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Longden, John Eric (“Johnny”)

Longden, John Eric (“Johnny”)

(b. 14 February 1907 in Pontefract, near Wakefield, England; d. 14 February 2003 in Banning, California), winningest Thoroughbred jockey of his era and trainer, the only person to have both ridden and trained Kentucky Derby winners, and cofounder of the Jockeys’ Guild.

Longden’s father, Herb Longden, a coal miner, and his mother, Mary Longden, a homemaker, raised eight children. When their daughter Elsie was gravely ill, a group of Mormons gave great spiritual support to the family. After Elsie recovered, the family adopted this faith and immigrated from England to Taber, a predominantly Mormon community in Alberta, Canada. Railroad delays prevented the family from embarking on their booked passage on the RMS Titanic.

Longden’s childhood in Canada prepared him to become an able jockey. Long walks to his sister’s farm to ride her horses strengthened his legs, and at age ten he began herding milk cows for a number of neighbors in this open-range community. Riding a variety of horses, he was struck by their individuality and treated each one differently in order to obtain their best performance. At thirteen he began working in the coal mines, driving mules and digging coal, which he claimed built his strong upper body.

At age sixteen Longden began riding one-half-mile races on the county fair circuit in western Canada and Montana. He found this experience invaluable. “You have to be more versatile in the saddle, think a lot quicker, and have more skill in being able to neck-rein in and out of traffic than you do on mile or more tracks,” he said. He also ran in sprint races and won sixteen consecutive Roman races (standing on the backs of two horses), which he later claimed improved his sense of balance. His height (four feet, eleven inches) and weight (114 pounds) were ideal for a jockey.

In 1925 the mine superintendent John Carmichael helped Longden travel to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where he learned the finer points of racing. He won his first official Thoroughbred race on Hugo K. Asher on 4 October 1927 in Salt Lake City, Utah. He returned to Canada and signed a contract to ride for Fred Johnson in 1928. While in Calgary he met Helen McDonald, a grocer’s daughter; they married in April 1929, and their only son was born in 1930. That year Longden exercised horses for “Checks” Sloan in Tijuana, Mexico; returned to Calgary, where he met his lifelong friend, the Thoroughbred owner and trainer Al Tarn; and led British Columbian jockeys in wins. During the winter he traveled to Cuba and was second in winning mounts at Oriental Park. Longden used his earnings to buy the horse Reddy Fox from Tarn, traded it to Johnson for his contract, and became an independent rider. On 2 September 1931 he won his first stakes race, the Winnipeg Futurity, riding Mad Somers.

In 1935 Longden met the great trainer Jim Fitzsimmons and began to ride Wheatley Stable horses. This change resulted in his riding more in the United States and for the first time earning more than $100,000 in a year. In 1936 he was second in the United States in victories. As he traveled more and raced on better mounts, Longden enjoyed more success at the racetrack, but his home life suffered. Having divorced Helen in 1939, he married Hazel Tarn, Al Tarn’s daughter, on 31 August 1941. Tarn and Longden—who would later divorce in 1984 and remarry in 1985—had two children. Longden then attained U.S. citizenship on 1 March 1944.

Longden’s notable riding accomplishments include winning the 1943 American Triple Crown on Count Fleet; winning the 1936 Illinois and Latonia Derbies on successive days on Al Tarn’s Rushaway; and defeating Citation on Noor, the 1950 handicap champion, in four handicap races—setting three world records in the process. His other famous mounts included Hall of Fame horses: Busher, Silver Spoon, Stymie, Swaps, and Whirlaway. He led the nation’s jockeys in victories in 1938, 1947, and 1948 and was in the top ten in 1936, 1938–1943, 1945–1953, and 1956. He also led in earnings in 1943 and 1945 and was in the top ten from 1936 to 1957 and in 1961. In 32,413 races Longden’s mounts finished first 6,032 times (932 of these wins were at Santa Anita Park), second 4,914, and third 4,273 times; he won career earnings of $24,665,800. Longden became the world’s winningest jockey on 3 September 1956, when he broke Sir Gordon Richard’s record of 4,870 career wins. With his last race Longden established 6,032 as the record, which was later broken by his friend Willie Shoemaker in 1970. (Laffit Pincay, Jr., set a new record for wins in 1999.)

Longden was noted for his physical durability. He rode his last winner, George Royal, in his last race, the 1966 San Juan Capistrano, at age fifty-nine. During his career he broke both arms, collarbones, legs (one five times), feet, back, and numerous ribs and teeth and suffered concussions and paralysis for three months. Such injuries were relatively common in horse racing during that era. In 1941 Sammy Renick, Eddie Arcaro, and Longden formed the Jockeys’ Guild, which negotiated insurance policies; lobbied to require first aid rooms and ambulances at tracks; and sponsored the development of improved safety helmets, flak jackets, and track safety rails.

After retiring from riding, Longden enjoyed success as a trainer, just missing the 1969 Triple Crown with Majestic Prince. From 1965 to 1990 he saddled 3,330 horses and won 443 races, placed in 391, showed in 397, and won purses totaling $6,038,871. His second wife, Hazel, died from cancer in 1989. Longden retired from training in 1990, moved to Banning, California, and on 30 April 1993 married Kathy St. Clair. He suffered a stroke in August 2002 and died at his home on his birthday in 2003. His body was cremated and the ashes interred in Live Oak Cemetery in Monrovia, California.

Longden received the 1952 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award and a Special Eclipse Award in 1994. He was inducted into Pimlico’s National Jockeys Hall of Fame in 1956 and the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1958. He is also a member of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. Longden, nicknamed “the Pumper” for his aggressive riding style down the stretch, was a tough, gritty rider who overcame many obstacles to achieve great success.

Brainerd Kellogg Beckwith, The Longden Legend (1973), covers Longden’s life through his early training days. Henry Mahan, “Longden Saga Unparalleled in Sports,” Daily Racing Form (12 Mar. 1966), provides a concise but relatively complete story of Longden’s career as a jockey. Stephanie Diaz, “Johnny Longden: A Rider’s Reverie,” Backstretch (Apr. 1993), looks at Longden in retirement and relates his reminiscences. Longden can be seen in “Lucy and the Loving Cup,” an episode of the I Love Lucy television show (first aired 7 Jan. 1957). Obituaries are in the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Courier-Journal (Louisville), the New York Times, Thoroughbred Daily News (all 15 Feb. 2003), and the Daily Racing Form (16 Feb. 2003).

Steven P. Savage

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