Atkinson, Theodore Frederic (“Ted”)
Atkinson, Theodore Frederic (“Ted”)
(b. 17 June 1916 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; d. 5 May 2005 in Beaverdam, Virginia), outstanding Thoroughbred jockey who was the first to accumulate more than $1 million in winnings in a single year and was later a horse breeder and track steward.
Atkinson’s father, Fred, born in England, and mother, the daughter of an Austrian army saddler who immigrated to America, raised eight children. Fred Atkinson migrated as a child to Pennsylvania, where he worked as a coal miner starting at age twelve. He quit mining and apprenticed as a glass engraver at age seventeen and later moved his family to Canada, following that trade. Atkinson was born in Toronto, but when he was three years old, his family moved back to Pennsylvania. There, Atkinson and his two brothers enjoyed camping. The glass-engraving trade eventually brought the family first to Elmira and later to Corning, New York. As a youth, Atkinson worked on farms during the summer and in the Corning Public Library shelving books while going to Corning Free Academy, where he graduated as salutatorian. A lack of funds deterred him from going to college, and he instead gained employment at Corning Glass Works. He then became a messenger boy for a dental laboratory before planting trees with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Two years after Atkinson graduated from high school, his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he worked at the Roselux Chemical Co. while studying airplane mechanics at the Brooklyn Engineering Institute.
One day a truck driver, noting Atkinson’s strength and stature—he was five feet, two inches tall and weighed 104 pounds—advised him to become a jockey and gave him the name of Louis Raduazzo, a former exercise rider and friend of Silvio Coucci, the head exercise rider at Greentree Stable, in New Jersey. Raduazzo took Atkinson to a riding academy in the Bronx, New York, to practice before starting work. After a little more than a year at Greentree, however, Atkinson left because the stable did not allow him to ride in races. He then proceeded to Columbus, Ohio, where he worked for three small stables, primarily as an exercise rider. On 2 December 1937 he made his riding debut at Charles Town, a racetrack in West Virginia, on William Ashbridge’s Guinea Law. The trainer Horace C. Rumage leased Atkinson’s contract in May 1939, and on 18 May 1939 he rode his first winner, Musical Jack, at Beulah Park, in Columbus, Ohio. Rumage happened to advise Atkinson to whip a horse only on the rump, never on the flank, and to accomplish this, the jockey raised the whip overhead and brought it down in a circular motion. He claimed to have never marked a horse, using “the whip only when necessary, and usually for only a few strokes.” Nevertheless, Pat Lynch, a sportswriter for the New York Journal American, upon seeing Atkinson’s distinctive whipping style, nicknamed him “the Slasher.”
Atkinson rode his first stakes race winner on 1 June 1940 at Suffolk Downs, in Boston, on Dunade in the Governor’s Handicap. While riding at Thistledown, in Ohio, Atkinson met Martha Shank. Her father, Bert Shank, the first mayor of North Randall and a former harness racer, was instrumental in the development of racing in that area. Atkinson and Shank were married on 5 December 1940; the two would raise three children and remain together for sixty-four years.
Atkinson attracted national attention in 1941 when he rode War Relic to victory in the 1941 Narragansett Special, defeating the Triple Crown winner Whirlaway, ridden by Eddie Arcaro. Atkinson led the nation’s jockeys in 1944 with a record 287 victories and record earnings totaling $899,101. In 1946 he became the first jockey to win purses totaling $1 million in a single season, with $1,036,825, while winning 233 races. That year he signed as a contract rider for Greentree Stable, where he had started as an exercise rider. In 1949 he just missed the Triple Crown, riding Capot to second place in the Kentucky Derby and to victories in the Preakness Stakes, with a record time of 1:56:00, and in the Belmont Stakes, thus earning Horse of the Year honors. Atkinson rode Greentree’s Tom Fool, his “favorite of favorites,” to the 1951 Two Year Old Championship, with five victories and two seconds and $155,960 in winnings, and to the 1953 Older Horse Championship, with ten straight victories, including a sweep of the New York Handicaps Triple (accomplished previously only by the great Whisk Broom II, in 1913). He also rode to victory on Bold Ruler (the sire of Secretariat), Busher, Gallorette, and Devil Diver; on the champion fillies High Voltage and Misty Morn; and on Nashua in the 1955 Wood Memorial. In 1957 Greentree Stables released Atkinson from his contract after eleven years of service and replaced him with the apprentice jockey John Ruane. Two days later, Atkinson won on Go Lightly, defeating Greentree’s Ruane on Duck Haven.
On 10 January 1959 Atkinson rode his last winner, Vet’s Boy, at Tropical Park, in Coral Gables, Florida, in his 23,660th race; soon thereafter, sacroiliac and back pain forced him to quit riding. At the time, he ranked fourth in total victories, with 3,795 in 23,661 starts, having earned a total of $17,449,360 and having won 16 percent of his races. He had placed second 3,300 times and third 2,913 times. Atkinson’s father, who as the son of a Methodist minister avoided anything connected with gambling and never saw his own son ride, died in 1959. Atkinson also avoided the gambling aspect of racing, noting, “I never look and see what the odds on my horse are. If they’re a hundred to one it might discourage me, and I can’t ever get discouraged.... I’ve got to ride every race to win.”
After studying in Marshall Cassidy’s program for racing officials, Atkinson served at New York Racing Association tracks, at Charles Town, and at Keeneland, in Kentucky, before becoming the chief steward for the Illinois Racing Board at all Chicago Thoroughbred tracks starting in 1961. Atkinson retired from that post in 1976 but retained his membership in the Society of North American Racing Officials and acted as a steward at Thistledown for the next three years. In 1981 he retired to his farm in Virginia, where he learned carpentry and bricklaying, built a guest cottage, and occasionally officiated at hunt meetings. Atkinson died on 5 May 2005 at his home at Beaverdam, Virginia, at age eighty-eight after a lengthy illness associated with cancer and a series of strokes. A private memorial was conducted in Virginia.
Atkinson received the 1957 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame, in Saratoga Springs, New York, that same year and into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2002. His learned speech, love of reading, and practice of keeping diaries that included notes on his every mount and race contributed to his earning the nickname of “the Professor.”
Ted Atkinson, along with Lucy Freeman, wrote a book on horse racing and his life, titled All the Way! (1961). For a portrait of a literate athlete at the peak of his career, highlighting his love of language, see Roger Kahn, “Case of the Erudite Jockey,” Saturday Evening Post (23 Feb. 1957). For short but updated biographies, see Bill Mooney, “Bygone, but Not Forgotten,” Blood-Horse (8 June 1991); and “The Slasher, the Gent,” Blood-Horse (15 June 1991). Tributes are Danny Gallagher, “Ted Atkinson, Jockey: 1916–2005,” Toronto Globe and Mail (30 May 2005); Russ Harris, “In Silks or Suit, One of Greats,” Daily Racing Form (28 June 2005); and David Schmitz, “The Slasher,” Blood-Horse (21 May 2005). An obituary is in the New York Times (7 May 2005).
Steven P. Savage