Johnny Longden, once horse racing’s winningest jockey, and the only horseman to win the Kentucky Derby as a rider and a trainer, died Friday in his sleep, on his 96th birthday.
Longden, who retired as a jockey in 1966 and from training horses in 1990, suffered a stroke last August and had been bedridden in his Banning home for the last four months.
Of all the horse races Johnny Longden won -- 6,032 as a jockey and 370 as a trainer -- two counted the most. Longden rode Count Fleet to victory in the 1943 Kentucky Derby, then in 1969, three years after retiring from riding, he trained Majestic Prince to win the Derby.
Longden, who held the record for victories by a jockey until Bill Shoemaker passed him in 1970, also swept the Triple Crown with Count Fleet, who won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes after his Derby win. Only five horses before Count Fleet and only five since -- the last Affirmed in 1978 -- have won all three races.
Majestic Prince came within one win of giving Longden his second Triple Crown, but he finished second to Arts And Letters, beaten by more than five lengths, in the Belmont. That was Majestic Prince’s first loss, and his last race. Longden had been reluctant to run him in the Belmont, and Majestic Prince was retired because of a tendon injury.
Longden was the only rider Count Fleet ever had. The colt was a son of Reigh Count, who’d won the Derby in 1928, but as a young horse Count Fleet was hard to handle, and his owner, the taxicab and rental-car magnate John D. Hertz, almost sold him for $4,500.
“Don’t do it,” said Longden, who was under contract to ride for the Hertz stable. “This horse loves to run.”
“This colt’s going to hurt somebody,” Hertz said. “He’s dangerous.”
“He doesn’t scare me,” Longden said. “I’ll win a lot of races with him.”
Hertz kept the slightly built horse, and in 1943, during a five-week stretch, Longden rode him to overpowering wins in the Triple Crown.
Actually, Count Fleet won four races during his Triple Crown run, winning the Withers at Belmont Park two weeks before the Belmont Stakes. There were only two challengers in the Belmont and Count Fleet won by 25 lengths, a record margin until Secretariat’s 31-length tour de force 30 years later.
“By far, Count Fleet was the best I ever rode,” Longden frequently said. “He was a freak. He was fast and he could run short or long, it didn’t make any difference. Majestic Prince was a good horse too, but Count Fleet was one of the best there ever was. Count Fleet would have run away from Majestic Prince if they had ever met.”
Longden didn’t believe in using the whip, and in 21 races never did strike Count Fleet.
“A whip doesn’t make a horse run,” he said. “If you’re doing your best and somebody’s hitting you, you’re going to sulk.”
Longden did espouse breaking a horse quickly from the gate. “A length at the start is just as good as a length at the finish,” he said, proving it when he rode Count Fleet to, the first front-running Derby victory in 17 years. “Johnny had some tricks,” said Jerry Lambert, who rode against him many times in California. “He did what he had to do to win races. He’d send a horse, and then when you tried to close some ground, he’d back up his horse right into your face.”
After a race in which he was outridden by a victorious Longden, Ray York said, “You can get to him -- you just can’t get by him.”
Longden, however, was not a one-dimensional rider. Another of his best horses, Noor, came from off the pace to beat the inimitable Citation five times in 1950. Longden also rode the filly Busher, who was voted horse of the year in 1945; Whirlaway and Swaps in some of their formative races, and T.V. Lark, the champion grass horse in 1961.
“Johnny was one the greatest competitors I ever rode against,” said Shoemaker, whose record of 8,833 victories was eclipsed by Laffit Pincay in 1999. “We were neck and neck in the stretch a lot of times, and I’m sure he won most of them. I didn’t like him when I was real young, because he wanted to take every edge, but with time I got a great deal of respect and admiration for him. We became great friends.”
Longden retired from training in 1990 without any of the dramatic fanfare that had accompanied his riding swan song 24 years before. In March 1966, Longden decided that he would announce his retirement. He had dieted for years to make the sub-120-pound weights required of jockeys, and a pinched nerve in his back also had taken its toll. Rumors of Longden’s quitting had circulated for years, but his impromptu announcement, at 59, was still a shock.
His last ride would be a couple of days later, on March 11 aboard George Royal in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap, a race the two of them had won the year before.
A crowd of 60,792, the largest of the season, turned out at Santa Anita to say goodbye. George Royal, who had won only two of 12 starts since his victory in the 1965 race, deserved to be a longshot, but sentimental horseplayers bet him down to 6-1, the fourth choice in a nine-horse field.
“I’m going to take my best shot,” Longden warned the other riders before they headed for the paddock. “You guys better get the hell out of the way, because I’m coming through, no matter what happens.”
At one point, George Royal was last, more than 15 lengths behind. Bobby Ussery had Plaque on the lead, and at the top of the stretch, with an eighth of a mile left, it was going to be a two-horse race. While Ussery attacked his mount with the whip, Longden, whose nickname was “the Pumper,” hand-rode George Royal to the wire.
The difference on the official photo was a quarter of an inch, and the crowd erupted when the placing judges posted George Royal’s No. 10 on the tote board.
“That was a real finish,” Longden said. “That was a real way to go out.”
George Royal was Longden’s 32,413rd mount. George Royal’s $75,000 purse raised the total earnings of the horses Longden rode to $24,665,800.
Jim Murray, writing in The Times, captured how racing would miss Longden in the saddle:
“Unthinkable! Insupportable! France without love. Paris without spring. Italy without music. Germany without bands. Baseball without beer. Weddings without tears.”
Had a 5-year-old Johnny Longden and his mother not missed the boat in the spring of 1912, none of the above might have happened.
Born in Wakefield, England, on Feb. 14, 1907, John Eric Longden, his mother and three sisters were booked on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. The heralded ocean liner was to take them to New York, from where they would travel on to Canada to be reunited with Longden’s two brothers and his father, who had found a coal-mining job.
The train to Southhampton, where the Titanic was docked, was several hours late.
“They had the [gangplank] down, and I just ran off,” Longden told the Thoroughbred Times in a 2002 interview. “They couldn’t find me. Then, they wouldn’t put the [gangplank] down after they found me. They said, ‘Take the next boat.’ And then [the Titanic] hit an iceberg and sank.”
The Longdens took a later passage and eventually settled in the prairie town of Taber in Alberta, Canada. There, coincidentally, Johnny Longden went to school with George Woolf, another future Hall of Fame jockey, who was killed in a spill at Santa Anita in 1946. Longden spent his early summers working alongside his father in the coal mines.
“I got into racing because it looked easier than digging coal,” he said later.
He had been taught, by a Native American, how to ride Roman-style -- straddling two horses bareback and riding them as a team.
“After I learned that, getting on just one horse was easy,” Longden said.
He gravitated to riding at bush tracks all over Canada, then, in 1927, hopped a freight train to Salt Lake City, where he borrowed equipment on Oct. 4 to ride in his first recognized race. He won it with a 9-year-old gelding, Hugo K. Asher, a 16-1 shot that never won another race.
Longden’s career blossomed in 1930. He became the leading rider in British Columbia, then that winter was the No. 2 rider in Cuba.
Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, a legendary New York trainer, saw Longden riding in Texas and in 1935 hired him as a contract rider for the Phipps family’s Wheatley Stable. The next year, on May 22, Longden rode Rushaway to victory in the 1 1/8-mile Illinois Derby, then came back the next day to win the 1 1/4-mile Latonia Derby at the Kentucky track near Cincinnati. Rushaway was owned by Al Tarn, whose daughter Hazel became Longden’s second wife in 1942. Hazel Longden became a licensed trainer, owned horses and helped her husband when he retired from riding to become a trainer in 1966. Hazel Longden died in 1989 and Longden married his third wife, Kathy, in 1993. He is survived by Kathy Longden, a daughter Andrea and a son, Eric, a trainer whose mother was Hazel. Another son and trainer, Vance, from Longden’s first marriage, died Jan. 10 at 72. There will be no funeral, but Santa Anita is planning a memorial service.
Longden won his first riding title in 1938, when he won 236 races. He also led the country with 316 wins in 1947 and 319 in 1948.
Along with Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro, Longden was enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1958. He was awarded Santa Anita’s George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1952, and in 1994, with Arcaro, was presented a special Eclipse Award, one of the industry’s highest honors. There is a bronze bust of Longden in the paddock gardens at Santa Anita, and in Arcadia, not far from the track, there is a street named Longden Avenue.
On Valentine’s Day 1979 -- Longden’s 72nd birthday -- Santa Anita honored him with “A Furlong for Longden,” a lemon cake, with pink frosting, that was 660 feet long.
“Riding was easy, making weight was hard,” Longden would say about his jockey days, but on that day he ate a big piece of his cake without a care.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
AS A JOCKEY
*--* Mounts 1st 2nd 3rd Purses 32,413 6,032 4,914 4,273 $24,665,800 Top horses ridden: Count Fleet, Busher, Four-And-Twenty, Good Deal, Noor, Rushaway, Swaps, T.V. Lark, Your Host, George Royal
*--* AS A TRAINER Starts 1st 2nd 3rd Purses 2,904 370 354 339 $5,747,446
Top horses trained: Majestic Prince, Baffle, Jungle Savage, Jungle Road, Tahitian King, Diplomatic Agent, Regal Bearing.