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Eddie Arcaro, 'the Master,' Is Dead at 81

Horse racing: He was the only jockey to ride two Triple Crown winners, Whirlaway and Citation.

November 15, 1997|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eddie Arcaro, the fiery jockey known for his furious finishes and 17 victories in Triple Crown races, died Friday of liver cancer.

Arcaro, who was 81, spent his last hours with his wife, son and sister at his condominium in Miami.

During a career that began in 1931 and ended with a surprise retirement in 1961, Arcaro won 4,799 races and rode horses that earned $30.3 million. His 17 Triple Crown victories included five in the Kentucky Derby and six each in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

He is the only jockey to have swept the Triple Crown twice, with Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948.

Arcaro's other Derby winners were Lawrin in 1938, Hoop Jr. in 1945 and Hill Gail in 1952.

He once said that his biggest racing thrill was that first Derby victory with Lawrin. One of his biggest disappointments was when he and Nashua were beaten by Bill Shoemaker and Swaps in the 1955 Derby. Nashua came back to win the Preakness and the Belmont and then beat Swaps in a match race at Chicago.

"We were good friends," Shoemaker said Friday. "He was a great rider, and he helped me when I first went to New York to ride in 1951. He introduced me to horse owners and a lot of people. In his day, he was the strongest finisher there was on a horse. He was very competitive. In the jockeys' room, he might have been your friend, but once that gate opened, you were on your own."

Arcaro's headstrong determination got him into trouble with racing authorities in New York in 1942 and he was suspended for a year.

In the early stages of the Cowdin Stakes at Aqueduct, Arcaro's mount, Occupation, was bumped hard by Breezing Home, who was ridden by Vincent Nodarse. Arcaro spent the rest of the race trying to retaliate, and in the stretch Occupation slammed into Breezing Home, sending Nodarse over the rail.

Nodarse was not injured, and when the stewards questioned Arcaro at a hearing, he could have gotten off with a light suspension. But instead of apologizing, Arcaro said, "What I really meant to do was kill that Cuban SOB."

Arcaro and Nodarse eventually mended their differences and became lifelong friends. Several years ago, when a reporter visited Nodarse at his home in the Miami area, he commented about the fancy overhead fan in the living room.

"Eddie Arcaro gave me that fan," Nodarse said.

Arcaro was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1958.

His nicknames, one in jest and the other in admiration, were "Old Banana Nose" and "the Master."

It was the noses of his horses, not their rider's, that usually got to the wire in time.

"He was the best I ever saw," said Joe Hirsch, executive columnist for the Daily Racing Form. "He retired in 1961. What is that, 36 years ago? You would think that I would have seen somebody better come along in all those years, but I haven't.

"Eddie was a combination of strength and intelligence, and he had a sense of daring to go with it. The nickname 'the Master' wasn't newspaper hype. That name came from his fellow riders, who tried to copy everything he did. There have been riders who've had some of Eddie's great skills, but nobody with the total package."

In an interview last year, Arcaro said Citation and Kelso were the best horses he ever rode. But he rated Secretariat, who ran long after Arcaro had retired, as the best he'd ever seen.

"I don't kid myself," Arcaro said, "I got the chance to ride the best horses and that was the difference. You take the best horse in any race and put one of the 12 best jockeys on him, and you know that horse will come through."

In 1959, Arcaro seemed headed for his seventh Belmont victory. Instead, he took a spill that almost killed him.

Black Hills, in third place, began to rally under Arcaro when the colt fell at the five-sixteenths pole. Arcaro broke a leg and was knocked unconscious by a trailing horse that jumped over him. There was a lot of standing water on the track and Arcaro was thrown into a large puddle.

"I got my big nose in that water," he said last year. "They told me later that a photographer rushed out there and pulled me out, big nose and all. The guy pumped me for half an hour. It's a wonder I lasted and didn't drown."

The son of an immigrant cab driver from Italy, Arcaro was born in Cincinnati on Feb. 19, 1916. He stopped growing at 5 feet 3 and dropped out of school when he was 13 to work at the track. He galloped horses at the old Latonia track, now Turfway Park, in Florence, Ky., earning $20 a month and getting little encouragement from trainers there.

Told he would never become a jockey, Arcaro landed in California, at the old Tanforan track near San Francisco. A trainer there, Clarence Davison, gave him some horses to ride, but Arcaro lost 45 races before riding his first winner, a claimer named Eagle Bird at Agua Caliente in Tijuana on Jan. 14, 1932.

In New Orleans, Arcaro became the leading apprentice at the Fair Grounds. Moving to Chicago, he was signed to his first contract by Warren Wright and began riding for powerful Calumet Farm.

On April 4, 1962, with no fanfare, Arcaro formally announced his retirement, having stopped riding in 1961. He had ridden in 24,092 races and reportedly was a millionaire.

Arcaro and his first wife, Ruth, settled in South Florida, where Arcaro played golf daily and analyzed major races, including the Triple Crown, for network television.

After 50 years of marriage, Ruth Arcaro died in the early 1990s, and last year Arcaro married a long-time friend. He is survived by his wife Vera, two children--Bobby and Carolyn Zaslow--from his first marriage, and a sister, Evelyn Maggio. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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