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A Lot Was Riding on This Guest Spot

Jockey Patti Barton recalls her appearance on Carson's show, and the wild story she told.

January 28, 2005|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Patti Barton, the jockey who won 1,202 races, is like an elephant when it comes to dates. The dates her three children were born, of course. July 8, 1984 -- that horrible day when she was trampled by two horses, nearly killed and forced to retire from riding. And Jan. 11, 1983 -- the night she was a guest on the Johnny Carson show.

"I was proud of doing that," Barton said from her home in Florence, Ky., sounding as though that 15-minute gig was just as memorable as any of the races she won in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, where she did most of her riding.

Carson's death Sunday made it seem as if her appearance on "The Tonight Show" was only yesterday, Barton said.

Carson's producers had brought Barton and her 19-year-old daughter, Leah, to Burbank after they had ridden against each other in a race in December 1982. It was the first time a mother and daughter had battled on the track. At Latonia Race Course -- now Turfway Park -- in Florence, Ky., Patti's horse finished fifth and Leah's was 10th.

Carson didn't do much with horse racing on his show. Horses got the most air time when the host and his sidekick, Ed McMahon, would get into faux debates about which was smarter, a horse or a pig. But the Barton story was too apple-pie middle America to pass up.

"We didn't get off to a good start," Barton said. "I was having my makeup put on when Johnny came by. He didn't have three words to say, and I thought, 'What kind of a jerk is this guy?' "

After the show, Doc Severinsen, Carson's bandleader, stopped by.

"Doc was a horse guy," Barton said. "He raced horses and he had a son who trained horses, so we had a lot in common. I told him about how aloof Johnny was before the show, and he set the record straight. He said that Johnny was that way with all the guests. He was afraid that if he mingled too much before the show, his interviews would lose their spontaneity.

"In all the stories I read after he died, I didn't see one that mentioned that. That made a lot of sense, and changed everything. Suddenly, for me, Johnny Carson had a halo around his head again."

Barton said Carson's producers decided to save her and Leah for the final segment of the show.

"They asked me ahead of time what I might talk about," Barton said, "and when I suggested that the Cliff Thompson story might be a good one, they figured it was best to run my interview as late as possible, when all the kids had gone to bed."

The Cliff Thompson story?

"Yeah, he was a guy I rode against at Waterford Park in West Virginia. It's Mountaineer Park now."

In the heat of battle, Barton said, she had accidentally struck Thompson's horse across the face with her whip. Thompson retaliated by hitting Barton on her backside with his whip. They yelled at each other all the way back to the jockeys' rooms,then Barton threw the first punch.

In the scuffle that ensued, Thompson drew blood when he clipped the end of Barton's nose. Barton retaliated the only way she could think of -- there are no rules in a jockeys' fight -- and Thompson went to his knees. Other riders finally separated them.

Leaving Barton, Thompson shouted a sexist remark. Barton's rejoinder, best unsaid here, brought tears of laughter to Carson's eyes. He did that patented pencil flip, the one that meant a guest had struck a bull's-eye with his funny bone.

"I heard later that my line to Thompson was bleeped out in Boston," Barton said. "That's funny. It might have been the ultimate male put-down, but I really didn't think anything of it. Clifford Thompson in many ways was a pretty nice guy. He was one of those guys who don't say anything even if they've got a mouthful. But he had no use for me out on the track. There had been smaller things that led up to that incident."

On the show, after Carson caught his pencil, he said:

"Welcome to the hard-hitting world of race-riding, folks."

Barton, now 60, had two other jockeys in the family besides Leah. Her younger daughter, Donna Barton Brothers, retired in 1998, after winning 1,131 races. She is married to trainer Frankie Brothers and is a TV racing commentator. And Jerry Barton, who quickly got too heavy to ride, has been training horses in Saudi Arabia for the last four years.

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