Scripting your finish is unequal parts luck and brilliance. Peyton Manning just did it. So did Ted Williams, John Elway and John Wooden.
Saturday commemorates the 50-year anniversary of another storybook ending, that of jockey John Longden, who was then the winningest rider in history.
Bion Abbott, the longtime L.A. Times horse racing writer, captured that March 12, 1966, moment this way:
“It couldn’t happen this side of a movie studio, but it did. And there are 60,792 witnesses who can testify — if they have recovered their voices — that the old master, John Longden, captured the climactic closing race of his riding career with George Royal in the $125,000 San Juan Capistrano Handicap Saturday at Santa Anita.”
Longden was 59 at the time. He was called Grandpa or The Pumper for how he would ride up on the horse’s neck and pump its head to try to get it going.
As a jockey, Longden won the Triple Crown in 1943 aboard Count Fleet. As a trainer, he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Majestic Prince in 1969. He remains the only person to win the Derby as both a jockey and trainer.
“It killed him that he couldn’t ride Majestic Prince,” said Andrea Longden, John’s daughter.
There were signs that 1966 would be Longden’s last year as a rider, especially after he was thrown in the post parade in January and then kicked by a 2-year-old filly named Douceville. It caused a pinched nerve in his back.
“Actually, it hurts much more when I walk then when I am riding,” Longden told The Times’ Bob Hebert. “The doctor says the only cure is complete rest.”
Andrea Longden, 18 at the time, remembers her father thinking that his “reflexes might not be as quick as they could be.”
Longden often hinted he was ready to retire. When he was offered a chance to train horses in Florida, John and wife Hazel knew it was time.
He talked about retirement “so often that people didn’t take him seriously,” said Dan Smith, then a publicist at Santa Anita.
Longden chose a meeting of the Pasadena Sports Ambassadors Club at the Arroyo Inn on the Tuesday before the San Juan Capistrano to make the announcement. “He said, ‘Saturday when I ride, that will be my last mount,’” Smith remembered.
“On Thursday we had a press conference in the publicity office at Santa Anita,” Smith said. “The place was packed with cameras and reporters. The anticipation was building for days. John was beyond cooperative.”
The race was scheduled to be broadcast live in L.A. and in 17 Western markets.
As race day approached, Andrea said things were pretty normal. “He wasn’t really nervous,” she said. “He knew what he was going to do and he was going to do it. He had been riding for 40 years.”
Hazel was ready for his riding career to be over.
“On the way to the track, I told myself that I had to sit through only four more races,” she told The Times on that day. “It’s been tougher for me each year. Now I’ll have someone to sit with me — in the stands.”
Everyone thought Longden had achieved a successful swan song when he won the fourth race aboard the favorite Chiclero. No one really expected George Royal, his final mount, to be much of a factor, going off at more than 6-1 odds.
Longden was born in 1907 in Wakefield, England. His family moved to Canada when he was five.
“I got started [riding] a lot later than most jocks,” Longden told Times columnist Sid Ziff. “I was around 21 or 22. I used to work in the mines and I had to help [feed] the family. There were seven of us. I couldn’t leave until the others could help.”
Longden paid his dues, riding in Cuba and Mexico, before horse racing became legal in California.
Bill Shoemaker was one of his closest friends. When Shoemaker broke Longden’s win record, Longden was at Del Mar to congratulate him.
“No doubt about it, Longden was a master,” Shoemaker said in “Call to the Post: Johnny Longden’s Glories and Goofs” by Leo Louis Jacques. “He got me a jillion times and beat me with all his tricks. I didn’t appreciate a lot of it at the beginning, but eventually I learned those tricks and used them when I could.”
Longden finished his riding career with 6,032 wins in 32,413 races. There are more riding opportunities today and Longden has slipped to 17th on the wins list. Russell Baze is the leader with 12,782 wins in 53,353 rides.
Longden also rode Swaps and Triple Crown winner Whirlaway, who had a different jockey at the time. He led the country in wins three times and purses twice. He also won the Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Derby five times each.
George Royal had won the San Juan Capistrano the year before in 1965, but few expected he could win again over the 1 3/4-mile turf course that starts at the top of the hill and comes down and goes by the grandstand twice.
It’s an unusual distance, and when the race is run this year on April 10, it will be the only time horses have gone that long during the current meeting.
Bobby Ussery, who finished second by a nose aboard Plaque, was in command for all but the photo.
“My strategy was to set a slow pace coming off the hill,” Ussery said from his home in Hollywood, Fla. “I was on a horse that had a lot of speed and I was trying to conserve his pace.”
The first time around the course, George Royal was ninth of nine horses.
“When I got to the quarter pole, I asked my horse to run and he did,” Ussery said. “At the eighth poll, I thought I was going to win. Even at the 16th pole I thought I was going to win.”
George Royal came charging in the final steps and everyone waited for the photo finish.
“It took them 30 minutes to put up the sign, it was almost a dead heat,” Ussery said in dramatic overstatement.
“We had a box right by the finish line up high,” Andrea recalled. “I was yelling, ‘Come on, Dad!’ We held our breath at the end. We thought we had won, but my mother wouldn’t go down [to the winner’s circle] until the photo was up and we knew we won it.”
Longden held the horse back a little bit before going to the winner’s circle. It was there that he revealed a personal secret.
“When he was still on the horse, he took his helmet off and everyone applauded,” Andrea said. “Except he wasn’t wearing his toupee. You could hear people were laughing about it.”
By this time the tears were flowing, especially from Andrea. “I remember him getting off and he came over and gave me a big hug and a kiss. I was just so proud of my dad.”
Afterward, a party for about 30 people was planned at Longden’s house in Arcadia.
“It became a big party,” Andrea said. “Our neighbor had it all set up and had to go out and get more stuff. Everybody showed up, at least 100 people. So many people honoring my dad made me proud.”
Saturday is one of the biggest days of the year at Santa Anita. Not because of the 50-year anniversary but because of the four stakes races, including the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap. Some strong Kentucky Derby horses are running in the San Felipe Stakes.
Longden, however, is not be forgotten. If you wander through the east paddock gardens you can stop by a bust of Longden. It sits there along with busts of Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay and Chris McCarron.
And if that’s not enough nostalgia of what happened half-a-century ago you can go to the main betting area known as Mainline One. There at window 127 you can find Andrea Longden, who has worked as a teller for almost four decades. Her memories of that day are still fresh and crisp.
“I don’t want anyone to forget my dad,” she said. “He did a lot for horse racing.”
After he retired from racing, Longden moved to Banning, where he lived until he died on his 96th birthday, Feb. 14, 2003.