Hartack, William J. ("Bill")

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HARTACK, William J. ("Bill")

(b. 9 December 1932 in Edensburg, Pennsylvania), jockey of uncompromising honesty and great skill who won five Kentucky Derbys and three Preaknesses; one of the most successful riders of the twentieth century.

Hartack was named for his father, a Slavic immigrant who became a Pennsylvania coal miner. He was raised on his widowed father's farm north of Belsano, Pennsylvania. In 1949 he graduated as valedictorian from the Black Lick Township High School near Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Hartack did not embark on a riding career until after graduation from high school. He won his first race at Waterford Park in West Virginia on 14 October 1952 on a horse that had cost just $100.

In 1953 he rode 328 winners (28 percent) as an apprentice most of the season. In 1955 he led all other jockeys with 417 victories. The next year he passed jockeys in money earned with $2,343,955 in purses. By this time Hartack was riding the best horses from the renowned Calumet Farm stable. In his first Kentucky Derby, in 1956, Hartack finished second at the mile-and-a-quarter track with Calumet's Fabius. Two weeks later he avenged his Kentucky Derby defeat by winning the Preakness, a slightly shorter race at 13/16 mile, aboard the same horse, the first of three times he won that race. Later the same year Hartack rode Barbizon, another Calumet horse, to a thrilling victory in the two-year-old Garden State Stakes.

In 1957 Hartack became the first jockey to win over $3 million in a single year. This amazing earnings record stood until 1967. Also in 1957 he set another record that lasted eleven years; he had sixty-two wins at Hialeah (Florida) in forty days. Incredibly, he also won forty-three stakes that year, setting another record. In the 1957 Kentucky Derby, Hartack rode Iron Liege (who was trained by Jimmy Jones), one of three favored horses. He took Iron Liege to the front at the head of the stretch and held off Gallant Man to win by a nose. Willie Shoemaker, the jockey aboard Gallant Man, supposedly misjudged the finish line by standing up in the stirrups momentarily, thus costing his horse the victory.

Hartack and Shoemaker demonstrated contrasting riding styles. Shoemaker generally sat quietly on a horse, even when coming from behind in a rush, while Hartack preferred to lead from the outset and pumped, scrubbed, whipped, and urged his horse forward. Hartack described his riding style as "looking like a sack of manure on a horse." But this did not deter him from winning all types of races, including the little ones.

Hartack was known for his difficult personality; he antagonized racing stewards, trainers, owners, and journalists alike. His blazing desire to win made him angry with anything less than his best. His blunt honesty and frequent displays of temper were familiar in the racing world. In late 1958 a temper tantrum caused Calumet Farm to terminate its connection with Hartack. Nevertheless, his brilliant riding kept him on the best horses. He won five Kentucky Derbys: Iron Liege, 1953; Venetian Way, 1960; Decidedly, 1962; Northern Dancer, 1964; and Majestic Prince, 1969. Only Eddie Arcaro has won as many Derbys. One of Hartack's agents, Chick Lang, said with a smile after the 1969 Derby, "Bill rides this race like he invented it."

Hartack did not want to retire in the early 1970s, so he seized an opportunity to race in Hong Kong. He raced there for three seasons, riding many top horses, including Silver Lining, Hong Kong's Horse of the Year for 1978.

Hartack's racing record at his retirement speaks for itself. From 1953 to 1974 in the United States, he rode a total of 21,535 mounts with 4,272 wins, a 19.8 percent win record. He was the leading jockey in races won in 1955, 1956, 1957, and 1960, and the leading jockey in purse moneys in 1956 and 1957. In addition to his five Kentucky Derby wins (out of nine tries), his classic successes include winning the Preakness three times (1956, 1964, and 1969) and the Belmont (1960). He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1959.

Since 1981 he has served as a racing official, ABC television commentator, and technical adviser for racing movies. He resides in Florida.

Hartack was acclaimed as an intelligent, knowledgeable rider with a keen desire to win and a deft skill at transmitting that desire to his mounts. When he was thirty-nine he became the fifth jockey in history to win more than 4,000 races. His $25,878,063 in total purses set a record at the time. His consistent winning percentage has been topped by few riders. He rode a number of Hall of Fame horses but identified his best mount as 1957 Florida Derby winner Gen. Duke and his best two-year-old mount as Ridan.

The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame maintains files on Hartack. Articles of interest are in The Blood-Horse, The Daily Racing Form, Turf and Sport Digest, the New York Times, and The Horsemen's Journal.

Joan Goodbody