By John DeSantis
-- The fact Eddie Delahoussaye was a great rider is no secret. After all, he's in the Hall of Fame. He's got so many accomplishments, your eyes get tired reading them.
But what ultimately separated Eddie D. from his peers was his style.
Eddie D. was born to ride horses. He hails from New Iberia, La.--a state that turns out race riders like Detroit produces cars. In Louisiana if you're not eatin' gumbo or crawfish it's "cause you ridin' races."
Eddie D. first crossed his reins at an age when most kids still use their fingers to paint. He used to cut kindergarten to make the first post--inside the starting gate, no less! Most kids get a bike for Christmas; little Eddie D. got goggles and a whip. He began riding Quarter Horses in the bushes, which, in Eddie D.'s hometown, is like playing Little League baseball.
Delahoussaye on horseback was like a magician on stage; there was always something inside the black hat. Instead of rabbits or doves, Delahoussaye pulled out noses and necks. And he always saved his best tricks for the grand finales--seven Breeders' Cup wins including the '92 Classic with A.P. Indy; back-to-back Kentucky Derbys on Gato Del Sol and Sunny's Halo; and the '88 Preakness and Belmont with Risen Star.
Some may remember the stretch run of the '93 Breeders' Cup Distaff when Delahoussaye blew his stick aboard Hollywood Wildcat. Did he panic? Fat chance. Rip off his goggles and helmet cover to use as substitute whip? Naw. If ever there was a jock who didn't need to pack a whip it's Eddie D. With his hands he could coax lumps out of mashed potatoes. Don't believe me; go ask Laffit Pincay Jr., Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens--all with plaques in Saratoga Springs. On more than one occasion they all came up on the losing end of pure Delahoussaye hand rides.
Delahoussaye lost a photo finish about as often as Jordan and the Bulls lost basketball games. Solar eclipses are more common.
You see, Delahoussaye had the perfect disposition to win photos. Nothing rattled him. He was so cool he could have been a dentist to rattlesnakes.
It's an understatement to describe Eddie D. as laid back. He's not. He's supine. If he weren't a jockey he could be a safecracker. Nerves of steel and steady hands to go with them. Why, he's so calm and cool he could pick pockets in a police station and stop to ask directions on his way out.
Eddie D. was so adept at coming from off the pace to nail a foe on the money you had to believe he planned it--his own little game within a game. "Won that last one by a long nose," he thought. "Heck, I can make it closer than that."
"You have to know your horse," explained Eddie D., "and what the competition has. It's better to have something left than to use it all in the beginning." Simple, huh? But then it always is for the great ones.
"It's patience," continued Eddie D. when pressed. "Knowin' the feel of your horse. And, it's old age. That's the real secret--old age."
At 51, Delahoussaye is far from old and seemed to have plenty of close wins left in the tank since the sinus trouble that plagued him for years came under control. In August he wasn't thinking about leaving the photo finish-winning business just yet.
"When it's not fun anymore," he would drawl when asked about retirement. "And trainers can't use me on good horses. Then I'll hang 'em up."
Turns out he was half-right.
Eddie D. hung 'em up the other day, but it wasn't because trainers couldn't use him on good horses anymore. It was the fun part that got in the way. Since Aug. 30, when he went down in a heap and suffered a slight fracture in his back and an injured neck, it's been pain, doctors, physical therapists, and uncertainty. Finally, Eddie D. had had enough and announced his retirement.
But, as anyone who's watched Eddie D. perform over the years knows, this may not be the end. We'd better not clean out his locker just yet. The magician just might have something else left in that black hat. b John DeSantis is executive director of Kids to the Cup, a freelance writer, and an editor.