If you turn away from the table and just listen to his voice as he drinks coffee and talks at the Turf Diner every morning, Willie Clark sounds high-pitched and young--say, 14 or 15.
If you listen to the words, which are feisty and a little combative, you might guess he’s a high school kid.
One hundred yards from the diner at the Charles Town Race Track, you could watch Clark struggling with a fractious mount, perhaps taking a risk by heading for an opening near the rail. That’s certainly a job for the young.
Up close, however, you notice his cookie-duster mustache is white and his teeth are missing. He might put in false teeth away from the track, but during a race they would be a hazard.
Clark celebrated his 67th birthday Thursday, and the next night, the Charles Town management gave away 2,500 T-shirts noting the track is the “Home of Willie Clark, world’s oldest active jockey.”
Most of the jockeys who were around when he started riding are retired or dead, or have switched to training.
Clark used to be a drinker, but no more. He starts the day with two Tylenols and coffee, but he is able to eat without worrying about his weight. He’s a natural 97-pounder, and perhaps that’s the secret to his longevity.
With approximately 10,500 mounts, he has had about 1,140 winners.
That compares horribly with Bill Shoemaker, also a racing rarity at 57, who has had 9,000-plus winners and is one of the wealthiest athletes in history. Compared with Shoemaker, though, a lot of jockeys look bad.
“It’s different with him,” said Clark. “He rides only the best, and they’re expected to win. The kind I ride are the troublesome horses, the ones that nobody else wants. That’s what gives me satisfaction.
“My best memory in racing is winning with a horse that nobody else could even get around the track. I don’t even care if nice stories are written about me. I get a good feeling if I get the most out of a horse I ride and somebody I know bets a couple of bucks on the horse.”
Clark still thinks like a youngster. He complains about the noise young riders make in the starting gate, but it’s not because it offends his ears.
“Willie was always a great gate boy,” said Leon Bordier, former chief starter at Charles Town. “He never got off bad. But let Willie explain.”
Clark said the noise from riders fouls up his concentration.
“You try to be ready as soon as you get in the gate,” he said. “But a long time ago, I found out something about starting gates. If you really listen carefully, you can hear a little noise a split second before the gate opens. So, when you hear that noise, you get the horse going. The gate’s going to open. It always works.”
Bordier grinned in confirmation.
“He’s talking about the magnets that hold the doors closed,” the former starter said. “Apparently, Willie could hear those magnets activated before the starting gates open. It’s a quick process, but Willie has always been able to take advantage of it.”
One thing that rankles Clark is he’s not in the “Guinness Book of World Records,” which lists Levi Burlingame, who rode his last race at the age of 80 in Stafford, Kan., as the oldest jockey.
Clark never heard of Burlingame or Stafford, but says he’s positive the record is wrong. Kansas just recently legalized pari-mutuel racing and has not run its first race. And some old-timer riding in a quarter-horse race isn’t good enough to be listed, in Clark’s way of thinking.
“Even if he was some kind of gentleman rider, it shouldn’t count,” Clark said. “He couldn’t have been riding regularly, anyway. He couldn’t have handled it.”
That’s not to say Clark won’t be riding at 80. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll ride at 80, but not as often as I do now.”
Most of the jockeys he rides against weren’t born when Clark began riding in 1944. Matter of fact, some of their parents weren’t born.
Clark came out of Philadelphia and began working with a steeplechase stable. He switched to Maryland soon after and stayed for years before moving to Charles Town.
When Maryland had a circuit of minor tracks, most of which were a half-mile in circumference, Clark was known as “King of the Halfers.” He needs little urging to tell you, in the 1948 Cumberland meeting, he rode 28 winners in 10 days.
“The record stood for 22 years,” Clark said. Well, not really, because the Cumberland dates were sold to Timonium in 1962, and the track closed.
Clark’s recall is excellent, however. He can tell you about winners at Hagerstown, Marlboro and Bel Air--all closed now--and he can tell you how much his longshots paid.
“I once rode a horse named Minnix,” he said. “He had been running in Maryland, and we took him to Lincoln Downs (in Lincoln, R.I., also closed). This was in October of 1950. He won and paid $508.80. It was the 16th-highest payoff in the history of racing.”
Actually, it was the 18th highest, far below Wishing Ring’s $1,885 payoff in 1912 at the old Latonia track, but it’s doubtful if there’s as good a story as Clark’s tale about Minnix.
“We took him up from Laurel,” he said, “and the trainer was supposed to bet $72 for all of us. But he bought a new Chevy Impala and didn’t have the money to bet. I complained, but there wasn’t anything I could do.”
Considering the small betting pools at Lincoln Downs in those years, it’s likely that $72 bet on the horse would have cut sharply into the payoff.
Clark takes pride in his work with another runner, Crying For More. He won 53 races during 1960, most of them under Clark.
One serious injury caused the removal of Clark’s left shoulder blade, but Clark sounds proud of a physical examination he got from a Leesburg, Va., doctor two years ago. “It was for insurance,” he said. “The doctor said I passed everything the tests asked for.”
The shoulder injury forced him out of racing for 28 months.
His legs, Clark says, are “in better shape now than when I started riding in 1944.”
Clark’s daughter, Carolyn, who was killed in an auto accident in 1965 at 16, was a celebrity of sorts.
She was the first girl to ride a pony around the field at Memorial Stadium after each Baltimore Colts score.
“I was the one who started that,” former Baltimore Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger said. “I suggested it to Carroll Rosenbloom (owner of the Colts). He liked the idea, but asked, ‘Where am I going to get some girl who can handle that?’ I remembered Carolyn, because she had ridden with my daughters in pony shows. She was a superb rider.”
Had Carolyn Clark lived in a later era, she might have become a jockey. Willie, who quit riding for a while after her death, isn’t so sure, however. “Her mother might not have allowed it,” he said.
Clark has no telephone and won’t tell strangers where he lives, although he said he’s close to Charles Town.
“You have a phone and people call you at night to bug you,” he said. “I give all I’ve got out there on the horses. That’s all they (the fans) deserve from me.”