05/21/2009 11:00PM

Maryland's master tutor for riders


Among the more significant things to be lost in the hurricane of Rachel Alexandra coverage last week was the death of former jockey and racing official William J. Passmore, at the age of 76, from the debilitating effects of emphysema.

As Maryland racing institutions go, Passmore ranks right up there with Sagamore, Windfields, and anything with the name Boniface attached. Of Passmore's 76 years, 38 were spent as a jockey and another 20 as a steward, leaving him little time for either the indulgences of childhood or the veneration of old age. He retired just last year.

The Passmore obituaries trotted out the obvious set of particulars: the 3,531 wins, the $23 million in purses (unadjusted for inflation), his collaboration with the world-class mare Twixt and the consistent colt Thirty Eight Paces, fourth in the 1981 Kentucky Derby.

As a lifelong thread in the fabric of Maryland racing, Passmore both protected and nurtured his turf, by deed and then by word, carrying the torch of sound riding craftsmanship to more than one generation of young jockeys. They were a pretty good bunch, too, that rode against him and then were subject to Passmore's benevolent guidance from the stewards' stand. The list includes Sandy Hawley, Chris McCarron, Kent Desormeaux, Chris Antley, Mario Pino, Edgar Prado, Jeremy Rose, Anna Rose Napravnik, and that Hall of Famer who shares this address, my wife, Julie Krone.

"Once, at Bowie in the early 80s, we were going down the backside," Krone said. At the time she had barely escaped her teens, while Passmore had made it to 50, still in one piece. "I was really close to him and started crowding him. He yelled, 'Hey!' But I kept crowding him, so he reached over and 'tapped' me on the toe with his whip. It really hurt."

Krone recalls Passmore as a tough but fair-minded competitor who was not afraid to share the occasional trade secret. As a steward, he labored under the philosophy that the more young riders were grounded in safe, solid horsemanship outside the ring, the less the judges would be blowing whistles in the afternoon.

"He always set such a nice, quiet example in the room," Krone said. "And he showed how you could get just as good a point across with a sense of humor. But he had no trouble speaking his mind. It felt good having him representing other jockeys while he rode. I wasn't surprised at all that he went on to become such a respected steward.

"One of the last cool memories I have of him was when he called to tell me there was this girl here, and 'Wow, can she ride!' " Krone added. "She was only an apprentice, and he was really excited about Rosie's talent. He told me to keep my eye on her, because it was the first time he'd seen anybody who could ride like me. That was very special, that he could feel that way about Rosie, and have that memory of me."

Apparently, Passmore saw himself as a steward while he was still in the saddle. Decades ago, he shared the idea with Darrel McHargue, another young gun who came up through the Maryland wars before going on to win a national championship in 1978. McHargue also was married to one of Passmore's five daughters, Patricia.

"He was instrumental in me thinking about becoming a steward when I quit riding," said McHargue, now one of the senior stewards on the California circuit. "My career was taking off when we first talked about it, so it wasn't really on my mind. But it made me start thinking that way."

McHargue described Passmore as a "cagey" rider, technically precise, and not shy about schooling colleagues with less experience.

"He didn't go over the line in his competitiveness to where it was offending," McHargue said. "But he also taught you, and if you were gonna learn, he was a good one to learn from. He never endangered you. He always knew where he was on the track. And he always used the voice of logic and reason. I think that showed in his work as a steward as well."

Although the name always rang true, Passmore's was not widely known outside Maryland. This probably misjudges the former vigor of the Maryland circuit, and overlooks the fact that even a professional jockey is allowed the choice of sinking roots and raising a family. The Passmores had seven children.

"Riding in Maryland, you could be on some of the best horses in the country," McHargue noted. "It was a very strong circuit. You could live in a good place, and still easily ride New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware - all those places. Eldon Nelson, Vince Bracciale - those were guys who lived in Maryland and got national attention, when they got the opportunities.

"Even after our divorce, Bill and I stayed friends," McHargue added. "I talked to Patty the day I heard he died. She told me how he wanted to visit a farm where he first learned how to be a jockey. It was towards the end, so she took him there - with his oxygen tank - and she said you could really tell that it was a place he wanted to see again before he passed on."

A memorial mass for Bill Passmore will be offered at St. Mary of the Mills Roman Catholic Church, 114 St. Mary's Place in Laurel, on June 10. There will be a lot to remember.