All her life, Patti Barton has been searching for a happy ending. She had 1,202 happy endings on the race track, becoming the first woman to win 1,000 races, but something was missing.
Almost all the races were won at small tracks, some of which are no longer there, a few of which have changed their names, if not their reputations.
Between trips to the winner’s circle, Barton married and divorced four husbands. She also brought up three children, giving them an appreciation of horses but not pushing them into the only game she ever knew.
In her 30s, Barton went back to her birthplace, New York, not to look for the parents who had sent her to an orphanage when she was an infant, but to appear on a quiz show where a panel tried to guess who she was.
“I’m not bitter,” Barton said. “My real mother may not know who I am, but I know who I am.”
In her 40s, having attended colleges that were chosen not for their prestige but because they happened to be near race tracks, Barton was finally awarded a degree, with a major in accounting, from a school in Pennsylvania.
And Patti Barton has her health--barely--a fifth husband, a little money and three kids who have also done all right in the saddle.
When last seen, the 44-year-old Barton and her husband, former trainer Jack Browne, were touring the nation in their new motor home, stopping at a race track here and a race track there, anywhere that Barton had racing memories. From their home in Southern Illinois, they went to Turfway Park, the track near Cincinnati where, when it was named Latonia, Barton made racing history by riding against her daughter.
From Turfway, they headed to Chicago, where that same daughter, Leah, has retired from riding to rear her 4-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter. Leah’s husband, Jamie Bruin, is part of the jockey colony at Arlington International Racecourse, after having set the one-season record for winners at Turfway.
After Chicago, they went to West Virginia, where Patti Barton rode many of those 1,202 winners. Later this summer, they are scheduled to be in Minnesota, where another of Barton’s daughters, Donna, is one of the leading riders at Canterbury Downs. A year ago, Donna Barton won almost one of every five races she rode there.
Later will come a trip to California, which for Patti Barton will be a bittersweet experience--memories of the hard times, when she and other female jockeys couldn’t even get a mount on a 99-1 shot, but also days when a few understanding horsemen helped nurture her rudimentary talents. “We’re not rich,” Patti Barton said. “But at least we have a little money to give us some financial independence. That’s the good that came out of the accident.”
Barton’s 10,199th ride was her last. On a July day in 1984 at Fairmount Park, near St. Louis, Barton was riding a horse named Astrola when the 3-year-old filly broke down. The fall alone would have been serious, but Barton was trampled by three other horses. She suffered two broken vertebrae, a broken rib, a compound fracture of the left collarbone and multiple fractures to her left jawbone.
Barton spent 73 days in a hospital, where extensive surgery included the insertion of a steel pin and a bone graft.
“Don’t start riding unless you plan on getting hurt,” Barton always told her children, but this was the worst way to dramatize what she preached.
For months, Barton couldn’t remember the names of old friends. She lost the sense of smell. Even now, her mind occasionally wanders.
She sued for $3 million. The case became a cause celebre in Illinois, an example of how horses can be abused through drugs. It was alleged that Astrola had been weakened by a bombardment of steroids.
Barton settled for about $400,000, plus $2,000 a month for life, with a guaranteed minimum of 20 years. “It seems like a lot of money,” Jack Browne said. “But to have seen what Patti had to go through, it wasn’t much.”
The same day Barton went down, Jerry Barton, her 17-year-old son, rode a 50-1 shot to victory in the $89,000 Texian Stakes at Louisiana Downs.
Charlie Barton, cowboy, saddle bronc rider and the father of Patti’s children, used to say that if there was another jockey in the family, it would be Jerry. “Jerry’s the one to do it,” his father said. “He’s full of guts.”
But Jerry Barton got heavy the fastest and ate himself out of a riding career. He has had some nominal jobs more recently--working for trainer Jack Van Berg and others, teaching riding in Japan--and hopes to be training his own stable some day.
When Jerry and his older sisters were growing up in western Pennsylvania, Patti and her fourth husband, a college English professor, would pile the children in a car for annual visits with their father in Oklahoma. Barton drove them as far as Effingham, Ill., which seemed an unlikely place for Charlie Barton to meet them.
“We picked Effingham for no reason other than it was exactly halfway between where we were and where they were going in Oklahoma,” Patti Barton said. “Their father would drop them off in Effingham for the pickup at the end of the summer.”
Leah, who soon will be 26, rode against her mother in a $2,500 claiming race at Latonia on Dec. 1, 1982. Mother’s horse finished fifth and daughter’s ran 10th. At least they beat Jamie Bruin, Leah’s future husband, who finished 11th while shouting that rare warning of “Look out, Mom,” to his future mother-in-law at one point in the race.
Several weeks later, Patti and Leah were the guests of Johnny Carson on national television. Unknowingly, Carson wound up asking Patti to tell the Cliff Thompson story. At home, Barton’s friends cringed. “How’s she going to be able to tell this on television?” they said.
Thompson and Barton were riding in a race at Waterford Park in West Virginia one night in 1972. Through the stretch Barton accidentally whipped Thompson’s mount across the face andThompson retaliated by whacking Barton on the rear with his whip.
Coming back after the race, the two jockeys scuffled. Thompson clipped Barton in the nose and it started to bleed. Barton grabbed Thompson.
“That’s probably the only time you’ve come close to a man,” Thompson said.
“Where did you grab him?” Carson naively asked, not realizing the size of the hole he was digging for himself.
Somehow, as delicately as possible, Barton answered the question.
Carson flipped his pencil into the air. “Welcome to the hard-hitting world of race riding, folks,” he said.
Barton’s record of 1,202 wins for a woman has been surpassed twice, first by Patti Cooksey and later by Julie Krone.
“Patti Barton was a pioneer,” Cooksey said. “It wasn’t easy for her. I feel that Patti and Diane Crump opened the door for women riders. Now Julie Krone’s probably opening the door (in major racing) for other female jockeys.”
Last summer at Canterbury Downs, Donna Barton, who is now 23, won a riding competition against Krone and some other leading women jockeys. Her mother attended.
“It was just luck, mom,” Donna Barton said.
“No, it wasn’t,” her mother said.
After Barton’s spill at Fairmount Park, she was worried that her daughters might quit riding.
“I’m happy they stayed with it, although now Leah has quit because of the babies,” Barton said. “Riding has given Donna so much direction in her life. It can be a great life. How many jobs are there where you’ve got the chance to be a winner nine times a day?”
Jack Browne says that his wife belongs in the Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Sixty-four jockeys have been enshrined, all men.
“I know I’m her husband, but I really think Patti belongs,” Browne said. “She won a thousand races at a time when most female jocks couldn’t get many mounts. And even though she hasn’t ridden in five years, only a couple have passed her.”