who saw Longden from the rear and heard him talk would give him the heave ho, under the impression that a minor was trying to crash the gate.

Two things have contributed to Longden’s success as a jockey. In the first place he is an excellent judge of pace. Instinctively he knows the precise moment at which to call on his mount for the supreme effort. He can take a horse into the lead in a race and restrain him slightly so that he will be able to beat off any challenges from his competitors in the closing stages of the race. This, of course, is elementary stuff for regular race trackers but for the benefit of the uninitiated, it is known as “rating” a horse. Longden is equally adept at letting some rival set the pace and then giving his own mount its head for the run through the homestretch. A good judge of pace knows instinctively how close he must keep to the pace setter.

The second thing that has contributed to his success is that Longden keeps his mouth shut—an attribute which endears him to veteran trainers. He follows a trainer’s instructions to the final letter.

It is axiomatic that most great jockeys know enough to keep their mouths shut and heed the trainer’s advice. It stands to reason that a trainer is better-equipped than a jockey to know the peculiarities of an individual horse—and horses are individuals!

Smart-alecky riders who refuse to heed a trainer’s advice have been responsible for getting many a good mount beaten. A good jockey can help a horse to win a race; any kind of a jockey can make a horse lose a race.

As I said, Longden listens to advice from the men who train the horses. If you doubt the efficacy of this system, I suggest that you examine Longden’s record. Longden has a good head and a good body. He keeps his mouth shut, his eyes open, and more than once he has used those supple wrists and steelsinewed arms to “lift” a tiring horse through that last crucial sixteenth of a mile to the finish-line.

Among riders his only eccentricity is the fact that he has saved his money. Perhaps he recalls the days when he worked underground in that coal mine near Lethbridge. Longden has joined the ranks of the landed gentry. He owns a ranch m Nevada and he has

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