Eddie Arcaro (1916–1997) was one of American thoroughbred racing's legendary figures. A jockey who racked up an impressive string of wins during his peak years in the 1940s and 1950s, the diminutive Italian-American was dubbed "the Master" by sportswriters for the confidence he showed in the heat of the race, as well as for the five Kentucky Derby ribbons he collected. "Like Joe DiMaggio in baseball, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in golf and Joe Louis in boxing," noted Joseph Durso of the New York Times, Arcaro "symbolized the exploding role of the hero in sports in the middle decades of the century."
Born on February 19, 1916, Arcaro spent his childhood in the Cincinnati metropolitan area, which includes the Kentucky cities of Covington and Newport, just across the Ohio River border between the two states. His parents, Pasquale and Josephine, were Italian immigrants and his father held a number of jobs, including taxi driver and operator of an illegal liquor enterprise during Prohibition. Arcaro was born prematurely, and weighed just three pounds at birth; because of this, he was smaller than his classmates and was rejected when he tried out for a spot on a baseball team. His full height would reach just five-foot, two inches.
Rode First Race Illegally
By the age of 13 Arcaro had found a job as a golf caddy at the local country club, but the bags he carried for members proved nearly as big as he was. Intrigued by a comment one golfer made—that someone of his stature would be ideally suited to jockey racehorses instead—Arcaro headed to nearby Latonia Race Course (later Turfway Park) in Florence, Kentucky, and was hired as a horse exerciser for 75 cents a day. There was a minimum age requirement for jockeys, however, and he was still too young to obtain a license to ride professionally, but he did run illegally in a race on May 18, 1931, at the Bainbridge Park race track near Cleveland, Ohio. He lost that race, as well as the next 44 events he rode, and decided to head south for the winter racing season in Mexico. His first win came at the Aqua Caliente track in Tijuana, on January 14, 1932, on a horse named Eagle Bird.
Arcaro turned 16 a month later, and could enter the profession legitimately. He landed an apprentice position at the Fair Grounds Racecourse in New Orleans, and did so well that he was hired at the famous Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. The racehorse breeding and training facility had been founded by a wealthy Chicagoan, William Monroe Wright, who was heir to the Calumet Baking Powder Company fortune. Wright's son, Warren, hired Arcaro and began pairing him with some of the farm's best thoroughbreds. Arcaro racked up a good record at the Washington Park track in Chicago, Jefferson Park in New Orleans, and Narragansett Park in Rhode Island, and soon emerged as one of thoroughbred racing's top new talents. Arcaro, noted Durso, possessed "a street-smart sense that made him a natural in race-riding, a remarkable combination of grace and power on a thousand-pound horse traveling 35 miles an hour for high stakes. He rode with rare technical gifts, but mostly with an uncanny sense of mission that he seemed to share with his horse and a killer's instinct for winning."
Arcaro rose to the pinnacle of his profession during its most rough-and-tumble period. Thoroughbred racing was one of the most popular spectator sports in the pre-television era, and the big-money stakes races were avidly followed during the warm weather months of the season. Competition on and off the track was fierce: jockeys could expect to take home 10 percent of the winnings of that day's prize purse if their horse won, and so they were keen to be paired with the right racer. Illegal moves such as grabbing another horse's saddle silks to scare it, deliberately locking legs with another rider, or even hitting another jockey with the same whip used to urge one's own horse forward were not uncommon. "It's an odd thing about jockeys," Arcaro reminisced toward the end of his career in an interview with New York Times journalist Joseph C. Nichols. "They're the only paid athletes who, if you left them alone, would kill one another."
Won 1938 Derby
Arcaro entered his first Kentucky Derby race in 1935, riding a horse named Nellie Flag. The race, held at the Churchill Downs track in Louisville, was one of the three Triple Crown events in U.S. thoroughbred horse racing, along with the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course and the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. It took another three years before Arcaro won his first Derby, riding the 1938 winner Lawrin to national acclaim. The press called him "Steady Eddie" for his habit of remaining as still as a statue during the race, but his signature move was switching the whip between his right and left hands as he urged the horse forward.
In 1941 Arcaro rode another horse to victory at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, this one called Whirlaway. "A sensational chestnut thoroughbred colt with a long tail," noted Sports Illustrated writer Jim Bolus, Whirlaway had a rather notorious reputation prior to that win for being as temperamental as he was strong. When Arcaro was asked to ride him, he was wary. "I had seen too many good riders that couldn't handle him," he told Bolus. "I didn't know why they thought I could. They were having a lot of trouble with him. He would bolt." Calumet Farms trainer Ben Jones (1882–1961), as famous in his day as Arcaro, noticed that that Whirlaway sometimes strayed off course, and decided to put a blinker over just one eye. Arcaro and Whirlaway won the 1941 Kentucky Derby with a record time of two minutes, one second. That spring, the duo went on to win both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, earning them racing's highly coveted and rarely achieved Triple Crown title.
Arcaro and Jones teamed up several times to make Calumet Farm horses stakes winners, and the jockey was courted by other owners and trainers during these peak years of his career. In 1942 his career almost came to an end after trouble at the Aqueduct track in Queens, New York. He and a rival jockey, Vincent Nodarse, had several deliberate and near-deadly encounters during a race, and Arcaro finally managed to knock Nodarse off his horse. When questioned by race officials, he freely admitted, "I was trying to kill the S.O.B.," according to People. The incident resulted in an indefinite suspension by racing authorities, but his new patron, Helen Hay Whitney, intervened to have the ban lifted after a year.
Won Triple Crown Title Again
In 1945 Arcaro won his third Kentucky Derby, this time on Hoop Jr. He won again three years later on Citation, another famous horse of the era, and that day in May of 1948 became the first of a long winning streak for the pair: Arcaro rode Citation to 16 consecutive first-place finishes, including the Preakness and the Belmont, which gave him his second Triple Crown title. With that he became the first jockey ever to win the Crown more than once, a feat that has remained his alone well into the twenty-first century. In 1952 Arcaro won his fifth Kentucky Derby race on another Jones-trained mount, Hill Gail. Only one other rider, Bill Hartack (born 1932), has ever won the Kentucky Derby five times or more. Arcaro also won the Preakness Stakes six times, a record for that course, and tied with another jockey for six wins for the Belmont Park Triple Crown contest.
Arcaro was immensely famous at the peak of his career. Thoroughbred racing ranked with baseball and boxing as one of the most widely followed sports in America, in an era when football, basketball, and hockey had yet to find their coast-to-coast fan bases. His 1951 autobiography was titled I Ride to Win!, and he continued to achieve that goal for the rest of the decade. He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1958, but was thrown from his horse during the Belmont Stakes a year later; knocked unconscious, he nearly drowned in a puddle of water before his rescuers arrived. Though Arcaro was seriously injured, he claimed that the helmet he wore—newly introduced in the sport—had saved his life.
Arcaro's last race came on November 18, 1961, and the following April, at the age of 46, he announced his formal retirement from the sport. Three decades of spills and persistent bursitis in one arm forced him to quit, but he had indeed hesitated, he admitted. "I like being a celebrity. I'm being honest…. When I retire I'll be just another little man," Nichols quoted him as saying. Arcaro finished with an impressive career record: he entered 24,092 races, won 4,779 of them, finished second in another 3,807 contests, and racked up 554 victories in the all-important stakes races. For several years during the 1940s and 1950s, he was the highest-paid jockey in U.S. thoroughbred racing. Earnings are calculated on the betting payouts for a horse, and winning riders received a 10 percent cut. His career total was over $30 million, much of which he invested in the oil business, a chain of drive-in restaurants, and even saddlery manufacturers. He retired to Florida, where he played golf and served as a broadcast analyst for Triple Crown races for a number of years. Widowed in 1988 when Ruth, his wife of 51 years, passed away, he remarried and spent the remainder of his years in the Miami area. He died of liver cancer on November 14, 1997, at the age of 81. Survivors included his wife, Vera, and children Robert and Carolyn.
Despite the fiercely competitive atmosphere of thoroughbred racing, Arcaro served as a mentor to a younger generation of jockeys. Earlier, in the 1940s, he was one of the co-founders of the Jockeys Guild, which sought to secure disability assistance for injured riders and guard the profession against abuses such as race fixing. Arcaro was president of the Guild from 1949 until 1961. Years later, he philosophized about the tricky combination of jockey, animal, and oval track in a sport in which many thousands of dollars could be wagered on a single two-minute event. "Race riding is as much physical exertion as you want to put into it," Investor's Business Daily journalist Michael Rich-man quoted him as saying. "You develop strong back and shoulder muscles by pushing with the horse on every stride, by showing him you're the boss and making him keep his mind on the job."
Cincinnati Post (Cincinnati, OH), May 1, 2006.
Investor's Business Daily, February 1, 2002.
Kentucky Post, March 26, 1997.
New York Post, June 9, 1952; September 26, 1958.
New York Times, May 2, 1948; April 4, 1962; November 15, 1997.
People, December 1, 1997.
Sporting News, November 24, 1997.
Sports Illustrated, November 4, 1991; November 24, 1997.