OLDSMAR, Fla. — Bill Hartack, thoroughbred racing's rebel with a cause, has swapped his rider's whip for a pair of binoculars.
The 54-year-old Hall of Fame jockey has returned to his racing roots at Tampa Bay Downs, where he and fellow track stewards John Hanley and Bill Elles rule on objections, handle licensing and decide on disqualifications and suspensions.
It is ironic for Hartack to assume a role of authority in the sport he has loved deeply since his beginning in 1952 as an apprentice jockey at Sunshine Park, the original Tampa Bay Downs. In a sensational but stormy 23-year career as a jockey, Hartack rode 4,272 winners and developed a rebel's stance before it became fashionable.
"I fought what I felt were inconsistencies," says Hartack, who argued with trainers, stewards, track officials, turf writers and other jockeys before retiring in 1975. "Maybe there's another Hartack out there on today's scene, but I haven't seen any. The only way to get things done, sometimes, is to make waves, but I never asked anyone else to join me. Other jockeys had families and other responsibilities."
Hartack, who finished the final six years of his riding career in Hong Kong, was aboard five Kentucky Derby winners to tie Eddie Arcaro's record. He has been in the Triple Crown winner's circle nine times and his mounts earned more than $26 million.
"Look's like No. 8's got a hand full of horse," says Hartack, looking through his huge binoculars at a recent third race at Tampa Bay Downs. "No, it's all right, No. 8's all the way out now."
Hartack, Hanley and Ellis follow the 12 horses around the six furlongs and jockey Mary Amodie on Crime Buster claims a foul against Robyn Ehrlinspiel, aboard winner Honorable Proof.
"Okay, Mary, we'll look at it," says Hartack by telephone before the three stewards adjourn to a back room to monitor the replay. Two of the three stewards must agree on a ruling and in this case, all vote to disallow Amodie's objection.
"Naturally, when you're a rider, you don't know what stewards go through," Hartack says. "I respected some of them--some of them I didn't respect. I'm not gonna stick up for all the stewards in the world. I decided to become a steward because I didn't like the way some of them worked. I'm not looking to change the world . . . I'm just trying to be fair and just."
Hartack passed the California steward's exam in November, 1985, one week before the job offer from Tampa Bay Downs. Hanley, a former jockey, and Elles have found Hartack to be an astute, opinionated steward who doesn't try to force his views on his partners.
"When he came here last year, he was on the reserved, quiet side for about 30 days," says Elles. "I know now that he was acclimating himself to a new job. He's been a pleasure to be around."