02/26/2015 3:05PM

Hovdey: Lambert and horses were on same wavelength


Clyde was slick. Clyde was smooth. Clyde was as cool as the other side of the pillow.

If Clyde had horse, he’d never let you know. Sometimes even the horse was surprised.

How did Clyde get Native Diver to ladle out that speed? He’d talk to him, he said, “like a Philadelphia lawyer,” and Native Diver would listen.

Clyde could win from anywhere, with anything. Here’s Clyde breaking from post 18 – you heard right – in the 1969 Malibu Stakes and nursing just the right amount of speed from First Mate to reach the front, control the race, and win by three-quarters at the end.

Here’s Clyde in the first division of the 1969 San Luis Rey on Biggs, lapped on the favored Tobin Bronze and Johnny Sellers from the start and then beating them by a nose.

Here’s Clyde later that same afternoon on Quicken Tree in the second division, taking the lazy chestnut out back, where he liked to be, and then coming with a rush to win in a gallop.

Max Gluck’s Manta had never carried 129 pounds in her life, but since most of it was Clyde in a division of the 1971 Long Beach Handicap at Hollywood Park, she gave him enough to beat Swoon’s Flower and Jorge Tejeira by a nose.

And never forget, that epic 1972 Hollywood Park match race between Convenience and Typecast, in which our man undressed Bill Shoemaker for a quarter million, never would have happened if Clyde and his mare had not beaten Typecast on the square two weeks earlier in the Vanity.

Clyde was Jerry Lambert – as in his birthplace of Clyde, Kansas. He died this week, at age 74, at his home on the property of Magali Farms in Santa Ynez, Calif.

As a jockey, which he was for the better part of 40 years, Lambert was nothing less than the West’s version of Braulio Baeza. Long-backed, perfectly balanced, patient to a fault, Lambert did more doing less than most riders who seem to equate busy with better. He rode boot-to-boot against not only Shoemaker but also Don Pierce, Alvaro Pineda, Howard Grant, Laffit Pincay, Milo Valenzuela, Bill Mahorney, and Eddie Belmonte, none of them known for giving an inch out there.

The best trainers of the age tossed Lambert the reins, including Charlie Whittingham, Farrell Jones, Jim Maloney, Gordon Campbell, Bob Wheeler, and Buster Millerick, for whom he rode Native Diver 43 times. Together, Lambert and Native Diver won 23 races, all of them stakes, including those three Hollywood Gold Cups in 1965, 1966, and 1967.

It was Lambert who helped hook this racing pilgrim on the romance of the game. Nearly every Saturday afternoon – at least it seemed like that – there would be Lambert interviewed by Gil Stratton after winning another one on The Diver, explaining in his flat, Midwestern drawl just how it was pretty much as easy as it looked.

Lambert was the jockey who had to miss riding Native Diver and other choice mounts to serve his weekend hitches in the National Guard. He was the guy with the gunfighter moustache and the long dark hair that flipped out from the back of his helmet. Lambert beat Cougar with Over the Counter, Gamely with Amerigo’s Fancy, Ack Ack with Jungle Savage.

Lambert was busted up and broken a lot, but no more or less than any other jockey, and while he finally had to quit race riding, he never stopped working at something.

Magali Farm manager Tom Hudson had just finished foaling a mare Thursday morning when he paused to talk about his friend. They went back some 18 years, to the time when Hudson trained Arabians and Lambert rode them to regular success in the mid-1990s. Hudson credits Lambert with the evolution of Magali as a respected training facility for not only young horses but young riders.

“That guy had a set of hands ... man, I’m telling you,” Hudson said. “He could teach a horse with his fingertips. I’d have another rider on a horse, and the horse would have his head up, being real bad. Jerry could spot what was happening across the track. He’d get on that horse, and before they’d go one lap around the track, that horse would be melted down into the bridle, quiet as could be. He was unbelievable.

“When we’d haul horses together, I got to hear a lot of stories about the old days,” Hudson said. “He’d tell me how you were fired if you couldn’t come back and tell the trainer what every eighth-of-a-mile split was. In a race, he would know every horse coming into the final turn and whether they were going to bear out or bear in, and there would be four other great riders in the field who could do the same thing. He’d say you’d only beat those guys if they made a mistake.”

In a 2003 interview with Santa Ynez Valley Journal writer Pat Murphy, Lambert recalled his return to riding after a four-year hiatus in the 1980s.

“Everything had changed,” Lambert said. “The jockeys were coming out of the gate standing up with the reins flapping in the breeze. When I asked why, they said they thought it made the horses more relaxed. Well, I still rode down low with my reins collected so I could feel my horse’s mouth and his action. I played those reins like a piano, and I would pass them like a turpentined cat.”

It was truly beautiful music.