Commentary: Genuine Talent

By - Claire Novak

Members of the racing industry noted Bill Hartack’s Nov. 26 death at 74 with more sorrow than one would expect, given his enigmatic reputation. Everyone knew the former jockey somehow—thanks in part to the in-depth documentation of his career provided by sportswriters of his era.

A product of racing’s Golden Age, Hartack enthralled reporters with his accomplishments (such as the $3 million in purse earnings he collected in 1957 at the age of 24). And who wouldn’t love his story? The son of a hard-working Pennsylvania coal miner, he weathered a harsh childhood and took his competitive spirit to the racetrack, where he launched his career and rode straight to the top. 

 “Hartack,” wrote the famed Joe Hirsch in 1956, “is a remarkably complex person shaped by his environment, his upbringing, his profession, and his meteoric success. 

Three years after becoming a jockey in 1952, Hartack was the nation’s leading rider by races won. He joined the Hall of Fame in 1959 after just eight years in the saddle. His rags-to-riches tale was hard to beat, especially when he started winning the Kentucky Derby like it was going out of style (he scored his fifth and final Derby win in 1969). 

 At the height of his career, Hartack mesmerized the public with the iconic appeal of a miniature Elvis. His admirers flooded him with fan mail and swooned at his handsome profile. His swank new home in Miami Springs, his air-conditioned Cadillac, his Jaguar, speedboat, and big farm in West Virginia were duly noted. His eating habits, “outlandish combinations of foods (such as) pickles and ice cream, were observed with utter fascination, as were his sleeping patterns, dating behaviors, and hobbies—“waterskiing and a love for music that inspires the carrying of a phonograph and load of records from track to track.”  

Hartack’s love-hate relationship with the media was also well-documented. Reporters who were forced to wait abominable amounts of time for an intervew were disillusioned by his tendency toward egotism, but those permitted within his personal circle found him to be fiercely loyal and generous. He was sharp and snappy, sarcastic and scrappy. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, his every quirk, comment, flare of temper, and burst of emotion was immortalized. 

“He does indulge himself in the vilest of black moods, during which he…scowls and glowers at almost everyone, and is generally a trial,” Hirsch acknowledged. “However, when things are going right he is full of natural charm and discusses things intimately and frankly with even casual acquaintances.”  

Hartack didn’t ride with poise or artistry, but was always busy on a horse, driving his mounts under the wire with sheer willpower and burning competitiveness. This was how he won races, and few could argue against a 19.8% victory rate or 4,272 trips to the winner’s circle.

“From flag-fall to finish, he pumps and slashes,” reported Time. “He scratches all over his mount as if it were a case of hives and comes down the stretch as though leading a Hollywood cavalry charge. (Yet) he can spot a hole in the pack with swift precision; he can steer his mount into the clear with chilly skill.”  

Hartack rode at a time when jockeys were recognized as accomplished professional athletes. Appearing on the cover of Time in 1958, he was the only sportsperson so honored that year. Even in retirement, he supported racing’s integrity through his work as a keen official.  

On the day he died in south Texas, I was unpacking a box of racing memorabilia. An edition of Sports Illustrated caught my eye. A young jockey was immortalized on the cover, looking out at the world with the cocky bravado of a master reinsman. The contemptuous smirk could only belong to one rider.

“His single-mindedness carries over into whatever he does,” read the accompanying article. “His tremendous desire and pride in performance make (him) the great rider that he is.”

He may have alienated individuals within the industry due to flashes of anger or irreverence, but Bill Hartack’s representation of our sport weathered decades in the public eye. He attained stardom by being himself, remaining charismatic, honest, and outspoken to a fault. In memoriam, he deserves the utmost respect. His talent was genuine and his wholehearted pursuit of victory could never be denied.

Claire Novak is a staff writer for The Blood-Horse.