Publish date:

A hero who has gone on to Happy Valley

While the sun shone bright on my old Kentucky home, Bill Hartack, the rider with the finest record in the Derby, had a single sorry mount at a Hong Kong track

This is merely a footnote to the Kentucky Derby, something midway between the headlines and nostalgia. It is, to be sure, nothing significant. But somehow it is very vivid, and so it seems worth the telling.

I was with Bill Hartack on Derby Day. Oh, I didn't speak to him. I had met him only once, and on that occasion he was in a whirlpool and at some social disadvantage. He could not have been more civil; I remembered to call him Bill. But he doesn't care to speak to writers, and so, on this Derby Day, I don't suppose I would have intruded upon him even if I had had the opportunity. I didn't. The closest I came to him was several yards, when he was on a horse in the paddock. He only had this one mount, 70 to 1, in the first at Happy Valley, the front end of the double. Happy Valley is the track in Hong Kong. Yes, on Derby Day Bill Hartack was riding Hong Kong.

And this is the point. Willie Shoemaker, 45, is still riding the Derby, and Eddie Arcaro was there, riding shotgun with Howard Cosell, and Isaac Murphy and Earl Sande are at peace in their graves and in the Hall of Fame, but on Derby Day 1977, Willie Hartack was riding Hong Kong (yes, Willie, and be damned the one last time), and it should never be forgotten that no one ever rode the Kentucky Derby like this boy.

He and Arcaro are the only jockeys with more than three winners. They have five apiece. It took Arcaro 13 mounts to make his five. Hartack did it in his first nine (and had a second, too). This is like Chamberlain averaging 50 points for a season, Unitas throwing touchdown passes in 47 straight games. These things will never be done again. And yet, here is Bill Hartack riding Hong Kong on Derby Day.

I had heard he had gone over there with his tack, and so I checked the Happy Valley entries when I got in. Races are held Wednesdays and Saturdays. And there he was, up in just this race, the worst event on the card, bar one. Hartack was on Viking, a 6-year-old bay mare owned by the Seaward Woos and trained by Ng Chi Lam. She had finished 11th last time out, at a distance more to her liking. It hardly seemed worth the journey to Happy Valley, but then I remembered that Saturday was Derby Day, Saturday was Hartack's day, and so I went, drawn as much by the irony as by the greedy assurance of a hunch bet. From the mainland I took the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong island, walked past the rickshaws and caught a shaky old double-decker bus to Happy Valley.

I thought to myself: What is Willie Hartack doing in Hong Kong today? He should be in Louisville. The 1957 Derby would have been enough to ensure his place in history. Riding Iron Liege, he stole that one on the rail by a nose from Gallant Man, Round Table and Bold Ruler. Venetian Way in '60 was next: Hartack held him just off the lead and then roared outside in a drive. Decidedly in '62: he brought him from way back, 10 lengths off the pace. Northern Dancer in '64: he rated him for a mile, took a good lead and then staggered home by a neck with left-hand whipping. Majestic Prince in '69: he beat Arts and Letters and Braulio Baeza in a duel through the stretch. Each one different, each one superbly executed. No one else ever did it so well when it counted the most. You can tell me about Babe Ruth in Yankee Stadium and Big Bill Tilden at Forest Hills and Jesse Owens in Berlin, but don't stop until you have told me about Willie Hartack at Churchill Downs.

What is he doing in Hong Kong on Derby Day?

Happy Valley sounds like a place rich people visit to dry out in Fairfield County. Once, I suppose, it was a bona fide valley. Well, it is still a valley, but it is full of high rises and other eyesores. The track, with its seven-tiered grandstand and an infield full of chewed-up soccer fields, seemed about as Oriental and exotic as Liberty Bell. The place was jammed. There was no breeze in the valley, not a zephyr, and it was about a million degrees Celsius, not counting the humidity, if you are one of those who like to say, "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." I thought of the day in 1959 I saw my first Derby, when it came up 94°, the hottest ever. I looked it up when I got back to the States. Hartack was there that day, too, on a horse named Easy Spur. It was one of the rare times he ran out.

But as hot as it was in the paddock in Happy Valley, all the men with badges appeared very cool. And they were in suits. The only men at the track in suits were the officials, and they looked the most comfortable. Everybody else, in short-sleeved shirts and whatnot, was sweating like a bandit. The guys in the paddock in suits and ties, with sandy hair and French shoes and binoculars around their necks, looked as though they were at Ascot in September. Or in Manitoba, for that matter. I bring this up because it made me feel at home. I had noticed it in America, too. No matter how hot it is at a racetrack, the people in suits in the paddock never sweat.

And then I saw Hartack. He was standing in line with the other jocks, P. F. Yiu, K. S. Ho, P. Gumbleton, C. C. Chan and so forth, ready to weigh out. He was at 128, a middling figure at Happy Valley. A lot of horses were carrying more than 130. The weight was one reason he went to Hong Kong. It gets tougher to take it off as you get older, and Hartack is 44 now. It was a long time ago that he came out of the mines of Pennsylvania. Now he was laughing with an attendant by the scales. He looks good laughing, although he rarely has been noted for humor. But let's not go into that here. You probably know all about his history, how he always fought everything and everybody. If you don't know all this, never mind. It doesn't matter anymore. Except, of course, I had to think: If you had learned to laugh, Willie, if you had learned to go along more, if....

Why is Willie Hartack riding Hong Kong on Derby Day?

He has a bald spot now, but he wears his hair much as ever—a little wave in front. Hartack was a dead ringer for Frankie Avalon at a time when that counted. He looks as cocky as ever, and amidst so many Orientals, taller. I suspect any jockey would like that. Just a guess.

His silks were crisp, checks of violet and white, and he passed by all the cool gentlemen in their suits, stood with the trainer, Mr. Ng, and awaited his mount. Viking was a quiet little thing, wrapped in an odd bright-orange girth. Hartack mounted nimbly and rode her out of the paddock. As he departed, I called after him (one American to another), "Hey, Bill, you should be in Louisville today," but he was some distance away, and if he heard, he paid no notice. He took Viking onto the turf and galloped her toward the starting gate.

The fans gave him no special attention. Hartack is just another journeyman. This was his 96th ride of the Happy Valley season, and he has had only seven winners. Seven for 96, the same guy who is five for nine in the Kentucky Derby. He was 17th on the local list. G. W. Moore was the leader with 41 winners. T. O. Lau was the hot apprentice, riding the favorite, Fortune Stream, in this race.

I don't understand why great athletes struggle on past their prime. But if Bill Hartack wants to ride 70-1 shots in Hong Kong, is it my place to question his decision? Would it be any better, really, if he were riding 70-1 shots at Santa Anita? I felt no better about Henry Aaron letting himself be exploited at high prices as an American League curio for two seasons, or Muhammad Ali, still officially the champion, permitting himself to work half a vaudeville bill with other pugs. But then, people still pay to see Arnold Palmer miss another cut, or to watch Billie Jean King play teen-agers on a minor league tour. People are attracted to greatness even when just the shell is left. Sometimes I wonder why a guy like Namath doesn't sell advertising space on his shoulder pads and hang on that way. Is it the money? The attention? What possesses these stars to go on and on, soiling their glorious nobility? I remember when even Stan Musial wouldn't leave, and Jimmy Cannon, ever melodramatic, wrote, "Your name is Stan Musial, and all your bats are broken." Well, your name is Willie Hartack, and all your rides are made in Hong Kong.

And so, on Derby Day, Hartack took his only mount into the gate, the No. 11 post, field of 13. They run clockwise in Hong Kong, and Viking broke well enough and stayed in the hunt, somewhere in the middle, the first time past. The race was 1,800 meters, something over a mile. The going was firm. As nearly as I could make out from the form sheets. Viking liked the turf soft and the distance shorter. Form told. She began to fade and struggled up the incline on the back side. What can I say? She run like a muskrat. On the front, Fortune Stream with the bug boy just got nipped by Extra Profit, M. C. Tarn up. Good Dish, A. K. Cheam riding, was third. Viking ran dead last.

The last time I saw Hartack ride in the Derby he was on Warbucks. He finished last to Secretariat. The last time Hartack had a mount in the Derby was 1974. He was 11th. That will be his Derby valedictory, unless someone with a good 3-year-old and a sense of drama brings him back.

What is Willie Hartack doing in Hong Kong on Derby Day? He should be in Louisville, Kentucky.


Eight years ago, when he was 36, Hartack won his last bouquet of roses (his fifth in nine attempts) on Majestic Prince.