Retired jockey Bill Harmatz, who won the prestigious Santa Anita George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1960, died Jan. 28 at his home in Vista, Calif., according to a Santa Anita release. He was 79 and would have turned 80 on Feb. 9
Harmatz won the 1959 Preakness Stakes on Royal Orbit, one of his 1,770 wins, in a career that spanned 17 years. He rode in the Kentucky Derby four times.
“What a wonderful day,” Harmatz told the North County Times in May about his Preakness win. “It was the highlight of my career.”
Royal Orbit was trained by Reggie Cornell, who also conditioned the legendary come-from-behinder, Silky Sullivan, ridden on occasion by Harmatz. Royal Orbit was owned by movie mogul Louis B. Mayer.
Harmatz was a close personal friend of Bill Shoemaker’s and as a result, filled in for The Shoe occasionally aboard Hall of Famer Round Table.
Harmatz was also responsible for one of the greatest upsets in Santa Anita history when he rode 12-1 shot Most Host to a head victory over 1-5 favorite and reigning Horse of the Year Damascus and Ron Turcotte, in the 1968 Strub Stakes
In Vista, Harmatz was better known as the proprietor of the popular Vista Entertainment Center, a facility that offers bowling, billiards, a sports bar, and banquet/conference rooms. He was known as a generous man who supported many community groups and programs. Harmatz had a contagious smile and a zest for life, friends and family said.
Growing up in Boyle Heights, Calif., he was a successful gymnast, earning two high school state titles, before riding in his first race in 1953.
About a year earlier, Harmatz had married the love of his life, Connie, and they were together for 59 years.
Harmatz purchased the Vista Entertainment Center, north of Del Mar, in 1959. In a 2009 interview with the North County Times, he said that when a friend approached him with the idea to open a bowling alley in Vista, his reply was, "Where is Vista?"
However, he moved to the city shortly after the entertainment center opened and became one of its biggest boosters. He also owned the Melrose Law Center, a complex of professional office suites.
“Harmatz was a good rider," said Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally. "He rode horses for us, and I always respected him. I’d see him every summer down at Del Mar because he had the bowling alley there. He was a first-class guy.”
Harmatz’ survivors include his wife, Connie, and four children. A public memorial will be held 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 5, at the Vista Entertainment Center, 435 W. Vista Way. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Vista Rotary Foundation Polio Plus, P.O. Box 24, Vista, Calif., 92085.