Jake Bachelor of Louisville almost went down in history last Saturday as the first owner of a Kentucky Derby horse ever to spend the night before the race oiling machinery at the local International Harvester Plant for $6.37 an hour.
The reason he did not achieve that distinction is that he decided on Thursday not to enter his horse, Naughty Jake, in the Derby after all. If he had, Bachelor would have been the first black owner in the Run for the Roses since 1943, when Burnt Cork, which belonged to Jack Benny's "valet," Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, finished last. Instead Bachelor sent his horse off in the ninth race, right after the Derby. That was the $25,000 Needles. Naughty Jake finished fourth.
"If it had come up an off track," Bachelor said, "Naughty Jake would've made an awful good showing in the Derby. But the forecast was for fair weather. And if he was to run 15th—well, anybody could do that. I felt I was representing the average little guy, the average minority-group guy. I hoped I could make people say, 'He did it, and he's no better than me. Why can't I do it?' But a bad showing, that would've been a letdown."
Bachelor is in oil, but not in the way you would expect a racehorse owner to be. He makes about $13,000 a year keeping production machines running smoothly from 10:30 p.m. until 6:30 a.m. But he is also one of the few people, big or little, who make an economic go of horse owning.
"Some research company sent a lady out to do a report on me," he says. "She said I was one of the most successful people in racing, percentagewise."
Nine years ago, after saving up $2,350, Bachelor bought his first horse. He had grown up not far from Churchill Downs and had worked there as a hot-walker and groom. "The racetrack is something that once you get it in you, it never gets out," he says. "And when I was growing up, there were twice as many black people involved in racing as now. Today the average black says, 'That ain't my game, that's a rich man's game.' "
Not the way Bachelor plays it. "Each horse I've owned put me in a position where I could pay for another one. When a horse don't win, I'll sell him for $250. Or I'll drop him way down and get him claimed. Every one that was ever claimed," he says with a horse trader's smile, "the claimer didn't do too good with him. You got to watch money closer than the rich man. 'Cause if you don't it's going to run out. And you got to win some races. 'Cause if you don't, you haven't got anything to run out.
"My help is all in the family. They get salary, 'cause they got to live, but if it's your son, and Dad's in bad shape, he'll pass up a little something so Dad can survive." Son Michael, 23, does a lot of the training and accompanies the horses on trips. "I couldn't do without him," says Jake, who stays behind to squirt the midnight oil.
Naughty Jake, who has won $42,475, is the best horse Bachelor has had, although his filly Sylva Mill won the Debutante Stakes on Derby Day in 1972 before "she busted her knee."
"I'll probably never get another horse of Naughty Jake's caliber," says Bachelor, "and I couldn't count the people who called me to say, about the Derby, 'Go ahead on' or 'I'm in your corner' or 'Run him anyway.' " But staying in the Derby would have cost $7,500 in entry and starting fees on top of the $100 nominating fee he had already put up. "And," says Jake, " 'run him anyway' don't pay no bills."
Naughty Jake, who bypassed this year's Derby, nuzzles his resourceful owner.