At The Races - Hartack got his start at Charles Town

December 02, 2007|By LARRY YANOS

Bill Hartack, the Hall of Fame jockey and five-time Kentucky Derby winner who died this past Monday, started his race-riding career at Charles Town Races & Slots.

The 74-year-old Hartack died while on a hunting vacation in Texas. According to an Associated Press story, Dr. Corinne Stern - the chief medical examiner in Webb County - said he died of natural causes due to heart disease.

"He was a great one," said Joe Servis, a former Charles Town-based jockey and veteran racing official. "He was at Charles Town for two years in the early 1950s and I got to know him very well. I rode against him in West Virginia and Ohio and met up with him again when I was working with the Jockey's Guild in Kentucky from 1961 to 1973 - and he was winning all of those Derbys. He sure could ride a race horse."

Born in Ebensburg, Pa., Hartack was raised by his coal-mining father on a farm. At 17, he took a job as an exercise and stable boy with trainer Junie Corbin at Charles Town.


He began riding in 1952. By the end of the following year, Hartack had become a star. The race-riding days in West Virginia and Ohio were merely stepping stones in Hartack's Hall of Fame career.

He and fellow Hall of Fame rider Eddie Arcaro are the only jockeys to win the Kentucky Derby five times.

Hartack won his first Derby with Iron Liege in 1957, then won aboard Venetian Way in 1960, Decidedly in 1962, Northern Dancer in 1964 and Majestic Prince in 1969.

In winning the '57 Derby, Hartack was the beneficiary of perhaps the greatest goof in racing history - when Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line aboard Gallant Man and Iron Liege won by a nose.

"He was a fierce competitor," Servis said. "In my opinion, no one had more desire to win than Bill Hartack. He could win five races one night and lose the sixth by a nose and he would dwell on that loss for a long time. He just loved to win."

One time he didn't triumph was in the 1953 Randall Park Handicap near Cleveland.

"I rode Color Guard that Aug. 29 and I beat Hartack. He was on a horse named Avocado for Junie Corbin. My horse paid big numbers," Servis said.

Hartack rode until 1974 and had 4,272 wins from 21,535 mounts, winning nearly 20 percent of his races.

He won the Preakness Stakes aboard Fabius in 1956, Northern Dancer in 1964 and Majestic Prince in 1969. He won the Belmont Stakes once, with Celtic Ash in 1960.

He later rode in Hong Kong from 1978-1980. He remained in racing as a steward, working the past few years in that role at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, La.

"I always got along with Bill fine," Servis said. "He was an introvert and many people didn't understand him. We had differences of opinion, but we respected one another."

Servis said Hartack and the media didn't always see eye to eye.

"I can still remember the one Kentucky Derby, I think it was 1969," Servis said. "He and members of the press had a beef before the Derby. They are waiting and waiting in the jocks' room for interviews and Hartack spent an hour to an hour and a half signing autographs for the fans. He was in no hurry to talk to the media about the race. On other occasions, he would ask certain members of the press to leave the room before he granted interviews. He just had that personality, he could be tough as far as communicating with people."

Servis said Hartack would still come to Charles Town occasionally.

"He was really close to the Corbin family and the Stidham families," Servis said.

"He was my idol," trainer Mike Stidham told the Associated Press. "I was at the '69 Derby when he won with Majestic Prince. He was a kid at heart."

Stidham's father, George, was Hartack's agent.

Hartack won his first race in 1952 at West Virginia's Waterford Park, and he was elected to thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame in 1959, at the age of 26 - the youngest person ever elected to the hall.

Arcaro, Hartack and Shoemaker ruled the racing world in the 1950s. Hartack was the top rider by earnings in 1956 and 1957, and the leader in victories four times - 1955-57 and 1960. He was the second jockey to ride as many as 400 winners in a single year when he won 417 races in 1955.

Mr. 3,000

It took a while, but Charles Town-based jockey Travis Dunkelberger finally reached the 3,000-win plateau when he guided Casey Doon to victory in Wednesday's eighth race at Laurel Park.

According to Equibase, the 30-year-old became the 140th rider to reach the milestone.

Dunkelberger, who has been riding thoroughbreds for 13 years, moved to within one victory of the 3,000 mark on Nov. 24 at Laurel Park, but then was blanked until winning aboard Casey Doon.

Casey Doon raced to the lead in the 6-furlong optional allowance test and coasted home to win by a length for trainer Benny Feliciano. The son of In Case paid $8.

"I never really thought about milestones," said Dunkelberger. I just try to go out and ride horse to horse and not worry about numbers. I have ridden a lot of nice horses for many good trainers."

Dunkelberger started his race-riding career in Winnipeg and also spent some time in New York, Virginia and Delaware before settling in at Charles Town in 1995.

Pony tales

Penn National Gaming says it is dropping its proposed acquisition of Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington, Md.

The company says a major reason was the General Assembly's decision not to include Rosecroft as a proposed slot machine venue in next year's scheduled statewide referendum on slots.

The Maryland Jockey Club has announced that Lou Raffetto, President and Chief Operating Officer of MJC, will be leaving to pursue other opportunities.

Chris Dragone, a former Senior Vice-President and General Manager at MJC, has been appointed President and General Manager.

MJC is the trade name under which Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park operate.

Larry Yanos covers horse racing for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2311, or by e-mail at

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