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Johnny Longden
Longden's Last Ride, March 12, 1966

By: Ron Hale

There was an incident 30 years ago that I witnessed in person, along with 60,791 other people at Santa Anita Park where no one will ever convince me that a jockey didn't throw a race on purpose to let another jockey win

The date was March 12, 1966. A month earlier, Johnny Longden, known to his fellow reinsmen as "Grandpa" and frequently called "The Pumper" by famed racecaller Joe Hernandez, announced that he would call it quits at the end of the meeting (the 55-day season then ran from the day after Christmas to the second week of March). Longden broke the news to his fellow riders at a birthday party they had given for him in the jock's room on his birthday, Valentine's Day.

Longden's last ride would be on the Canadian-bred George Royal in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap. Longden, born in England and raised in Alberta, Canada, had won the same race with this same horse a year earlier.

This time, however, George Royal wasn't a shadow of the horse that won the race the year before. After winning a sprint tuneup on the turf in early January, he was out of the money in four straight stakes races. In his final prep for the San Juan, George Royal had finished up the track at long odds in a division of the San Luis Rey Handicap (run in recent years as the San Luis Rey Stakes).

And, in the 1960s, Londgen, then the winningest rider in the world in terms of number of winners, wasn't a shadow of the jockey who had guided Count Fleet to a Triple Crown triumph 23 years earlier. No longer did Longden rank among the leading riders at Southern California meetings.

There is much written in magazines and racing books about that San Juan Capistrano. I can add little. Suffice it to say that Leon Rasmussen of the Daily Racing Form, writing in the Thoroughbred Record (March 19, 1966), called the race "the most moving, the most melodramatic day in the history of California racing." He said it was "one of the most amazing human interest stories of all time." Neither quote was an exaggeration.

In a fairy-tale Hollywood movie ending, the washed-up Longden guided the washed-up George Royal in a grueling head-and-head battle through the stretch to edge Plaque by a scant nose at the wire. The horse, who would easily have been 40-1 had this not been Longden's last race, was bet down to 6-1.

Longden hand-rode George Royal the final sixteenth while Bobby Ussery on Plaque was all over his mount with hand, boot and whip.

One wire service would later rate the race the second biggest sports story of the decade of the 60s, second only to the Miracle New York Mets of 1969.

Like everyone else in the crowd, I was screaming for Longden to win, even though I had a $2-win bet on my sentimental favorite horse, Hill Rise. The El Peco Ranch star had two years earlier fought gamely to get within a neck of Northern Dancer at the end of the 1964 Kentucky Derby. It was the first Derby that I had ever attended in person (my first trip ever east of the Mississippi) and Hill Rise (who had raced in California and was the favorite in the Derby) was *my* choice. I followed his career religiously from that point on.

There is a beautiful oil painting of the finish of the San Juan Capistrano of 1966 in the Clubhouse at Santa Anita. This same painting graced the cover of the Santa Anita official program during the 1967 racing season. The painting shows the field crossing the finish line with the majestic San Gabriel Mountains in the background. Don't believe it.

It was the type of day of which those of us growing up in Southern California experienced many in the 1950s and 1960s. Smog, combined with fog and haze, made it an ugly afternoon. The mountains were totally obscured. You couldn't even see the large sign on the landmark Westerner Motel that was located just across the street from the seven-furlong chute.

The atmosphere at Santa Anita that day, however, was electric. I know I'm frequently criticized for saying things were always better in the "olden days," but the 60,000-plus at Santa Anita for Longden's farewell was a totally different affair with a totally different feeling from the 60,000-plus at Santa Anita for Shoemaker's farewell in 1990.

For one, 60,000 then meant that there could be as many as 85,000 or more in the house. I was shy of my 20th birthday that year and therefore was NOT counted in the attendance. Minors were admitted free to racetracks in California--and at that time that meant anyone under 21 years of age. Santa Anita, with its popular infield for picnics and parties, always attracted an inordinate amount of youngsters.

In later years, racetracks would go to extraordinary lengths to count as many people as they could in their "official" attendance stats--owners, trainers and others with passes, as well as employees in at least one case (Meadowlands in New Jersey).

Box 337 at Santa Anita was my weekend winter home from 1961 until the box became part of the Baldwin Terrace in 1994. I left California in 1995. On March 12, 1966, there were probably 15-16 people "sitting" in our six-seat box that day. The box area was always off limits to non-box holders at Santa Anita, but a few bucks placed in the hands of the right usher always got you a hand stamp that admitted you to this area.

People in the seats in our box would play musical chairs all day, some coming down to chat for a few minutes. Others spent most of the day around the bar. And, in those days, huge crowds meant huge mutuel lines all day. There were separate windows for cashing and betting, separate windows for $2, $5, $10 and $50 bets, and separate windows for win, place, show, combined (across the board) and daily double. And there was no advance betting.

Therefore, not having a seat didn't present too much of a problem, because one spent most of the day in line on those types of days.

The 60,000-plus who came out 24 years later for Shoemaker's farewell just didn't give one the same feeling. And, of course, the race did not have the same outcome. Nor was the Shoe on a horse who -- on paper -- simply had no chance of winning the race.

Now to the real story. All but forgotten about March 12, 1966 was the fourth race. This was really the only shot that anyone thought Londgen had of winning a race on his final day of riding. This race was followed with more intensity than the 8th race, because most thought the San Juan Capistrano would just be a footnote as the champion rider's final mount. No one really thought George Royal had a chance of even contending.

But, Chiclero, Londgen's mount in the fourth race looked like at least the second best horse in the race. For obvious reasons, the horse went off at odds-on in the six-furlong affair. Londgen, as he liked to do in his later years, went to the front immediately out of the gate.

As the horses straightened out in the stretch, Bill Hartack guided Valiant Man effortlessly along side Chiclero, drew ahead of Longden's horse and seemed poised to draw off, when Hartack appeared to go to hand riding. Both horses then went the final eighth as a team. In the end, Chiclero drew out slightly to win by a widening head.

Almost the second the horses passed the finish line, I turned to face Stan Helm, my "racetrack father" and the man who "owned" our box. We both instantly had felt that Hartack had given this race to Longden. Others in our box and in surrounding boxes began buzzing. There was no doubt of who won the photo, but there was much skepticism as to whether this was a gift or not.

Over the next hour or two before the eighth race, everywhere one went in the stands you could hear people saying that Hartack held his mount back so Longden could go out a winner. Mind you, no one was really mad. Not like the hard core race followers who you can always hear complaining about so-called fixed races. It was more just a curious interest in one jockey doing a favor for another. I don't think anyone really objected, except those who might have had a healthy bet on Valiant Man and Hartack.

Hartack, like Eddie Arcaro and others before him and Angel Cordero and others after him, was primarily an eastern jock. Occasionally they would come for a week or two, and sometimes for the whole Santa Anita meeting, but usually these jocks plied their trade at Hialeah during the Santa Anita meeting. But, the figuring was that jocks everywhere respect each other -- especially one as legendary at John Londgen.

There were no televisions at racetracks in those days. No videotape replays. No slow-motion stretch drives. No steward's head-on shots. Once the race was over it was over. All that you could view later was the drying, wrinkled 8x10 black-and-white photo-finish picture posted at several locations around the track. The photo clearly showed Londgen whipping and Hartack holding on to both sides of the reins. Did Hartack let him win? I guess only Hartack will ever know the answer to that one.

Of course, the fourth race was long forgotten after the miracle finish of the eighth race. Newspaper stories and magazine articles in the days following only mentioned that Londgen had won earlier in the day. Only George Main of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner would allude to the fact that maybe a jockey let another jockey win the fourth race that afternoon. And, of course, Hartack would not talk to George Main or any other member of the media. Hartack's aloofness and hatred of the media were famous by that time. The man who won the Kentucky Derby *five* times with his first *nine* Derby mounts -- and in my opinion probably the greatest rider of the 20th century -- ignored the media. Even if he had been a friend of the press, for obvious reasons, he would never have admitted to throwing a race.

B. K. Beckwith, in his biography, "The Londgen Legend" (A.S. Barnes & Co., 1973), talks at great length about that last day, mentions Chiclero and the fourth race, but never mentions the buzz in the crowd that day. Maybe it wouldn't make for as good a story as far as Longden is concerned, but given the finish of the San Juan Capistrano four races later, I don't think anyone would care. Hartack's gesture was a great one by a great rider.

About 15 years later, I had the opportunity to meet Bill Hartack at the Los Angeles County Fair at Pomona (now called Fairplex). Hartack, who was a steward representing the California Horse Racing Board at that time, was eating breakfast at an outdoor diner (the kind that still had the old-fashioned round, backless seats) located on the fairgrounds just a few yards from the entrance to the Clubhouse. Stan and I and another friend, Bill Simmons, were there to have an early greasy breakfast of eggs, bacon and hash browns. Hartack sat just a couple of seats from us. After Hartack paid his check and started to leave, I swiveled around and stuck my hand out. "Hi. My name is Ron Hale and I've always been a great fan of yours." He shook my hand, smiled and said something like "That's nice to hear." Then he walked off. I just didn't have the nerve to say, "By the way, did you let Londgen win that race on his last day?" I sat back down and shook by head. Both Stan and Bill agreed that Hartack would never have answered my question anyway.

Twenty-four years after Longden's San Juan Capistrano, when Stan and I sat in our same box 337 in the same seats to watch the Shoe's last race, we reminisced about that day in March 1966. We both remembered the name of Chiclero, but neither of us could recall the name of Hartack's mount. We ran through the names of the people who were with us that day -- about half of whom, including my real father, had since passed away. And, even with the 60,000-plus on hand for Shoe's final race, there were two empty seats in our box. Unfortunately, that's the story of racing everywhere. Its most ardent followers and supporters are gone.

Unlike the mystery for many of events like the JFK assassination, I guess there are few, if any, historians around who care whether Hartack let Londgen win that Saturday afternoon. But, I'm sure that are still some who were at Santa Anita that day -- maybe even one or two of them are now on this List -- who still have a nagging question that they would like to have answered.

© 1997, Ron Hale

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