02/14/2003 12:00AM

Legendary rider Longden dies

Email

John Longden, a Hall of Fame jockey who retired as the world's winningest rider in 1966 and is the only person to both ride and train a Kentucky Derby winner, died on Friday afternoon, his 96th birthday, at his home in Banning, Calif.

At Santa Anita, plans were already in place to celebrate Longden's birthday. A race was named in his honor, and video clips of highlights from his career were shown throughout the day. As recently as a few years ago, Longden attended the races on his birthday and was presented with a cake.

After the fifth race, when word of his death had reached the track, Longden's daughter, Andrea, joined several of Longden's friends from his riding days and some current jockeys in the winner's circle.

Laffit Pincay Jr., who has more victories than any other rider, won the fifth race. Later, he said that some of his earliest racing memories were of Longden. "I remember when he retired, I thought no one will break that record for winners," he said.

Former jockeys Alex Maese, 73, and Ray York, 70, were at the races in honor of Longden. "I lost a real good buddy today," said York, who won the 1954 Kentucky Derby on Determine.

Larry Gilligan, 65, who rode with Longden and works at Santa Anita as an assistant to the stewards, remembered Longden as a fierce competitor.

"One time I tried to go up the rail about the eighth pole, and as they say I scraped paint," Gilligan said. "I never got through. When we got back to the room, he said, 'Well, you won't try that again.' He taught me a lesson.

"He'd intimidate you, but then he'd educate you why you shouldn't have been there. You either have plenty of horse and go through, or you don't."

Longden swept the Triple Crown, with Count Fleet in 1943. Retiring after 40 years as a jockey, he became a trainer, and in 1969 won the Derby and Preakness Stakes with Majestic Prince. Longden also was instrumental in founding the Jockeys' Guild in 1941 with another Hall of Fame legend, Eddie Arcaro, and Sam Renick, both of whom preceded Longden in death.

Longden retired with 6,032 victories, which stood as a record until he was passed by Bill Shoemaker, who in turn was passed by Laffit Pincay Jr.

Longden's 32,413rd and final ride ride, aboard George Royal in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap on March 12, 1966, at Santa Anita, was the stuff of legends. Only days before the race, Longden, who had turned 59 a month earlier, announced he would retire. George Royal was the defending San Juan winner, but he had won just twice in 12 starts since the 1965 running.

"One can only wish Longden had the theatrical flair of Ted Williams," wrote the late Jack Murphy in the San Diego Union. "Williams quit with a home run in Boston's Fenway Park. . . . Longden's chances of quitting a winner are so remote that Santa Anita management has scheduled special ceremonies honoring the gaffer Monday, closing day of the meeting."

But George Royal and Longden produced a storybook finish. George Royal won by a nose after a thrilling stretch drive with Plaque, and Longden returned to a thunderous ovation from the crowd of 60,792 at Santa Anita.

Longden became the world's winningest rider on Sept. 3, 1956, at Del Mar, when he rode career winner number 4,871, passing the mark set by British riding legend Sir Gordon Richards. Longden, who was nicknamed "the Pumper" for his ability to get a horse out of the gate quickly, had his best year in the saddle in 1956. His 320 winners earned $1,609,627 in purses. He led the nation's jockeys in money won in 1943 and 1945, and won the most races in the years 1938, 1947, and 1948. His mounts earned $24,665,800 in purses during his career.

In 1958, Longden was elected into racing's Hall of Fame. He rode in an era before the Eclipse Awards, but received a Special Eclipse Award, along with Arcaro, in 1994 in honor of both their careers and their founding of the Jockeys' Guild.

Longden rode many top horses, including Noor, who twice conquered Citation during Santa Anita's winter meeting in 1950, as well as Busher, Swaps, T.V. Lark, Whirlaway, and Your Host. Longden won the Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Derby five times each, and the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup four times each. He had six winners in seven mounts on Nov. 22, 1947, at Bay Meadows.

After retiring in 1966, Longden trained for 23 years. His greatest success came with Majestic Prince, who was the highest-priced yearling ever sold at auction when owner Frank McMahon purchased him for $250,000 in 1967. Majestic Prince won the Derby and Preakness in 1969, but lost the Belmont Stakes, his first career defeat, to arch-rival Arts and Letters. Majestic Prince never raced again.

John Eric Longden was born on Feb. 14, 1907 in England. In 1912, he moved with his mother to Alberta, Canada, where his father already had emigrated as a coal miner. They almost did not make it. Because a train taking them from their home in Wakefield to Southhampton on the British coast was late, Longden and his mother missed their scheduled trip on the inaugural voyage of the Titanic.

As a youth, Longden worked in the local coal mines in Taber, Alberta, where he was a schoolmate of George Woolf, who also went on to become a famous jockey. Longden, who grew only 4-foot-11, began his riding career in the bush tracks of Western Canada and the United States. His first recognized victory was recorded in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1927 on a horse named Hugo K. Asher.

Longden admitted to taking every edge possible when on a racetrack. "When I first rode, there were no cameras and no photo finish," he told columnist Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1995. "You could get away with a lot more than you can now."

Longden often celebrated his birthday at Santa Anita. He also made regular appearances at Santa Anita for the annual George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award ceremony. Longden won the Woolf Award in 1952. After retiring from training, he lived in Banning, Calif., in the desert east of Los Angeles.

Until health problems took hold in recent years, Longden was fairly active for his age. Even into his 90's, he would play golf two or three times a week.

In addition to his daughter, Andrea, Longden is survived by his third wife, Kathy, to whom he was married on April 30, 1993. Longden's second wife, Hazel, who owned a number of horses with Longden and also trained, died in 1990. Longden is also survived by a son, Eric.

Another son, Vance, whom Longden had with his first wife, Helen, died last month. Both Eric and Vance Longden were trainers.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen