It's Hard Out Here For A Jockey – The Classic Years

With the publication, in 2001, of Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller Seabiscuit, a new generation of Americans learned about the unremitting hardness of life in the early days of American Thoroughbred horse racing – for horse and rider alike. Hillenbrand's book will tell you all you'd ever want to know about the diet depredations self-inflected by jockeys. The anorexia and bulimia, the 900-calorie-per-day diets, the constant physical pain, mental fatigue and irritabilityrought on by slow starvation; the courting of diarrhea and intentional ingestion of tapeworms.

But These self-inflated threats, made necessary by the physical requirements of horse racing (to pack the maximum of horse-driving muscle into an organism minimum of weight burdens for the horse), pale in comparison to the physical risks faced by veteran jockeys, for whatever the slightest strategic miscalculation can risk limb or even life. (One of the scariest moments in Hillenbrand's book occurs when a jockey, clinically dead for several minutes after a collision but miraculously revived after his heart is stimulated by electricity, insists on returning to the field for a race later that day.

Those old jockeys were tough. But for them – at least for many of them – the hardship was worth it.

For example, let's start with none other than Seabiscuit's own rider – John "Red" Pollard (1909-81). Somewhat tall for a jockey (5'7 "), and blinded by a stray rock to the skull during a crowded training ride (this was in the days before helmets), Pollard loved horses from his childhood days in Edmonton, Alberta, where the well-read, poetry-quoting, boxing-enthusiast left home at fifteen to live his dream of riding Thoroughbreds professionally. He made his way through his teenage years alone, tramping from one racetrack to another and hopping to talk some entrepreneurial horse owner into letting him ride. (He also earned some income by boxing, always a passion of Pollard's.) His years riding losing horses at pockmarked, pitted tracks paid off when trainer Tom Smith, coming upon Pollard soon after a car accident had left them stranded outside Detroit with next to nothing, matched him up with the temperamental, cantankerous Seabiscuit. The two, complementing each other with the finesse of a Gilbert and Sullivan or a Lennon and McCartney, rode their way into racing history, with Seabi scuit enjoying a fame that would not be seen again, say some historians, until Secretariat.

The 110-pound Steve Donoghue (1884-1945) lacked the advantage of so many contemporary jockeys. He did not start until he was, by today's standards, too old. But he won his first race, at 23, in 1907, riding Turkish Delight (a horse named for the same candy that features so prominently in the classic fantasy novel by CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). He earned fame with his Cambridgeshire-at-Newmarket win three years later, and especially with his 1921 Epsom Derby victory riding the 6-to-1 shot underdog (well, underhorse) Humorist who was so unprepared for the effort Donoghue coaxed from him on the track that day that he died of heart failure six weeks later.

Donoghue's success with such an unqualified candidate made him a legend of British racing. He won again the following year on a lame mount, Captain Cuttle. Such exploits so augmented his fame that, after a routine 1930 broken leg, he merited a personal get-well-soon note from no less than King George V.

Then there's Bill Hartack (1932-2007), or, as the press called him, "Willie" – not to be confused with arch rival Willie Shoemaker, who he hated through his long US racing career. Growing up on a farm in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, the naturally small-in-stature Hartack seemed made for jockey stardom, with knowledge of horses and low weight. He did not disappoint, winning the Kentucky Derby five times – a record equaled only by Eddie Arcaro – and taking top-jockey-of-the-year honors on four separate occasions, beginning in his third season. In a US career that spanned twenty-one years (1953-1974), Hartack rode in 21,534 races, winning 4,272 of them. He then went on to race in Hong Kong from 1978-80. In good years, his purse earnings went as high as $ 3 million.

Hillenbrand's book will tell you all you'd ever want to know about the diet depradations self-infected by jockeys – the anorexia and bulimia, the 900-calorie-per-day diets, the constant physical pain, mental fatigue and irritability bought on by slow starvation; the courting of diarrhea and intentional ingestion of tapeworms.