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Original Issue

Johnny's goof on Big Red

A taint still clings to Jockey Johnny Loftus, who rode the great horse, Man o' War, in the only race Big Red ever lost

You can find him virtually any Saturday when the horses are running in New York, at Goetz's Cafe on Jamaica Avenue in Jamaica, N.Y.

He's grayer now, the lines are deeper in his weather-worn face and, although he always watches the Race of the Week from Aqueduct on TV, Johnny Loftus, 68, one of the greatest jockeys of all time, admits he has never been to the Big A. In fact, he hasn't been to any racetrack in more than 12 years. Yet Johnny Loftus was the first rider in history to win racing's famed Triple Crown. He did it in 1919 on Sir Barton. That year he won $252,707 in purses, and his average of 37% on winning mounts is a record that still stands.

Paradoxically, 1919 remains—in memory—the blackest year of ex-Jockey Johnny Loftus' life. For it was in the six-furlong Sanford Stakes on August 13, 1919 at Saratoga that Loftus rode Man o' War when the immortal Big Red lost to Upset—Man o' War's only defeat in 21 starts.

Although Johnny doesn't like to talk about it, others have debated, dissected and distorted his personal calamity for almost half a century.

"I've explained that race hundreds of times," he says. "I was the goat. That's all there was to it. It could happen to anyone.

"Heck, if a ballplayer makes an error, it's forgotten. Why can't they forget that race? What hurt me most was the vicious gossip that there was something crooked about the race.

"Man o' War very fractious at the start that day. He never could wait to get running, and the Sanford was no exception. He broke through about three times before the starter warned me to quiet him down—or else.

"I wheeled Man o' War around for another try. My head was turned when the field was sent away. I wasn't ready, and we got away fifth in the field of seven."

Most of the calamity howlers—who had never held a losing ticket on Big Red—demanded to know why Loftus had not rushed his horse right up to challenge the leaders.

"Hell, I could have gone up and taken the lead anytime I wanted," said Loftus. "But Mr. Riddle [Owner Samuel D. Riddle] had instructed me to lay off the early pace.

"Upset and Golden Broom led all the way and hugged the rail—about three lengths in front of me. I wasn't too concerned, for they were running each other into the ground, and I figured one of them would be coming back to me.

"Man o' War fought for his head at the top of the stretch, but the pair in front stayed on the rail. When I attempted to go through, I ran into a pocket.

"In the stretch I virtually ran up on Golden Broom's heels. He was tiring, and I had to check Man o' War and go to the outside.

"It cost me the race.

"I went past Golden Broom, but Willie Knapp, who was out there two lengths in front on Upset, was whipping away with all he had. I started waving my stick at Man o' War. He didn't respond until I shook it in front of his eyes a few times. Then he took off. He closed ground, but he just failed to get up. We missed by half a length, but we would have won it in another 50 or 60 yards."

The boos of the sore losers that afternoon long ago lingered for the rest of the season. The next year Loftus was not granted a license to ride.

Though respected turf writers, his fellow jockeys and many trainers were in sympathy with Loftus, the Jockey Club kept him down and never officially gave a reason for doing so.

"I could understand some of the criticism," Johnny explained. "Man o' War had beaten Upset easily in the United States Hotel Stakes and trounced him again a week after the Sanford.

"But people forget the nine races I had won on Man o' War—three of them after the Sanford Stakes."

A veteran bookmaker backed up Loftus' denials of any collusion in the upset race of the century. "Look," he said. "Man o' War closed at 11 to 20 [55¢ to a dollar] in the betting. If there was any gambling coup in the works, I'd have heard about it. The price would never have been knocked down. It would have been jacked up on Big Red to suck more money in."

The man who rode Upset that historic afternoon, Willie Knapp, now a sprightly 76, can be found daily at the Big A. Here is his version of the race they will never forget:

"Any talk of Johnny Loftus pulling Man o' War in the Sanford is pure bunk," said Willie. "It was just poor racing luck that cost Johnny that race and let me win it. I don't think he would have taken $100,000 to throw that race.

"Johnny was so humiliated," continued Willie, "that he didn't speak to me for two or three weeks following the race." As an interesting aside to the biggest win of his life, Willie confides he received a fee of exactly $25 for beating Man o' War!

"We didn't get the 10% cut the jockeys are paid today," Willie explains with a shrug. "The Sanford was worth $3,925 then. It's worth about $20,000 today."

During his career Johnny Loftus won virtually every major stake in the country, including the Kentucky Derby in 1916 on George Smith. In his racing life he won 509 races in 2,092 tries.

When he was not given a license in 1920 and Clarence Kummer replaced him on Man o' War, Loftus, who was having trouble with his weight, decided to abandon his riding career and applied for a trainer's license that was promptly approved.

From 1920 until 1939 little Johnny handled horses for some of the most prominent sportsmen in America, including Thomas Fortune Ryan, and won a fair share of important stakes.

"I finally gave it all up when I ran into a bad losing streak," said Johnny. "I don't talk too much about racing anymore, because when I do I'm always asked what happened the day Man o' War got beat."

Johnny works as a carpenter now and, for relaxation, likes to go fishing with his 12-year-old son. In 1960 he was elected to the National Jockeys' Hall of Fame at Pimlico, Md. Johnny didn't show up for the induction ceremonies. He knew someone would bring up the 1919 Sanford Stakes. And Johnny Loftus would rather forget it.