11/28/2007 1:00AM

Hartack driven by a need to be the best

Bill Hartack
To take the measure of a man in the days immediately following his death is patently unfair. Either he has made his mark, and it was worth the trouble to mention while the subject was still living, or he was a cipher, having no real impact beyond his immediate circle. End of story.

For someone like Bill Hartack, a contentious man of sweeping contradictions, there is also the very real possibility that were he around to suffer the post mortems, he would take exception to just about everything read or said, beyond a handful of irrefutable facts.

He would no doubt agree that he won five Kentucky Derbies, beginning with Iron Liege in 1957 and ending with Majestic Prince in 1969. He would admit that he had been a member of the horse racing Hall of Fame for 48 of his nearly 75 years. And he could hardly argue with such core numbers as 4,272 victories and six national championships, although he'd probably demand an audit.

Hartack also might concede to a rough Pennsylvania childhood, what there was of it, defined by a mother who died in a car wreck when Bill was only 8 and a father who was generous with nothing but the lash. Neither could Hartack deny the lavish lifestyle he methodically acquired as his riding success soared through the 1950s, complete with a West Virginia horse farm, a speedboat, luxury cars, and closets stocked with the finest threads, along with a posh pad in Miami Springs.

As for the rest, it would depend on which Hartack showed up - the angry, driven competitor who suffered fools not at all, or the selectively social bon vivant of his later years as a racing official, sometimes willing to entertain whoever would listen with stories from bygone days.

"He never did lose that tough attitude of his," said Louisiana trainer and fishing buddy Gary Palmisano, who welcomed the lifelong bachelor into his home during Hartack's tenure as a Fair Grounds steward. "When we'd go out, before I could even drop anchor Bill would have a line in the water. He had to catch the first fish, the biggest fish, and the most fish.

"When he'd come over, he loved nothing better than to play checkers or chess with my son, Gary," Palmisano added, "or get on the computer and play all kinds of video football games. Then they'd shoot some pool, and of course Bill had to win."

Hartack was a big name when racing was a big game, on a par with baseball and collegiate football, and he reigned as the fourth head on the sport's Mount Rushmore alongside Eddie Arcaro, Bill Shoemaker, and Johnny Longden.

It happened quickly, too. Hartack was all of 23 and still eight months from his first Derby win when the young turf writer Joe Hirsch supplied the prose for a Sports Illustrated cover story, published Sept. 17, 1956. At the time, Hartack was well on his way to taking the season's titles for both money and races won.

Hirsch's story in SI begins with the scene of an ebullient Hartack celebrating a victory, chatting amiably with fans and valets as he makes his way from the winner's circle to the room, the picture of a personable star on the rise. One race later, after losing on a favorite, the same Hartack was surly, mean, and impatient, a sudden Mr. Hyde wearing Dr. Jekyll's white pants and boots.

"He does indulge himself in the vilest of black moods, during which he refuses to speak to close friends, scowls and glowers at almost everyone," wrote Hirsch, retired now as Daily Racing Form executive columnist.

"Bill feels his position as one of America's leading riders quite keenly, and hates to give bad performances or be beaten on a favorite," Hirsch's story continued. "Since nearly everything he rides is heavily supported, the pressure is tremendous, and occasionally he gives vent to his feelings by sulking. However, when things are going right, he's full of natural charm, discusses things intimately and frankly with even casual acquaintances.

"This is no simple boy, this Hartack," Hirsch's article concluded. "He hasn't fully learned to accept all the many obligations of success as yet. But then Arcaro, too, was a renowned wild one in his youth and matured into quite a man, respected wherever there was racing in this country. Hartack is the Arcaro of tomorrow, and tomorrow is almost today."

History will note that Hartack was never anyone but Hartack, and even though he did not rise to Hirsch's challenge - to become as widely embraced as Eddie Arcaro - Hartack left an indelible mark upon American racing because of his mark on America's most famous race.

"He was the best Derby rider who ever lived," Hirsch said this week from his home in Manhattan. "It's so much of a rider's race, and he always seemed to be in the right place, making his move at the right time."

Only one of Hartack's five Derby winners was favored, the unbeaten Majestic Prince, owned by Canadian lumberman Frank McMahon.

"Once, while we were out on the boat, I asked him who was the best horse he ever rode," Gary Palmisano said. "And believe me, he had never answered that question. He'd always give some smart-aleck answer like, 'If they know the best horse, they only rode one horse.' Like that.

"He stopped fishing for a minute and said that Majestic Prince was absolutely the best horse he ever rode, just a machine," Palmisano said, "and that the owner ruined him running in the Belmont after he bowed winning the Preakness."

Blunt, honest, and proud, Hartack exhibited all the attributes of a man on guard duty 24 hours a day, lest someone poke a nose in front.

"When the Sports Illustrated story came out, Bill was riding in New Jersey," Joe Hirsch said. "He came into the city one day, and we walked around, just to have dinner and see a movie. Bill stopped at every newsstand, just to see the display of his face on the covers."

Did anyone mention he was also human, with friends both loyal and long-suffering?

"I have a pen and ink of Hartack drawn by Leroy Nieman," Hirsch added. "He caught him beautifully, in kind of a sulking pose, which he often assumed. It's probably the best thing I have."