Why you should care
Because crossing the finish line in first place takes a lot more than a winning attitude.
Jockey great Willie Shoemaker “has victory in his grasp,” the commentator declared as the thoroughbreds charged the finish line at the 83rd running of the Kentucky Derby, in 1957. As Shoemaker rose in his stirrups to embrace his win, the crowd of 90,000 no doubt agreed. But a photo finish would reveal that the famed Texan had lost by the slimmest of margins — to a relative unknown named Bill Hartack.
Some dismissed Hartack’s triumph with his horse, Iron Liege, to mere luck, but for Hartack it was just one of many improbable events that converged to put him ahead, on and off the track. The 24-year-old had placed second in his first “Run for the Roses” in Kentucky the year before and was supposed to mount an entirely different horse, General Duke, up until it got scratched that fateful morning. Iron Liege was an 8-1 long shot, and yet this unlikely duo stormed toward the finish in the lead, with Shoemaker closing in on the much smarter bet: Gallant Man.
I wasn’t politically minded when I was a rider, otherwise I might have gotten along a little better.
Hartack’s ascent in the rarefied world of horse racing was as unexpected as the result that day. Raised on a Pennsylvania farm, he was the son of a coal miner and lost his mother on Christmas Day at age 8 when she succumbed to injuries sustained in a car crash. Determined to carve a future far from the deadly coal mines, he got hired at 17 as a stable boy in neighboring West Virginia. Thanks to a “special touch” with animals and his small stature — 5-foot-4, 111 pounds — he was quickly promoted to riding the horses rather than merely tending to them. And just two years later, the wunderkind had won his first race. Never known for a smooth style, his wins were built on grit and determination, and by 1953, he had won a whopping 350 races in a single season to rank second in North America — leading to his first crack at “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” in 1956, at age 23.
Hartack had a reputation as a fierce, take-no-prisoners competitor. He rarely talked to the press if he lost but otherwise was very outspoken, attracting few friends in the racing community. “I wasn’t politically minded when I was a rider, otherwise I might have gotten along a little better,” he said in 1981. Hartack’s contentious personality would prove so difficult that just a year after his first Kentucky Derby win, he was fired as the regular jockey for the renowned Kentucky horse stable Calumet Farm. He’d argued one too many times with management over how the horses were handled.
“The only way to get things done, sometimes, is to make waves,” Hartack told the Los Angeles Times. “He wore his heart on his sleeve,” says Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, fondly remembering his mentor. “Nothing was sugarcoated with him.”
It was this same no-holds-barred approach that yielded incredible racing success — landing him on the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated. He was the first jockey to surpass $3 million in purse earnings, in 1957, and he joined the sport’s hall of fame two years later — the youngest jockey ever to be inducted at age 26. By the end of his U.S. career in 1974, Hartack’s mounts had earned more than $26 million, and he added more to that by jockeying in Hong Kong from 1978–1980.
But on that breezy May day in 1957, Louisville was brimming with seersucker suits, fancy hats and the scent of mint juleps. In the final turn, Hartack guided Iron Liege into first along the rail, with Gallant Man rapidly gaining. And with just a sixteenth of the race remaining, Gallant Man edged ahead, the crowd exploded and Shoemaker famously misjudged the finish, momentarily standing in the stirrups only to watch Hartack win by a nose.
Regardless of how fans explained the final outcome, Hartack didn’t attribute this win or any other to fortune. “I wasn’t lucky,” he later told The Courier-Journal. “I rode the right horses, and I rode them very well.” And it proved to be just the first of his five Kentucky Derby triumphs, tying him with fellow Hall of Famer Eddie Arcaro. Hartack overcame rivals because he did his homework and “could pretty much see how a race was going to unfold before it happened,” Stevens says. Michael Stidham, a horse trainer and board member of the Bill Hartack Foundation, agrees, noting that Hartack would “figure out a way to win the race mentally” before it got underway.
In retirement, the unlikely legend worked as a broadcaster and race steward for many years before dying in 2007 at age 74. But even as the Kentucky Derby is run for the 141st time today, Hartack’s records live on, and each year’s winner is awarded the Hartack Memorial Award by the charitable foundation tasked with honoring his legacy.