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Hall of Fame jockey Bill Hartack, the regular rider of Northern Dancer at Woodbine in 2007

Bill Hartack 1932 - 2007

Date: 11/27/07

Racing lost one of its living legends when Hall of Fame jockey Bill Hartack passed away on Tuesday at the age of 74. He was found dead due to natural causes due to heart disease while on a hunting trip in Texas. He is one of only two jockeys (the other being Eddie Arcaro) to have won the Kentucky Derby five times. He also won the Preakness three times and the Belmont once. Two of his Derby wins are memorable for very different reasons. He was aboard Northern Dancer in 1964, the Canadian-bred colt who went on to become one of the world's most prolific sires, but he was also aboard 1957 winner Iron Liege, who likely would not have won had Bill Shoemaker not misjudged he finish line and stood up in the irons at the 1/16 pole aboard Gallant Man. Hartack's North American racing career spanned from 1953 to 1974, during which time he won 4,272 races, 19.8% of his mounts. His first win was at Waterford Park, West Virginia (now known as Mountaineer Race Track) at the age of 19. He was the nation's leading money-earner in 1956 and repeated that feat in 1957, as the first rider to pass $3 million in earnings. He finished his career in Hong Kong and when he retired from riding he became a steward at Louisiana Downs. In 1959, when inducted into racing's Hall of Fame, he was just 26 years old, the youngest person ever elected.

Bill Hartack in the walking ring at Woodbine in 2007

When invited to Woodbine as a special guest for the Northern Dancer Breeders' Cup Turf this July, Hartack said of Northern Dancer, who he rode to victory in the Blue Grass Stakes, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and the Queen's Plate, "(He) was always the underdog. I don't know if it was because he was from Canada, or his small size, but every race he ran, nobody thought he could stretch out. 3/4 mile, 7 furlongs, then 1 1/8, 1 1/4... But (trainer Horatio) Luro had him in excellent shape. He was a fast horse, he had great speed, but he liked to come from behind. When he came home in 22 seconds in the Blue Grass, I knew that if I could rate him he could get the Derby distance." Asked about Northern Dancer's retirement after the Queen's Plate, he added, "When I rode him here, I could tell he wasn't the same horse. Something wasn't right, although he won. He didn't show me the brilliant speed I'd seen before. He won the race by 6 lengths but he didn't do it the right way. I don't know what happened to him but a few weeks later Luro told me he was retired."

Bill Hartack with jockey Edgar Prado at the trophy presentation for the 2007 Northern Dancer Breeders' Cup at Woodbine.
In an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1994, he talked about his attitude to winning. He said, "On the race track, youíre going to lose more than you win. But the point is, once you believe that and condition yourself to saying, Aw, well, I was supposed to lose that one, then of course you canít win that one in between. I think the only way you can win as many times as you possibly can is to take the premise you can win them all. I never really had a good day at the race track, not one. Letís put it this way, it wasnít conducive to enjoying yourself. But who cares? That was my job. I liked the job. I didnít enjoy it, but if I had to pick one, that was perfect. I was outdoors. I had a challenge. I loved the competition. But I was intolerable from the time I went to the race track until the races were over.Ē

Shortly after his death was announced, accolades poured in from the racing community.

Trainer Dave Kassen, who rode against Hartack, said, "I'd rank him up there right at the top with the best. In my opinion, he was every bit as good as Arcaro."

Trainer Mike Stidham, whose father George was Hartack's agent, said, "He was my idol. I was at the '69 Derby when he won with Majestic Prince. He was a great person to grow up around. He was a kid at heart."

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas said, "He had a strong, competitive spirit, and he took no prisoners. I admire any of those guys who can accomplish what he did."

Fellow Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., said, "I rode with him a little bit at the end of his career. When I first came to this country and met him, it was like meeting a superstar, he was a jockey everyone had heard about. He was very smart. And he was amazing with the whip. He could hit a horse left-handed coming around the turn, and the horse would never go out. I do remember he wasn't the easiest guy to get along with."

While he was at Woodbine this summer, Hartack signed my Northern Dancer plate.
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