By any name but Willie, Bill Hartack was a winner

Dec 4, 2007 5:35 AM

Bill Hartack never took to being called "Willie." A man of uncompromising principles, William Hartack responded only to "Bill," even though in his heyday, a handful of crotchety, antagonistic newspapermen spitefully referred to him as Willie, just to rile him up.

And rile him up they did, to the point that eventually, Hartack didn’t talk to the press, except for a compliant scribe or two. It was under this scenario at Garden State Park years ago that I, as a reporter saturated with eager naivete, dismissed protocol and approached Hartack after he was well beaten on a favorite that got off to a bad start in a stakes race.

"Bill," I said with firm innocence, "do you mind if I ask you a question?"

"Yeah, I f-----’ do mind," he said. "It’s none of your f------’ business."

OK, so I would have had a better chance seeing Osama bin Laden celebrating Hanukkah.

Some quotes never fade away, and Hartack’s profanity-laced response was one, and it leaped front and center in my memory when I learned that Bill Hartack, who was elected to racing’s Hall of Fame in 1959 and who won the Kentucky Derby five times, was found dead on Nov. 26 in a cabin near Freer, Texas, a town with a population of 3,241 according to the 2000 Census. Hartack reportedly was set to go on an annual hunting trip before succumbing to an apparent heart attack. He would have been 75 on Dec. 9.

Style was not Hartack’s strong suit; winning was. He was not poetry in motion on a horse, but as an athlete, he was an over-achiever, sort of a Pete Rose with scruples. He competed with focused intensity, but wouldn’t think twice about refusing to ride a horse if he felt it was sore or unsound while warming up on the way to the starting gate, necessitating a late scratch, rankling officials and bettors alike.

"A lot of people didn’t like his manner of riding, because he used to bounce on the horses," said fellow Hall of Fame rider Laffit Pincay Jr., whose career crossed paths with Hartack’s for some eight years, until Hartack retired from riding in the United States in 1974. He would ride in Hong Kong before finally hanging up his tack in 1981.

"But horses would really run for him and he was a very good stakes rider," Pincay added. "For any rider to win five Derbies is unbelievable." Only Eddie Arcaro has as many, but Hartack did it from 12 rides, Arcaro from 21. Hartack won the Derby on Iron Liege (1957), Venetian Way (1960), Decidedly (1962), Northern Dancer (1964) and Majestic Prince (1969).

Not only did Hartack lead the nation in several riding categories throughout his career, he also led it in sneers. But once he emerged from his social vacuum, he took a liking to Pincay, who early on felt like persona non grata.

"He was a good friend of mine," Pincay recalled. "He used to date a girl who was a close friend of my first wife (Linda). We would get together for dinner, but he was a very opinionated guy. He had his own ideas and I’ll tell you, he could have been a lawyer. Nobody could beat him in an argument. I don’t know why he didn’t become a lawyer, because he was very good at that."

Hartack won 4,272 races from 21,535 mounts, nearly 20 percent, and twice led the nation in purse earnings. In 1957, he became the first rider whose earnings reached $3,060,501, a mark that stood for 10 years.

"That was remarkable for those times," Pincay said, "because purses then were nothing like they are today. What surprised me about Bill was that he got in trouble with the IRS. He owed the government a lot of money and that’s when he decided to ride in Hong Kong. I was surprised that happened to a smart guy like him."

But back in 1966, when Pincay won his first race in the United States at Arlington Park, Hartack greeted the newcomer from Panama like he was carrying Yellow Fever.

"I had just come around, and he wasn’t friendly at all," Pincay said. "He would mind his own business, play his card games, but he would never look at you or nothing. I thought he would never speak to me, but once I got to know him, I could have a pretty good conversation with him. But I definitely would never dare to argue with him, and since I don’t like to argue anyway, he had no problem with me."

Of course, Pincay never called Hartack "Willie."

The homestretch

”¡ Word from the Bobby Frankel barn is that Le Grand Trois is a candidate for the Grade I Malibu Stakes, opening day feature at Santa Anita, as is Del Mar Futurity winner Horse Greeley for Richard Mandella. Santa Anita’s Cushion Track currently is closed for training due to concerns about the draining foundation on the synthetic surface.

"We are just not satisfied that our racing surface is ready for the winter weather, and we want to be sure it’s working properly before the start of the meet on Dec. 26," Santa Anita President Ron Charles said. "We feel we owe it to horsemen to do everything we can to make sure the drainage system provides the same consistent surface we all expected and were guaranteed.

”¡ It’s critical that we go into our winter meet knowing that when it does rain, the track drains vertically and allows us to be back racing on a safe surface in a very short period of time. Santa Anita has invested over $11 million to provide a safe racing surface. We are looking to Cushion Track to provide the ultimate answer to this problem." Meanwhile, horsemen based at the Arcadia track are exercising their horses on its training track or shipping to Hollywood Park at Santa Anita’s expense.

”¡ In last Thursday’s game between Denver and the Lakers, the Nuggets led by 17 points in the first quarter, only to lose by 28, 127-99, a 45-point swing in 48 minutes.