05/27/2014 10:10AM

Famed steeplechase rider Aitcheson dies at 85

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Joe Aitcheson Jr., the steeplechase rider who was inducted in 1978 into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, died Friday at a hospice facility in Westminster, Md., following a long illness, according to an obituary from his family. Aitcheson was 85.

Aitcheson was inducted into the Hall of Fame despite having only 478 wins during a 20-year riding career from 1957-77. The induction was a measure of his importance to steeplechase racing, with multiple wins in the sport’s most prestigious races. His biography at the Hall of Fame calls him “arguably the greatest of all time.”

Aitcheson won eight Virginia Gold Cups, seven Carolina Cups, and six International Gold Cups. He was the leading steeplechase rider in seven years during his career, a record, and was the regular rider of eight of the sport’s champions at year’s end: Peal (1961), Amber Diver (1963), Bon Nouvel (1964-65 and 1968), Tuscalee (1966), Top Bid (1970), and Soothsayer (1972). He had 478 career steeplechase wins.

He was the only rider to be awarded the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association’s F. Ambrose Clark Award, the highest honor in the sport, in 1976.

Aitcheson was born in Olney, Md., the heart of steeplechase country. His father was an athlete, pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers. As a teenager, he worked in an uncle’s riding stable. Aitcheson was a veteran, serving four tours in the Korean War as a gunner’s mate on the U.S.S. Oriskany. After being discharged at age 28, he started his steeplechase career.