Every jockey dreams of winning the Kentucky Derby, but it is a feat that is hard to come by. It takes a great jockey, a great horse, and a great trainer to even have a chance at crossing the wire first. Even still, all the circumstances must work in their favor – they must have a good trip, a favorable track, and a pace that works for their horse. Nevertheless, the stars aligned perfectly to allow Bill Hartack to win the Kentucky Derby a record-tying five times.
Bill Hartack was born in Pennsylvania on December 9, 1932. He was raised by his father after his mother was killed in a car accident when he was just eight years old. He was very smart as a youngster and was even named valedictorian of his high school class. According to the Bill Hartack Foundation, his natural affinity for riding horses and small stature (which he was originally sensitive about) led him to become an exercise rider for trainer Junie Corbin at Charles Town Races.
Corbin recognized Hartack’s innate talent, so he decided to sign him as a contract rider in 1952. Hartack found success quickly, riding his first winner that year at Waterford Park (now called Mountaineer). His competitive nature and ruthless honesty propelled him to the top of the jockey rankings in just a few years. He was winning races and breaking records over and over again; he was just the second jockey to win 400 races in a single year and was the first jockey to win $3 million in a single year.
Hartack rode in his first Kentucky Derby in 1956, in which he piloted Fabius to a second-place finish behind Needles. He didn’t allow victory to elude him the following year, though his success was one that can be credited by fate or circumstances.
According to America’s Best Racing, Hartack and a colt named Iron Leige were barrelling down Churchill Downs’ stretch in the 1957 Kentucky Derby, but had to get past Bill Shoemaker and Gallant Man. Luckily for Hartack, Shoemaker misjudged the finish and stood up in the irons to celebrate his “victory”, allowing Hartack and Iron Leige to squeeze by to win the Kentucky Derby by a nose.
He was going to ride in the Kentucky Derby again in 1958, but broke his leg shortly after winning the Florida Derby aboard Tim Tam. Tim Tam went on to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Two years later, Hartack piloted a colt named Venetian Way to a victory in the 1960 Kentucky Derby. Another two years after that, he guided Decidedly towards those ever-desired blanket of roses. It was Hartack’s third Kentucky Derby victory in a row (though they were not won consecutively).
Fate to lead him back to the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs in 1964, again thanks to Bill Shoemaker. Shoemaker gave up his chance to ride the Canadian colt Northern Dancer in favor of a horse named Hill Rise; Northern Dancer was able to defy his doubters to hold off Hill Rise’s late charge by a neck.
Hartack would go on a short losing streak in the Kentucky Derby before he finally got Majestic Prince into the winner’s circle in 1969, though he certainly had to work hard for the victory. A talented colt by the name of Arts and Letters made the first move on the turn and Hartack had to urge Majestic Prince for some incredible acceleration down the stretch to be able to catch him. Due to Hartack’s masterful riding, Majestic Prince was able to run down Arts and Letters, though by no more than a desperate neck.
That would be the last time Bill Hartack would win the Kentucky Derby, though he would ride in it four more times. All in all, he was able to win five of the twelve Kentucky Derbies he rode in, tying Eddie Arcaro’s record. He retired in 1974, but decided to return to the races in Hong Kong in 1978. He officially laid down his whip in 1980.
Even though his career as a jockey was through, his dedication to horse racing was not. He worked in the industry as an official and steward for many years, holding his final position as a steward at Louisiana Downs. He later enjoyed a quiet life, in which he enjoyed hunting. Bill Hartack was ultimately found dead in a cabin where he was to meet his friends for a hunting trip. He was just shy of his 75th birthday.
Bill Hartack had lived a long and successful life in horse racing. He was named Champion Jockey by Earnings in 1956-57 and Champion Jockey by Wins from 1955-57 and in 1960. He had been inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1959, making him the youngest jockey to ever receive the honor at just twenty-seven years old.
Bill Hartack will forever be remembered for both his incredible talent on the back of the horse and his tell-it-like-it-is personality that had made him many enemies on the racetrack. His name will forever appear in history books as one of the Kentucky Derby’s winningest jockeys, a record that only time can tell if it will be broken.