JOHNNY LONGDEN tells his own story

Here, for the first time, history’s most successful jockey tells the story of his own rough-and-tumble race from an Alberta coal mine to pre-eminence on the race tracks of the world


JOHNNY LONGDEN tells his own story

Here, for the first time, history’s most successful jockey tells the story of his own rough-and-tumble race from an Alberta coal mine to pre-eminence on the race tracks of the world


JOHNNY LONGDEN tells his own story

Here, for the first time, history’s most successful jockey tells the story of his own rough-and-tumble race from an Alberta coal mine to pre-eminence on the race tracks of the world


Trent Frayne

I was earning my living on horseback when I was ten years old and except for two years when I worked underground in the coal mines of southern Alberta I’ve been earning it by riding horses ever since.

Nowadays I sometimes make ten thousand dollars for a two-minute ride on a thoroughbred, but when I was ten I was a cowboy, surely the youngest cowboy in Alberta's history, and I was earning a dollar a month for every cow I took grazing on the pasture lands outside Taber, where I grew up.


Irrigation had not come to Alberta when I was a boy and vast areas of rolling land were unfenced. People living in and around Taber needed someone to look after their cattle out on the grazing lands because, with no fences, the cows could wander twenty and thirty miles and more. I was going to school but 1 wanted to help out at home, where we had enough to cat but not much more. I used to scout around for neighbors who would let me look after their cows and some months I’d get as many as forty.

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I’d ride out with a herd early in the morning before school and then at noon I’d ride out again to drive the cows to the Oldman River to water them. After school in the late afternoon I’d gallop out once more to round up the strays and drive my herd back to Taber where the owners would collect their cows.

My family needed the money and I knew of no other way to help out. My father, Herb Longden, dug coal deep in the mines to eke out a meagre existence for Mary, my mother, and the six children. We lived in a clapboard house with three bedrooms. It was heated by a potbellied stove in the middle of the living room. There were no pipes leading to the other rooms and in the winter when the temperature would drop to thirty below 1 used to crawl into bed beside my brother Percy and curl HIT close to him to keep warm.

My sisters had two beds in their room. There were four of them. Doris, Harriet, Lillian and Elsie. They'd snuggle together, two to a bed, too. My mother, a tiny quiet woman with a wonderful smile, made over our clothes so that although we rarely wore anything new we were always neat and clean. My father was a small man. about five feet tall but with strong arms and a muscled chest. He'd come home from the mines dog-tired and the first thing he'd do was get a big pan of water from the stove and wash the heavy black coal-dust from his face. Every time I think of my father I remember the way that pitch-black dust would cling to the hairs in his nostrils and ears.

My parents were Mormon converts who decided in 1912 to leave England, where my father had worked in the mines. They settled in what had become known as “the Mormon country” of Canada — southern Alberta. It was originally settled in the 1880s by American Mormons fleeing religious persecution in Utah. As a sect Mormons show a high degree of segregation from other groups and my parents knew they’d be welcome in southern Alberta. The six children were born in Wakefield in England. I was two when we crossed the Atlantic. We had booked our passage on the Titanic, but for some reason we postponed the trip. We came out later, after the Titanic had sunk. When we arrived in Alberta we were billeted on the farm of another Mormon family, that of Ray Holman, on the outskirts of Taber just east of Lethbridge. The section where we lived was called Dogtown, but I can't remember why.

My mother was a devoutly religious woman and the whole family went to church every Sunday morning. I rarely go to church now but I try to live up to my early Mormon teachings. I remember' that I used to like those Sunday mornings. It was the day 1 was allowed to wear my suit, a blue serge with kneepants that my mother made for me. The rest of the week 1 wore jeans, usually with patches and always clean. My mother saw to that.

My career as a cowboy lasted three summers. My parents kept me in town in winter because of the cçld that we’d get between warm chinooks, and the huge snowdrifts that would pile up across the foothills. My brother Percy got a job as a linotype operator at the Taber Times and he got me into the paper after school hours as a printer’s devil. Then Percy contracted polio and although he wasn’t left paralyzed he’s had to take it easy ever since. Percy is working with me now, by the way. He manages my ranch at Riverside, California, about thirty miles from our home in Arcadia, which is a suburb of Los Angeles. My sister Doris died several years ago. The other three girls arc married and live in California.

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When my brother Percy got sick I lelt school and went to work in the mines. I was thirteen. In my lirst job I was a grease-pig. I'd sit beside an endless chain hauling coal cars fifteen hundred feet underground, and my job was to squirt lubricating oil on the wheels as the cars rolled by. My most vivid memory of the mines is one of hopelessness, a kind of closed-in feeling. It wasn't the fear a child feels when he’s shut up in a closet; I wasn't afraid of the dark depths of the earth. I just felt that a mine was no place for a man to spend his life, shut off from the light.

After a couple of months as a grease-pig I became the helper of a big solemn man named Hans Wight, who was an electrical engineer. One of my jobs was riding a donkey hauling coal out of the mine. One day I was staring off into space as I rode the donkey and Hans said something to me. I didn’t hear him.

“Hey, Johnny.’’ he called, “what’s the matter with you? I've been hollering at you.”

“IVe been thinking this old mule was a race horse,” I confessed sheepishly. “I’d like to ride at the races.”

“Maybe you could, at that,” Hans said. “You look like you've got the build for it.”

I’d seen the races at the Taber fair. The fair was always a big day for the people of the district. There’d be a big parade, with a brass band braying, and the farmers would bring in their hogs and cattle and chickens for the competitions, and the women would bake pies and cakes and bread for judging. But the main interest for me was the horse races—not thoroughbred running races or standardised harness races, but Roman races and relay races and quarterhorse races.

I longed to be a part of this, and thought about it while I was riding that donkey, but we needed the money at home and I kept working in the mines. When I heard there was more money to be made digging coal than riding a donkey 1 started slugging underground. I was fourteen then and I worked from seven in the morning to four in the afternoon for $1.25 a day. Some days I’d shovel ten and twelve tons of coal. My size helped in the smaller holes. I could stand up in places where other miners had to kneel.

But when I was fifteen and the summer fair rolled around again I met a man named Spud Murphy at the fair grounds. He had two quarterhorses (which means they'd been bred to race a quarter of a mile) called Tommy Overton and Gangway. I was hanging around his stall and he asked me if I could ride a horse.

1 said sure, and he asked me if I'd ride one for him while he rode the other.

He put me on Gangway to exercise it. 1 was so nervous that I put a stranglehold on the reins. Poor old Gangway couldn’t move.

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Johnny Longden tells his own story

“It does something for a man to control a ton of horses, riding high above the swirling dust'’

"Give him his head, give him his head,” commanded Murphy.

So I let loose the reins and gave Gangway my heels in his belly and he started off with such a sudden violent leap that I jerked backwards and tore a shirt my mother had just made for me.

1 was awfully upset because making shirts was a lot of work for my mother. But Spud said he’d buy me a new one if I rode Gangway in the quarterhorse races for him.

Well, I did, and we won the race.

[ here was no saddle. You just sat on the horse's back, curled up your legs and had a webbed circlet wound across your legs and your lap and under the horse’s stomach. He’d be away with a great surge in those short races and you’d control him with your grip on the reins, and retain your balance by pressing your knees against his withers.

1 rode the Roman race, too. This is the most exciting kind of horse race I know. In it, you balance on two horses, standing over nothingness with one foot on the bare back of each horse. You hold the four reins of the horses in both hands and keep your knees bent low to take the uneven bone-jarring pounding. It has a heroic look about it that appeals to crowds and ;t does something for a man emotionally to be controlling a ton of horses, standing high above the swirling dust.

I did so well with Spud’s horses that he wanted me to go to other fairs in the district with him. I asked my father if I could but he was dead set against my pleas. He said my place was in the mines, not fooling around with horses at the fairs. And then Hans Wight, the electrical engineer, talked to my dad. He told him about how I used to daydream when I was riding the donkey. He suggested that I could ride at the fairs on Saturdays and still work through the week, and maybe that’s what swayed my father. Anyway, he relented, and Spud and 1 started going to places like Cardston and Magrath and Raymond and Lethbridge to race Spud's two horses.

Spud had a buggy in which the two of us would drive all night, leading the two horses. We’d sleep in an empty barn along the way or, if the weather was fine, we’d lie down under the buggy and sleep there. We did well, too. That summer—it was around 1924—I won fourteen straight Roman races, where the prize was fifteen dollars, and a few relays, too. In the relays you’d ride one horse a quarter of a mile, leap from his back and race another quarter mile on the other horse. A relay win was worth ten dollars.

My father did something the following spring that I’ll never forget. He knew I loved horses and he knew that our family needed the money I got from the mines. But when Spud Murphy offered me a job on his ranch, my father didn't stand in the way of it. He put my wishes ahead of the family’s need and I went to work on the ranch at Milk River, south of Taber, galloping horses for Spud for thirty-five dollars a month and my room and board.

One day that summer there was a big sports day down in Shelby, Montana, about a hundred miles south, and Spud and I decided to go. We rode bareback on the two quarterhorses, Tommy Overton and Gangway. We bedded them down in a stall at the fair grounds and then climbed into the straw and slept there ourselves. In the morning there was a hundred-yard foot race up the main street for twenty-five silver dollars and a silver cup. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I entered the foot race, a little guy less than five feet tall in against a motley crew of grown men in overalls or work clothes. Everybody in the race had running shoes except me. So I took off my boots and heavy woolen socks and rolled up my jeans. I won that race but it was close.

One of the fellows I’d beaten seemed to think my win was a llukc. He challenged me to another race and said he’d put up fifty silver dollars against my twenty-live and my cup. I agreed to the race but said it would have to be fifty yards instead of a hundred. I was a little tired and anyway, since he was bigger and stronger, I figured I’d do better in a shorter race.

Well, I won that race, too, so now I had seventy-five silver dollars and my cup. In the afternoon the big event was a quarterhorse race. There was a prize of seventy-five silver dollars for that one. I rode Tommy Overton and he won, and Spud and I went to a baker’s shop and got the baker to give us an old flour sack. We loaded one hundred and fifty silver dollars and a silver cup into the flour sack and rode back to Alberta.

In the summer of 1927 at the fair at Magrath I met a full-blooded Indian named Charlie Powell who had two horses he wanted to race at Great Falls, Montana. He asked me if I wanted to go along with him and ride one of the horses. I’d been thinking for quite a while that I’d like to go to Salt Lake City. There were two reasons for this: Salt Lake is the centre of the Mormon movement and it also happened at that time to be a thoroughbred racing centre. Well. I wanted to visit the place where Brigham Young, one of the original Mormon leaders, had established his headquarters in Utah, and I wanted to see the thoroughbred races. Up to this time, you see, I’d never ridden a thoroughbred race horse. So I agreed to go to Great Falls with Charlie Powell.

When that meeting ended I hopped a freight train and set off for Salt Lake. It was October of 1927 and it was freezing cold at night in the boxcar. We stopped one night at Pocatello, Idaho, to take on water and the railroad cops started going through the boxcars to chase the bums, slugging them with their billy sticks. When they got to my private car and started to climb in I slid back the door on the other side and started to run. A big cop was giving chase but I outran him and hid under the water tower. When the train started to roll again I raced out at the last moment and jumped through the open door of a boxcar while the train was picking up speed.

At Salt Lake 1 went to the stabling area at the race. track where I began talking to a quiet friendly colored man named Willie Dorsey. He owned one horse, a big black gelding, nine years old, named Hugo K. Asher, but he didn’t have a jockey. I asked him if he’d let me ride the gelding. He said he'd give me five dollars for the mount.

It was a cold afternoon and I arrived at the starting line wearing beaded gauntlets, much to the astonishment of the assistant starter. Wampus Fuller. Wampus was just getting his consternation under control when I dismounted and started to unsaddle my horse.

"What the hell are you doing, jock?” demanded Wampus.

“I'm taking off this saddle, sir,” I said to him. “I can’t ride with it.”

"Well you sure as hell ain’t gonna ride without it,” Wampus stormed. “Climb back on that horse.”

It was the first time I ever rode in a saddle. And when I won the race it was the first victory of the more than five thousand that have made me the winner of more thoroughbred races than any rider in the world. Hugo K. Asher paid off at $32.60 but I didn't have a quarter bet on him. In fact, until Willie Dorsey gave me the five dollars for riding his gelding, I didn’t have a quarter. I stayed in Salt Lake about three weeks. My mother had written to some friends of hers there and they put me up. I made a few dollars riding other mounts but not enough to have paid my way if I hadn't been billeted. I couldn't bring home a winner in fifteen races during the three weeks after Hugo K. Asher won and I was pretty discouraged and growing homesick. I was seventeen.

One afternoon, outside the race track, I saw an Alberta license plate. I suddenly felt like I was going to cry. I was so lonesome. I sat down on the runningboard of the car, a big Studebaker, and waited for the owner. When he came along he said he'd give me a lift back to Alberta when he drove back.

His name was Harry Young. He and a man named Harvey McFarlane owned a few horses and he was at Salt Lake to try to pick up a few more cheap. Driving north I curled up in the back seat at night and slept there while Harry stayed in hotels.

He and McFarlane ran a place in Calgary called the Five Wire Cigar Store. He said they'd give me a job waiting on customers if I wanted to go to Calgary. I was anxious to get home to Taber so I didn’t take the job right away but after I spent the winter working in the mines I knew I never wanted to go back to digging coal. It seemed to me that riding was the surest way to escape. I was small and I was strong, with good arms and chest development like my father’s, and I loved horses. Those things, and determination, are what I took to racing in the beginning.

Horseplayers’ cigar store

So I set off for Calgary in the spring of 1928 to take the job Harry Young had offered me. I figured it would be a stepping stone. I didn’t know it at the time but the cigar store was a front. Harry and Harvey were bookmakers. I sold tobacco to the customers out front and one afternoon a man named Bobby Flaherty came into the store. I knew he trained horses for an owner who traveled the prairie circuit of western Canada, C. L. Jacques. 1 asked him if he needed someone to help him around the barn. He said he did, so I started galloping Mr. Jacques’ horses in the mornings and working in the cigar store in the afternoons and evenings.

Then along came a trainer from the state of Washington, E. A. (Sleepy) Armstrong, who took over the horses of a Calgary owner, Fred Johnston. He had this horse, Reddy Fox, which wasn’t a bad horse, but he didn’t have a line on a regular jockey. He watched me working Mr. Jacques’ horses and decided that I'd do as his jock. He traded his horse, Reddy Fox, to Mr. Jacques for the rights to my services.

I still see Sleepy now and then. After all these years he’s still training horses and he comes down to the Santa Anita meeting every winter, a big gruff redfaced fellow with a mane of white hair and the same enthusiasm he took to racing thirty years ago. Sleepy is seventytwo now.

Meeting him in 1928 was the best thing that ever happened to me. He taught me just about everything I know about riding. He paid me $150 a month and we toured the prairie circuit. The first day I went to work for Sleepy he pointed to a pup-tent outside his barn and told me that was where I'd sleep. At 4.30 the next morning he rolled me out of my bed and hollered. ‘‘C’mon, get up. You're working for me now!"

He'd used the correct verb, all right. I mucked out stalls, cooled out horses, worked horses, fed horses and learned to ride them. There were no starting gates in those days, just a large barrier made of webbing that flew up when the starter figured the field was lined up. Sleepy and Wampus Fuller, the assistant starter who’d been at Salt Fake the year before, worked with me every morning teaching me how to get away from the barrier fast. When I’d do something wrong Wampus would whack me across the foot with a jock's whip and Sleepy would holler at me. In later years I acquired a reputation of being able to get horses away to fast starts, even out of the starting gates that replaced the barriers. It was on the prairie circuit of western Canada that I learned.

It was on the prairie circuit, too. that I met my first wife, Helen McDonald, a Calgary girl. I didn’t have any money but we decided to be married, anyhow. She traveled with me, on the prairies in the summer and then down to southern California and northern Mexico in the winter. We lived in rooms in secondrate boarding houses or third-rate hotels or sometimes even slept in a tent but she never complained. A couple of times I almost quit the track to go back to the mines but she always urged me to stick it out a little longer.

In 1931 I registered a horse called Trossachs in Helen's name. We were at Polo Park in Winnipeg and it was in the days of the old option races whereby if you bet five dollars on the race you could then claim a horse. I claimed this cheap mudder from a Vancouver owner. George Addison, and shipped him by boxcar to the Tanforan track at San Bruno in California. Helen and I and our year-old son Vance set off in an old Nash touring car in which we slept. We had a tent and we ate in it. At Tanforan I started Trossachs three times and he finished nowhere. We were down to our last seventy-five dollars when Thanksgiving Day dawned with a violent rainstorm. I figured the heavy track was suited to Trossachs so, unknown to Helen, I bet the whole seventy-five bucks on him.

If Trossachs had lost I'm sure we'd have had to make our way back to Taber. He started badly but when the other horses began to tire in the.mud old Trossachs kept picking ’em up and setting 'em down in the friendly goo and he won the race by a nose. He was 15 to 1. I collected $1,125 on my bet. and the winner’s share of the purse which Helen, as owner, received was $550. We made $1,675 on that horse and his win was the turning point for me. The money relieved the pressure. It meant that for awhile at least I could devote my thoughts to racing alone and forget the alternative of the mines. And I began to win, too, which meant that owners of good horses were willing to give me their mounts. On better horses I won even more races and by 1932 there was no longer any question of ever leaving the race track.

But as my racing fortunes improved, sadness and disappointment entered my personal life. I was riding in Miami in 1936 when word came that my mother was ill in Taber. I Hew home but I was too late to say good-by to her. She died in her sleep before I reached the ranch I’d been able to buy for her and my father on the outskirts of the town. A few years later the relationship between Helen, my wife, and me began to go downhill and after fourteen years of marriage we were divorced.

In 1941, though, I met a girl I’d known in the middle Thirties when 1 was riding for a successful Winnipeg owner and trainer, A. G. (Alf) Tarn. This was Hazel Tarn, Alf’s daughter, a slim blond tomboy who loved horses. By 1941 she was still slim and blond and a lover of horses, but she was no longer a tomboy. She was a very vivacious full-blown woman who became Mrs. Longden.

Hazel has been a part of my life that I’d like to talk about in succeeding instalments of this story, the high moments such as those on Count Fleet, the greatest horse I ever saw, on whom I won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes — racing’s Triple Crown. I’d like to talk about Noor, too, an Irish-bred horse who beat the celebrated Citation three straight times, and about Whirlaway and Swaps and the rest. I want to talk about the remarkable little men who have ridden to fame, jockeys like Eddie Arcaro and Willie Shoemaker and the TV art expert, Billy Pearson, and tell you how we go about the precarious business of guiding a thousand pounds of wrought-up straining thoroughbred.

In the next issue Johnny Longden tells of his experience with Count Fleet, whom he culls the greatest racehorse of ail time.

There have been low moments, too, of which Hazel has been a part, such as the five times in my racing career that doctors have told me that because of the severity of injuries I'd never ride again. I’d like to tell you of those times, too. ★