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JOHNNY LONGDEN / 1907-2003

You Could Get to Him, You Couldn't Get by Him

February 15, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Johnny Longden, once horse racing's winningest jockey, and the only horseman to win the Kentucky Derby as a rider and a trainer, died Friday in his sleep, on his 96th birthday.

Longden, who retired as a jockey in 1966 and from training horses in 1990, suffered a stroke last August and had been bedridden in his Banning home for the last four months.

Of all the horse races Johnny Longden won -- 6,032 as a jockey and 370 as a trainer -- two counted the most. Longden rode Count Fleet to victory in the 1943 Kentucky Derby, then in 1969, three years after retiring from riding, he trained Majestic Prince to win the Derby.

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Longden, who held the record for victories by a jockey until Bill Shoemaker passed him in 1970, also swept the Triple Crown with Count Fleet, who won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes after his Derby win. Only five horses before Count Fleet and only five since -- the last Affirmed in 1978 -- have won all three races.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Longden obituary -- An obituary of jockey Johnny Longden in Saturday's Sports section said he rode George Royal to victory in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap on March 11, 1966. The correct date was March 12.

Majestic Prince came within one win of giving Longden his second Triple Crown, but he finished second to Arts And Letters, beaten by more than five lengths, in the Belmont. That was Majestic Prince's first loss, and his last race. Longden had been reluctant to run him in the Belmont, and Majestic Prince was retired because of a tendon injury.

Longden was the only rider Count Fleet ever had. The colt was a son of Reigh Count, who'd won the Derby in 1928, but as a young horse Count Fleet was hard to handle, and his owner, the taxicab and rental-car magnate John D. Hertz, almost sold him for $4,500.

"Don't do it," said Longden, who was under contract to ride for the Hertz stable. "This horse loves to run."

"This colt's going to hurt somebody," Hertz said. "He's dangerous."

"He doesn't scare me," Longden said. "I'll win a lot of races with him."

Hertz kept the slightly built horse, and in 1943, during a five-week stretch, Longden rode him to overpowering wins in the Triple Crown.

Actually, Count Fleet won four races during his Triple Crown run, winning the Withers at Belmont Park two weeks before the Belmont Stakes. There were only two challengers in the Belmont and Count Fleet won by 25 lengths, a record margin until Secretariat's 31-length tour de force 30 years later.

"By far, Count Fleet was the best I ever rode," Longden frequently said. "He was a freak. He was fast and he could run short or long, it didn't make any difference. Majestic Prince was a good horse too, but Count Fleet was one of the best there ever was. Count Fleet would have run away from Majestic Prince if they had ever met."

Longden didn't believe in using the whip, and in 21 races never did strike Count Fleet.

"A whip doesn't make a horse run," he said. "If you're doing your best and somebody's hitting you, you're going to sulk."

Longden did espouse breaking a horse quickly from the gate. "A length at the start is just as good as a length at the finish," he said, proving it when he rode Count Fleet to, the first front-running Derby victory in 17 years. "Johnny had some tricks," said Jerry Lambert, who rode against him many times in California. "He did what he had to do to win races. He'd send a horse, and then when you tried to close some ground, he'd back up his horse right into your face."

After a race in which he was outridden by a victorious Longden, Ray York said, "You can get to him -- you just can't get by him."

Longden, however, was not a one-dimensional rider. Another of his best horses, Noor, came from off the pace to beat the inimitable Citation five times in 1950. Longden also rode the filly Busher, who was voted horse of the year in 1945; Whirlaway and Swaps in some of their formative races, and T.V. Lark, the champion grass horse in 1961.

"Johnny was one the greatest competitors I ever rode against," said Shoemaker, whose record of 8,833 victories was eclipsed by Laffit Pincay in 1999. "We were neck and neck in the stretch a lot of times, and I'm sure he won most of them. I didn't like him when I was real young, because he wanted to take every edge, but with time I got a great deal of respect and admiration for him. We became great friends."

Longden retired from training in 1990 without any of the dramatic fanfare that had accompanied his riding swan song 24 years before. In March 1966, Longden decided that he would announce his retirement. He had dieted for years to make the sub-120-pound weights required of jockeys, and a pinched nerve in his back also had taken its toll. Rumors of Longden's quitting had circulated for years, but his impromptu announcement, at 59, was still a shock.

His last ride would be a couple of days later, on March 11 aboard George Royal in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap, a race the two of them had won the year before.

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