Skip to main content
Original Issue

Back on Track

At 87, Johnny Longden has been rejuvenated by a sleepy-eyed colt

Hall of fame jockey Johnny Longden has always thought he had a guardian angel, one that perched precariously on his shoulder whenever he rode. "There he is now," the 87-year-old gnome rasps, pointing his cane toward the shimmering California sky. "He's got wings, and he's wearing white silks. He looks just like me." Longden tilts his head. "Actually, he's taller than me."

Longden believes the tutelary started looking out for him one day in the spring of 1912, in his native England. Johnny, his four siblings and their mother, Mary, were scheduled to sail to their new home in Canada, where they would join Johnny's father, Herb, but their tram to the Liverpool dock was running late. The tram arrived at the dock just as the ship sailed off. Longden remembers his mother in tears, clutching six tickets in her hand, as they watched the ship steam off, the word Titanic barely visible on its bow.

The angel was on Longden's shoulder as he won 6,032 races, among those the 1943 Triple Crown aboard Count Fleet, in a career that spanned five decades. And the angel was there, too, in 1935 when Longden took a terrible spill, was paralyzed for a month and was told that he would never walk again. "Ah, they always told me that," he says.

By now Longden, the only man to have both ridden and trained Kentucky Derby winners, seems at least as old as his guardian angel. But while he uses a cane because of the arthritis in his back, the old jockey exudes vitality as he shuffles about the saddling ring at Santa Anita Park in suburban Los Angeles. As he removes his sunglasses to appraise a heavy-lidded horse rocking drowsily in stall number 5, he tells Vance, the horse's trainer and one of Longden's sons, "Count Fleet never slept before a race." Johnny walks behind the offending animal, lifts his cane and administers three sharp cracks to the horse's rump. "Wake up, Blue!" he shouts.

Though he hasn't ridden a racehorse in almost 30 years, the Pumper, as Longden was known in his riding days because of his hard-driving style, can still rouse one, even one as phlegmatic as Our Blue Michael. Longden paid $5,500 for the 3-year-old colt last year, and thus far there is little evidence that he was a bargain. "He's too damn smart, that's the problem," says Longden. "He knows he's going to get treated like a king no matter how he runs."

Yet Our Blue Michael has done much more for Longden than his paltry $33,775 in lifetime earnings would indicate. This ordinary little horse has given the extraordinary old jockey a new lease on life. "They've got penicillin for sick people; they've got horses for guys like my dad," says the 64-year-old Vance. "When that horse runs, Dad walks and talks like he's 30 years old. You'd think he owned Citation, the way he carries on."

Three years ago it wouldn't have seemed possible.

In 1984, Johnny and his wife, Hazel, divorced after 48 years of marriage. Under the terms of the dissolution, Hazel would remain in the couple's $800,000 house in Arcadia, Calif., while Johnny would become outright owner of a handful of racehorses they owned. The couple's savings would be divided equally.

But both Johnny and Hazel were lonely and never quite adapted to life without each other. In 1985, after Hazel was found to have breast cancer, they remarried. Johnny assumed that the divorce agreement would now be void, but when Hazel died in 1989, he was shocked to discover that she had left a legally binding will naming Eric, their only biological son, as the inheritor of the family home.

Eric, who is a part owner of a restaurant in Carlsbad, Calif., sold the Arcadia house in 1991 and bought his father a small duplex in a retirement village in Banning, 1½ hours from Johnny's beloved Santa Anita. "Before my mother's death we talked about what to do [after she died]," says Eric. "She left it up to me to take care of Johnny. She knew how he squandered money, and she felt that this was the only way to make sure he'd always have a roof over his head. And it was smart. He's not out on the streets, and that's what is important."

The stress of his wife's death and disappointment over her will took a toll on Johnny, who began to suffer an irregular heartbeat; a pacemaker had to be installed later that year. "Dad seemed to change overnight once he moved out to Banning," says Vance, who is Johnny's son by his first wife, Helen. "He had been so full of life when he lived near the track. Out there he became a little old man."

A lonely little old man. Though the retirees at the Sun Lakes retirement village tried to befriend him, Longden was usually too depressed to even answer the door. Anguished by any reminder of the racetrack, he boxed up his trophies and other mementos—including the saddlecloth worn by the 1969 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner he trained, Majestic Prince—and sent them off to an auction house. Fortunately Vance interceded before any of the relics were sold.

This was also a trying time for Vance, whose career as a trainer had ebbed considerably since the 1970s. With his father riding, Vance trained 1952 Santa Margarita Handicap winner Blue Butterfly, '53 Hollywood Gold Cup winner Royal Serenade. '55 grass champion St. Vincent, and Four and Twenty, winner of several stakes races in 1961 and '62. When Johnny retired from riding in 1966, Vance stepped down as head trainer for owner-breeder Frank McMahon and let his father take over. Johnny had not made much money from the horses he owned after the divorce, and over the years he trained fewer and fewer horses, retiring by 1990.

One day, after Johnny had moved to Banning, Vance suggested to his father that he get back into racing as an owner. The two began going to horse auctions, driving up and down the California coast in Johnny's white van, looking at yearlings and unraced 2-year-olds. Johnny spotted Our Blue Michael at the Barrett's Two Year Olds in Training Sale in Pomona in May 1993. "That's a good-looking colt," Johnny told his son. "If I buy him, will you train him?"

"Done," Vance replied. Johnny made his bid, using money he earned at an autograph session for jockeys who have won the Triple Crown. At the drop of a gavel he was back in the horse business.

Suddenly Johnny was alive again. He planted orchids in his tiny garden. He was on the phone daily to Vance—unless he was at the track monitoring Blue's workouts. And after the workouts he would head over to the track kitchen to play gin rummy with the backstretch workers.

Johnny opened his door at Sun Lakes too. One neighbor who responded, Kathy, a widow who worked in the village, made a particularly strong impression on him. She and Johnny were married the Jay before the '93 Kentucky Derby.

Although Our Blue Michael has done much to regenerate Longden, the same cannot be said of Longden's effect on Blue. In 13 starts the colt has won once and finished in the money three other times. On this day in February, Blue is entered in a six-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita. Johnny, sitting between Vance and Kathy, is agitated during the warmup, grasping his cane so hard that his knuckles turn white.

Blue breaks from the gate last in the field of seven and is 15 lengths behind the leader entering the far turn. His jockey, apprentice John Atherton (who is married to Johnny's granddaughter Trudy), swings Blue to the outside, where he begins to pick up speed. The horse's legs are churning, and his ears are pinned flat to his head. Johnny is transfixed as he watches his horse fly to the finish, just missing out on third place.

"Fourth place, that's $3,000," Johnny says to Vance, who is holding his father's arm as they make their way down the long stairway to the track. "Something for you to live off after I'm gone."

"What makes you so sure you're going first?" Vance says.

When the two reach the unsaddling area, the crowd roars as Johnny steps onto the jockeys' scale. "Whoa, 98 with the cane," he marvels. "Couldn't do lighter than 115 when I was riding." Johnny waves to the crowd, and once again he is the Pumper, angel on his shoulder.



Our Blue Michael has won only once, but to Johnny (left) and Vance he's still a champ.



Count Fleet, here with trainer Don Cameron, carried Longden to his Triple Crown, in 1943.

Stephanie Diaz writes frequently about equine subjects for Sports Illustrated.