Hall of Fame jockey Bill Hartack got along better with horses than he did with people.
The Kentucky Derby is the crown jewel of the Triple Crown. Seven jockeys have won thoroughbred racing’s most prestigious event three times. The great Bill Shoemaker won it four times. Only Bill Hartack and Eddie Arcaro have ridden five Kentucky Derby winners. Hartack might have won six if not for an injury. In 1958, he was scheduled to ride Tam Tam, winner of the Florida Derby, but hurt his leg in a starting gate accident the week before the Derby and was unable to ride. Tam Tam went on to win at Churchill Downs by half a length. It took Arcaro 21 mounts to collect his five Derby wins. Hartack did it in 12. A fierce competitor who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, Hartack was not out to make friends. “I treated my profession as an individual contractor,” he said. “While I was racing, I didn’t have any friendship with any jockey.”
With 1,105 victories, Hartack was the leading rider in North America between 1955 and 1957. During that span, he won 26 percent of his starts. Prior to Hartack, no jockey had ever won more than $ 2 million in a single year. In 1956, he earned over $ 2.3 million. The following year, he topped three million dollars! His record $ 3,060,501 stood for ten years. In a quarter century of racing, Hartack posted 4,272 wins. He had 3,370 seconds and finished third in 2,871. Hartack’s 21,535 mounts earned $ 26.5 million in purses, and he was the nation’s winningest jockey four times.
Born in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania, December 12, 1932, William John Hartack Jr. was the son of a coal miner. When he was eight, Hartack’s mother died in an automobile accident, leaving him and his two siblings to be raised by his widowed father in a home with no heat, phone, electricity or bathroom. Hartack attended Black Lick Township High School before trying to enlist in the Navy. After being turned down because he was too small, Hartack got a job at The Charles Town Races in West Virginia walking horses, mucking stalls and cleaning tack. Having only grown to 5’4”, 111 pounds by 19, he began racing as an apprentice jockey in October 1952. Hartack finished eighth in his first race, then seventh the following day. His first win came on his third day in the saddle, at Waterford Park [now Mountaineer Park] aboard Nickleby, which paid $ 18.40 on a two-dollar bet.
Hartack improved quickly. On October 6, 1953, he won six races in one day. Hartack won 350 races in 1953, second among North American jockeys behind only Shoemaker, who had 485. In 1955, The diminutive Pennsylvanian won 417 races to become only the second jockey in history to ride 400 winners in a single year. The following season, he won 75 races in one 36-day stretch at Arlington Park outside Chicago.
Hartack made his Kentucky Derby debut in 1956, finishing second aboard Fabius. Two weeks later, horse and rider claimed their first victory in a Triple Crown race at the Preakness. In 1957, Hartack won the first of his record five Kentucky Derbys, aboard Iron Leige. Three years later, he rode two different horses to Triple Crown wins. On the first Saturday in May 1960, Hartack piloted Venetian Way to victory in the Run For the Roses. One month later, he rallied Celtic Ash from last place to win a thrilling Belmont Stakes.
After winning a third Kentucky Derby in 1962, Hartack returned to Churchill Downs in 1964 aboard Northern Dancer, winner of two prestigious stakes races in the run-up to the Derby. Starting in post position seven in a field of 12, Northern Dancer blazed the one-and-a-quarter-mile dirt track in two minutes flat, a Kentucky Derby record that stood until Secretariat broke it in 1973.
Hartack twice had a chance to win the Triple Crown. In 1964, Northern Dancer followed up his Kentucky Derby win with a victory in the Preakness, only to finish third in the Belmont Stakes. Five years later, Hartack rode Majestic Prince to wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Having injured a tendon in his right front leg at Pimlico, Majestic Prince’s owner, Frank McMahon, wanted to send the chestnut stallion to California to be rested until the fall. Following a frenzy of pressure from the public and press, including a Sports Illustrated article entitled “The Prince Ducks the Big One,” McMahon chose to run his horse in the Belmont Stakes. The first horse in history to enter the race undefeated, Majestic Prince finished second by five-and-a-half lengths. He never raced again. “The horse was hurting,” Hartack told reporters. “We should never have run in the Belmont.” Majestic Prince sired 33 stakes winners before he died of a heart attack in 1981.
Hartack won every Kentucky Derby he entered between 1957 and 1964. His record of three in a row [although not in consecutive years] has never been equaled. Winner of nine American Classics, Hartack left for Hong Kong in 1975, where the weight restrictions were less stringent. “One of the reasons I left the U.S,” said Hartack shortly after arriving in Hong Kong, “was that I knew once I could get away from the American press, I would be very, very happy because they are so stupid.” He retired in 1977 and later worked as television analyst, jockey agent and racing official. Bill Hartack was the youngest person ever elected to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1959, at age 26. He twice appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated –in 1956 and 1964 – and graced the front of Time in 1958. Mr. Hartack died of heart disease in November 2007, two weeks shy of his 75th birthday.
The Bill Hartack Award is presented annually to the jockey who rides the Kentucky Derby winner.
On this date in 1962, Bill Hartack became the eighth jockey to win 3,000 career races when he piloted Big Steve to victory at Arlington Park. In the fifth race, Hartack guided Big Steve over the mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf track in 1:45.25 to win in a photo finish. Mr. Hartack hit the magic number in his tenth year of riding. Bill Shoemaker is the only other rider to win 3,000 races in less than ten years. Big Steve paid $ 5.20, $ 3.80 and $ 2.80.