11/27/2007 12:00AM

Five-Derby winner Bill Hartack dies

Bill Hartack after winning his fourth Kentucky Derby, aboard Northern Dancer.
Bill Hartack, a mid-century sports icon during his heyday as a jockey, and one of only two five-time Kentucky Derby winners, died Monday at 74.

Hartack died of natural causes due to heart disease, according to Dr. Corinne Stern of the Webb County medical examiner's office in Laredo, Texas. Stern said she had pronounced Hartack dead at about 9:30 Monday evening. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Hartack's body was found in a cabin at a camp near the town of Freer, in southern Texas, where he has journeyed the last several winters to hunt, according to the trainer Mike Stidham. The hunting camp is the property of the Thoroughbred owner Greg Goodman, a friend and client of Stidham's, whose father, George, was Hartack's agent at the end of the jockey's career.

Hartack hadn't been seen since sometime Sunday, and security personnel were called Monday evening to check on Hartack, at which time his body was discovered.

Hartack would have been 75 on Dec. 9. He has remained active in racing as a steward, and recently finished working the race meet at Louisiana Downs.

Hartack won 4,272 races during his U.S. career, which ended in 1974. He won with nearly 20 percent of his mounts. From 1978 to 1980 he rode in Hong Kong, retiring for good in 1981.

Hartack and Eddie Arcaro are the only two riders with five Kentucky Derby wins. Hartack's first Derby came with Iron Liege in 1957, his last with Majestic Prince in 1969. In between, he won North America's biggest horse race with Venetian Way (1960), Decidedly (1962), and the great stallion Northern Dancer (1964). Hartack also won the Preakness three times, and the Belmont once. His Derby total might have numbered six had he not gotten injured and lost the mount on Tim Tam, the Derby winner in 1958.

"He was the greatest Derby rider in history, won five of 12," said Joe Hirsch, a retired Daily Racing Form executive columnist, and a friend of Hartack's. "He could make a judgment that was just genius, and make it quickly. He moved before most of the fellows had decided what to do."

"He was very competitive, fiercely competitive on a horse," said Derby-winning jockey Braulio Baeza, who finished second to Hartack in the 1969 Derby and Preakness on Arts and Letters, before finally beating Hartack and Majestic Prince in the Belmont. "He was aggressive, and he knew how to take advantage of other jockeys' mistakes."

A native of Ebensburg, Pa., Hartack grew up motherless from age 8, and under the stern hand of his coal-mining father on a Pennsylvania farm. At 17, Hartack took a job as an exercise and stable boy with the trainer Junie Corbin at Charles Town Race Course in West Virginia. Corbin turned him into a contract rider at Waterford Park in the fall of 1952, and by the end of the next year, Hartack's career had taken flight.

The agent Chick Lang began booking mounts for Hartack when the young rider came to Maryland to ride for the first time, and Lang went to Florida with Hartack for his first winter of big-time racing. Hartack had all the ability, but Lang was left to do damage control.

"My biggest problem isn't mounts, but Billy's personality," Lang told Time magazine for a 1958 cover story. "I spend most of my time trailing around after him, apologizing to people he's insulted. He's particularly rude if he hasn't won. He's the most competitive athlete I ever saw. If he doesn't win, he won't talk to anybody."

Lang still has sharp memories of Hartack's prickly personality, and the two eventually parted ways. But Lang calls Hartack one of the great riders in racing history.

"He was just a great rider," Lang said, reached by telephone Tuesday. "He was a very, very deliberate rider. He knew what to do on a horse, and he did it well. If you were to ask me the best rider I ever saw, I'd say Eddie Arcaro a nose in front of Bill Hartack."

Hartack, for all his bullheadedness, could be charming enough under the right circumstances. "On a horse, he was all business, but if you got to know him, he was friendly," Baeza said.

Hartack's hard exterior surely was formed in childhood. He spoke freely of regular whippings administered at home.

His life as a boy purely was no-nonsense, and until he was plucked from anonymity barely out of adolescence, his adult years figured to unfold similarly.

"Bill, when I first met him, he had a mouthful of bad teeth, and he was very self-conscious of that, but also anti-dentist," Lang said. "He'd always put his hand up over his mouth when he talked, and I told him, 'We're going to get a dentist, and get you straightened out.' He kind of liked that, that somebody was interested in his appearance."

Hartack was the first rider to reach annual purse earnings of $3 million. He never married, dated freely, and lived well. But what he really lived for was to ride.

"Hartack was never deep into money," Lang said. "Bill was an exception - there will never be another one like him."