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Don MacBeth Dies of Cancer at 37 : Fellow Riders Saw Him as a Champion

Times Staff Writer

I got to the copying machine too late.

The last thing I did before leaving Santa Anita Sunday night was photocopy a story about jockey Don MacBeth that had run in The Times last Friday.

MacBeth, who had given the interview a week before, had asked to be mailed a copy of the story in Florida. I was going to send it Monday.

MacBeth, who was 37 and had been fighting cancer for more than a year, died Sunday at his home in Reddick, Fla.

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You’d like to hope that MacBeth saw the story, anyway, since the Miami Herald carried it last the weekend, but in all probability he was too ill during his final days to be doing any reading.

He rode 2,700 winners and his horses earned $40 million in purses, but he’ll be more remembered in California for traveling 3,000 miles to accept the George Woolf Memorial Award at Santa Anita only eight days before he died.

A vote by jockeys all over the country determines the winner of the award, named for another rider who was gone too soon. George (The Iceman) Woolf died at 35 on Jan. 4, 1946, a day after suffering head injuries in a spill in the fourth race at Santa Anita.

MacBeth was the 38th winner of the award and 13 of the previous winners--including Hall of Famers Johnny Adams, Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay--were present to honor the Canadian native in the walking ring between races.

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MacBeth, who hadn’t been in racing silks since last April, when he suffered a broken back in an accident at Aqueduct, appeared at Santa Anita in the pink and green colors of Chief’s Crown, with whom he had won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in 1984 and the Flamingo and the Marlboro Cup in 1985.

Before the Santa Anita ceremonies were over, JoAnne MacBeth, the jockey’s wife and mother of their four children, was crying.

Woolf died 3 1/2 years before MacBeth was born, but they were both Canadians, and Woolf grew up not far from Red Deer, Alberta, MacBeth’s hometown.

“Woolf was my idol,” MacBeth said. “Anybody from Canada who rode after him could try to catch up with his accomplishments. But naturally, that would be an impossible task.”

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Over breakfast about a week ago, MacBeth, his walk reduced to a shuffle and his skin as pale as polished alabaster, knew he was dying. The doctors were playing longshots in recent months, cloning a specimen of the disease and trying to find a chemical that would be effective without being rejected by the body.

Last summer, with MacBeth resting in Florida, the jockeys at Belmont Park videotaped a birthday greeting and mailed it to him.

It was a raucous taping that had been done in the jockeys’ room one day. Angel Cordero even took off his shirt, showing one of his riding souvenirs--an unsightly scar that starts at mid-chest and runs vertically down to his navel.

A month before MacBeth’s accident, Cordero had nearly been killed in a spill on the same Aqueduct track. Cordero suffered a broken leg and a lacerated liver. Compared to what Don MacBeth had, though, he was lucky.

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