A youthful Hartack made his mark at Charles Town
Iron Leige. Venetian Way. Decidedly. Northern Dancer. Majestic Prince.
Five thoroughbred race horses that all had one thing in common — they were ridden to victory by Bill Hartack in the Kentucky Derby. Five wins in the Kentucky Derby. No rider ever had more career wins in that granddaddy of all stakes races.
Bill Hartack was an opinionated young rider. Bill Hartack was an opinionated middle-aged rider. Bill Hartack was an opinionated older rider.
At times, he rankled owners, trainers, racing officials and the press all in equal amounts. He once said he wasn’t “politically correct” and it didn’t much bother him.
A hardscrabble beginning to life may have been the primary reason the riding champion didn’t pull any punches. His father was a coal miner in western Pennsylvania. He mother died on Christmas day near her 40th birthday. When his father’s uninsured house burned to the ground a replacement home was built that didn’t have running water, didn’t have electricity, didn’t have a furnace or air conditioning, didn’t have inside plumbing and also was not insured.
When Hartack graduated from high school, he was 5-foot-4 and weighed about 111 pounds. After being hired as a stable hand by a thoroughbred trainer, he eventually began riding horses at Waterford Park in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle. His first career win of the 4,272 he achieved was there at Waterford Park.
After a short riding stop at Wheeling Downs, Hartack came to Charles Town where he rode his first winner there in 1952.
His brief stay in Charles Town netted him the most wins in the jockey standings with 24 in only a 19-day racing session at the end of the calendar year.
The Eastern Panhandle must have agreed with the diminutive rider because he eventually bought a valuable rambling, two-story house on the Middleway Pike where he brought his aging father and sister to live. The sister entered the Jefferson County public schools.
Hartack didn’t ride very long at Charles Town. His talents, grit, intelligence and determination quickly had him riding at some of the nation’s more famous tracks.
In fact, in his third year of racing he led the country in number of wins. He would lead the win parade three more times before leaving the United State to ride in Hong Kong from 1978-80.
Before casting his lot in Hong Kong, he had twice appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and also on the cover of Time Magazine.
Only he and Eddie Arcaro have won the Kentucky Derby five times. There were also three victories in the Preakness Stakes and another in the Belmont Stakes to complete his statistical sheet for the three Triple Crown races.
As mentioned before, Hartack rarely minced words — with anybody.
He told trainers what he believed was the best way to ride their thoroughbreds and he told owners what he thought they needed to hear to win races with the animals in his care.
When he returned to this country after retiring from all riding in 1981, he didn’t become a trainer or an owner. He was hired as a race analyst and at times served as a steward at a number of tracks.
Not long into his racing career he was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga at the young age of 27.
Very few ever doubted Hartack’s prowess and acumen as a race rider. The only questions about him concerned whether a trainer, owner or race track official could get along with his sometimes abrasive personality.
Hartack first signaled his immense talent at Charles Town. And then he went on to win a record five times in the Kentucky Derby.