NICHOLAS GODFREY recalls the day at Arlington Park when he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Angel Cordero, Pat Day, Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron and Ron Turcotte.
In August 2011, I went to Chicago for the Arlington Million. The day before the race, the track hosted a star-studded charity fundraising event with an array of former riding legends, some of them sadly no longer with us. In this piece, I describe how a magical afternoon went by with some of the most celebrated names in US racing.
Any visit to Chicago’s Arlington Park, unquestionably one of America’s finest racecourses, is likely to be an undiluted pleasure.
Visit this charming venue in the chi-chi northern suburb of Arlington Heights – about 35km from Downtown, $4.50 on the train or $70 in a taxi – and you will be greeted by a racecourse long celebrated as one of the most outward-looking in the States, largely modelled on a European template with turf racing dominant.
The jewel in the crown of its summer-long schedule, of course, is the storied Arlington Million, framed as the first million-dollar horse race on the planet back in 1981, when the ‘People’s Champion’ John Henry and Willie Shoemaker edged out longshot The Bart in a driving finish immortalised in bronze at the head of the paddock behind the main stand.
However, the day before Saturday’s 29th running of the racecourse’s signature contest is notable not for anything that happens on the track itself.
Rather, it is the chance to attend the third edition of the ‘Dining with the Dynasty’ charity function held before racing in Mr D’s Sports Bar.
Mr D, by the way, is Arlington’s chairman Richard Duchoissos, the track’s octogenarian owner and driving force behind its unlikely renaissance after fire gutted the stand in 1985.
The show went on, with the Bill Watts-trained Teleprompter duly winning what was dubbed the ‘Miracle Million’ 25 days after the fire in front of a 35,000 crowd housed in temporary seating.
We are talking serious legends here
For $119 a head, there’s no sign of Joan Collins or Blake Carrington, but you are handed the chance to mingle at a buffet lunch with an almost unbelievable array of American riding legends brought together in aid of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund.
Make no mistake, we are talking serious legends here, several of the 18 veterans being household names in US racing circles and beyond, and virtually all of them boast telephone-number careers. A rough estimate tallies about 80,000 victories between them.
“None of them needs an introduction,” says the MC, before a lengthy introduction, after which the microphone is handed round to everybody present to tell us who they are.
Everyone dutifully intones their name – Pat Day, Patricia Cooksey, Sandy Hawley – until it gets as far as the great Angel Cordero, whose reputation as a weighing-room joker. “I’m Laffit Pincay,” he says, straight-faced, before handing the mike over to Laffit Pincay.
Both have long since fully earned the right to be referred to as legends. Cordero, who pioneered the flying dismount three decades before Frankie Dettori stole his act, retired in 1995 with 7,057 victories to his name, among them three Kentucky Derbies.
Now a fit and healthy 69, he is still actively involved in racing, acting as agent to his fellow Puerto Rican John Velazquez and riding work for champion trainer Todd Pletcher.
Laffit Pincay: ‘It was so much money I had to phone my mother’
Pincay, for his part, is in anecdotal mood, recalling the earliest days of his riding career in the States, where he started out in Chicago.
“I remember when I won a $30,000 stakes race a week after my first ride,” he says. “It was so much money I had to phone my mother in Panama.”
If he kept phoning home, his phone bills must have become astronomical, given that Pincay was to become a five-time Eclipse Award winner who led the world in career victories with 9,530 until Russell Baze surpassed his mark in December 2006.
This gathering is little short of a living, breathing American Jockeys’ Hall of Fame. There is a legend everywhere you look: over here there’s a champion jockey, over there a Kentucky Derby winner.
Pat Day, the national all-time leader in prize-money, sits behind Chris McCarron, who topped the earnings list four times and rode no fewer than five Breeders’ Cup Classic winners plus a pair of Kentucky Derby victors.
When Day retired in August 2005 after hip surgery that forced him to miss the Derby for the first time in 21 years, he had accumulated 8,803 victories and total purse earnings of nearly $298 million.
“When it became apparent it was time to turn the page, to close the book on that chapter, I did so without regrets,” he says.
Pat Day: ‘What I am doing now is helping people’
Perhaps that’s because his new book is the good book. After overcoming serious substance and alcohol abuse problems early in his 32-year career, Day became a born-again Christian in the early 1980s and is now heavily involved with the racetrack chaplaincy, leading former colleague Shane Sellers to christen him “little Jesus” during one bust-up.
“I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing today with the ministry,” says Day. “It’s decidedly more rewarding and fulfilling than the incredibly successful racing career.
“What I am doing now is helping people, bringing them hope through the gospel of our lord Jesus Christ, and I hope that has eternal consequences.”
Representatives of an earlier generation include Canada’s greatest jockey Sandy Hawley, Walter ‘Mousey’ Blum, who foiled Canonero’s Triple Crown bid in 1971, and Bobby Ussery, who landed the ‘Roses’ in 1967 with Proud Clarion.
Ussery cuts a distinctive figure these days: grey ponytail and earring beneath a Stetson. Of even older vintage are David Erb, 87, who rode Needles to win the 1956 Derby, and Bill Boland, 78,who was only a 16-year-old apprentice when he won the Kentucky Oaks and Derby six years earlier.
There are also obvious reminders of the inherent dangers never far away from the racecourse. Jackie Fires is wheelchair-bound, while the ever-smiling Randy Romero – who elicits a cheer when film of Personal’s Ensign’s last-gasp 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff win is shown – undergoes dialysis after suffering kidney failure through wasting.
Then there’s Ron Turcotte, the man whose name will always be synonymous with Secretariat, “definitely the greatest of them all,” according to Pincay, who chased him more than once. Turcotte also uses a wheelchair after being left a paraplegic by a racecourse fall at Belmont Park in 1978.
Ron Turcotte: ‘You can’t believe everything you see in the movies’
The 70-year-old has been a busy man since the Secretariat movie hit the screens, though doesn’t sound entirely convinced of its artistic merits. “Well, it was a movie and you can’t believe everything you see in the movies,” he says. “At least the guy that played me did all right.
“It has been a bit crazy since the movie came out,” he adds. “I’ve been visiting schools, old folks’ home and other places. It’s been a lot of fun and a little tough – I am not as young as I used to be.”
Cue footage of Secretariat’s 31-length romp in the Belmont Stakes, widely regarded as the most outstanding performance in the history of American racing.
“Everyone thinks I was looking back in the final furlong to see where they were but I wasn’t,” says the man on top.
“I was trying to look at the clock because I knew we were breaking track records all the way. It was the thrill of a lifetime,” he adds, a shade unnecessarily.
Walter Blum also has memories of the horse known as ‘Big Red’. “I didn’t know much about the horse until he came by me one day like a flash,” he recalls. “Someone asked me if he looked like a good horse – I said don’t ask me, I didn’t see anything but his ass.”
The afternoon continues in good humour and bonhomie as the riders renew friendships dating back half a century and more in some cases. Turcotte, like everybody else, is in fine form, as he discusses the concept of trainers issuing riding instructions.
“There’s no point,” he says. “Good jockeys don’t follow riding instructions, bad jockeys can’t follow riding instructions. The best I ever got told was to go out and mess it up as usual!”
Ray Sibille: ‘If there was one you couldn’t beat, you had to get at his rider’
There was a sense of irony in the greatest victory among the 4,000-plus wins of Ray Sibille, who has a pronounced stammer. It came when Great Communicator downed Indian Skimmer in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
Sibille talks tactics and fond memories of Bill Shoemaker. “Sometimes when you looked at the form and you knew there was a horse you just could not beat, you had to get at his rider all day,” he says. “Try to get inside the jockey’s head – at the start, I used to say stuff like ‘does your horse always limp like that?’
“At least I used to stop in the starting gate. Shoemaker used to carry on all the way round!”
On the eve of Hayley Turner’s bid for the Arlington Million on Wigmore Hall, there is a timely reminder from pioneering female jockey Patti (PJ) Cooksey that things used to be slightly different.
Now an official on the Kentucky Racing Commission, Cooksey paved the way for Julie Krone before retiring with 2,137 winners to her name. Mind you, it wasn’t all hunky dory when she started out on the leaky-roof circuit in West Virginia in 1979.
‘There wasn’t a lot of support there,” she recalls. “The guys didn’t want a woman riding against them – they were pretty anti-female and tried to put me over the rails.
“I thought I had to try to outsmart them – usually, it wasn’t that hard. It was different when I started riding with the better riders like all these guys – they weren’t there to be dangerous, and it was a whole lot better.”
You’ve come a long way, baby, as they used to say in the 60s.
Cooksey, 53, is one of four riders destined to take part in a challenge race versus the five current leading riders at Arlington – it was meant to be a five-a-side, but Seattle Slew’s jockey Jean Cruguet had to cry off through illness.
Earlie Fires: ‘As long as I’m on a horse, I got a shot’
Johnny Rotz, in his 70s, isn’t keen to make up the numbers. “They asked me if I wanted to ride, I said how long is the race and they said 100 yards,” he says. “When I got here I found out it was one mile on the turf, so I had to back off.”
Chicago stalwart Earlie Fires (6,470 winners) fancies his chances a little more than Chris McCarron (7,141 winners).
“As long as I’m on a horse, I got a shot,” says Fires. “If you’re sitting in the jockeys’ room, you got no shot.”
McCarron, who now runs a successful jockeys’ school in Kentucky, won’t lack for fitness, having been riding out at Del Mar for the last couple of days and only just making the lunch hotfoot from O’Hare Airport.
He says: “I looked up my horse’s and she’s 0-for-10 on turf so I think I should be able to move her up a little.” He doesn’t.
The final veteran is Mark Guidry, who retired four years ago and is only just eligible to compete, as he revealed plans only the previous day that he is to resume his riding career.
He’ll be hoping to do a little better in the future, because when the race takes place, after one of the longest autograph sessions in history, the old-timers are soundly beaten as Junior Alvarado partners Top Pair to a runaway victory.
Fires’s mount chases him home a respectful distance adrift after making the running but the other three veterans fail to make the frame.
If it seems an inappropriate result after such a lovely afternoon, no one gets hurt and everybody is still smiling. Then again, they’ve been smiling all day. It’s that sort of occasion: the serious business can wait until Saturday.