Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hartack Attack

It is not out of the realm of the reasonable to describe the 1960s at Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby as the "Decade Of Hartack". That would be Hall Of Fame jockey Bill Hartack, who put on a sustained period of excellence during the decade that has not been matched by any other rider, before or since. Hartack won the Kentucky Derby five times in the span of twelve years.

In fact, Hartack actually started his decade of dominance three years early. In 1957, Hartack was the beneficiary of Willie Shoemaker's mistake of misjudging the finish line aboard Gallant Man. It appeared that Gallant Man was going to go past Iron Liege, with Hartack aboard, in the stretch when Shoemaker committed his momentary bobble and, in some minds, cost his horse the race. Hartack always maintained that Iron Liege would have won anyway and since Hartack had a well-known propensity to not suffer fools lightly, you pretty much have to believe he would not stick his neck out on behalf of Shoemaker (or anyone else for that matter).

Hartack would return to the Winner's Circle on Derby Day in 1960 aboard Venetian Way, defeating the favorites Tompion and Bally Ache. Decidedly scored the roses in 1962 with Hartack up, again besting the favorite Ridan, who finished third. Perhaps, the most famous Derby winner of the decade was piloted by Hartack in 1964. The diminutive Northern Dancer from Canada won the Derby with the then-record time of 2:00 flat for the 1 1/4 mile distance (a mark that would be eclipsed by Secretariat nine years later). Hartack would wait five more years for that fifth Derby score with Majestic Prince in 1969, the only time a Derby winner was trained by a previous Derby-winning jockey, Johnny Longden. Of all those Derby winners, Hartack rode winners for five different owners and four different trainers (only Horatio Luro doubled with Hartack up as a Derby-winning trainer with Decidedly and Northern Dancer).

The remarkable thing about all of this is that Hartack was inducted into the Hall Of Fame in 1959, before almost all of these Derby events occurred. In fact, the 1956 Preakness and 1957 Derby were Hartack's only Triple Crown wins at the time of his induction. He was a great rider away from the great events, just as much as he was a great rider in the great events. Hartack could basically do it all. The biggest issue most people had with Hartack was his irascible personality. I mentioned earlier he didn't suffer fools lightly. Well, that went for just about everyone else too. If you take a look at the Winner's Circle photos of his five Derby winners, the only time there is even a hint of a smile on his face was with Decidedly in 1962. He just wanted to take care of business aboard a horse and anything of an ancillary nature was treated as such by Hartack, it just didn't matter to him what anyone else thought. Hartack died in 2007 in Texas and there is a foundation named in his honor that contributes to Thoroughbred Racing Industry charities. The website is

Tune in tomorrow for more from They Are Off. For right now, I am Gone... GOODBYE!

Photo courtesy of


Buddy said...

Bill Hartack is the best race horse rider I have ever seen.

Buddy Hogan

jacktherussell said...

Hartack, after winning the Queen's Plate, North America's oldest continuously run stakes race and Canada's "Derby" at Woodbine aboard Northern Dancer, took his time getting to his cubicle in the jocks room. A throng of anxious reporters awaited him. "What's all the fuss about," growled Hartack. "All we did was beat a bunch of Canadian-breds" To which a reporter replied--"well what do you think you were riding?"