06/27/2005 11:00PM

In silks or suit, one of greats

Bert Morgan
Ted Atkinson, using the distinctive whipping style that earned him the nickname The Slasher, wins the 1955 Wood Memorial aboard Nashua. After he retired from riding, Atkinson become a state steward for the Illinois Racing Board.

Theodore Frederick Atkinson, who died last month at his home in Beaverdam, Va., at the age of 88, had established himself as a Hall of Fame jockey long before he retired as a rider at the end of the 1958 racing season. Atkinson was leading rider in New York for 11 years, topping a Grade 1 jockey colony that included John Longden, Hedley Woodhouse, Bill Boland, Eric Guerin, Steve Brooks, and, of course, Eddie Arcaro, perhaps the greatest jockey in this country or anywhere else.

Of all the top riders in New York, Atkinson may have been the least likely to become a jockey.

He was born in Toronto in 1916, but his family moved to the U.S. in 1920, and he grew up in New York state. He toiled at several jobs until one day a truck driver, noting his size and strength, suggested he might become a jockey.

A friend of the driver introduced Atkinson to a someone who helped him get a job at the Greentree Stable farm in New Jersey. Atkinson learned quickly and in a year or so, he rode in his first race, on Dec. 2, 1937, at Charles Town. A few months later, he was riding at old Randall Park near Cleveland where he met an attractive and articulate teenager named Martha Shank, whose father, Bert Shank, was the mayor of North Randall. Although Ted soon left Ohio to ride in New England, he and Martha were married in 1940, a marriage that lasted more than six decades.

Retired Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud, who was Atkinson's agent in New England before working his own way to the top of the sport, had a ready explanation for Atkinson's success as a jockey.

"He was smart, and above all he was determined," Nerud said recently. "He would never give up on a horse, or anything else."

"Atkinson certainly did not come with a racing background," said Allen Jerkens, another Hall of Fame trainer. "He was very intelligent and he taught himself to become a race rider. And he did his homework. He kept a daily diary with notes about the horses he rode."

Jerkens remembered the way Atkinson rode Admiral Vee, a top handicap horse of the 1950's. "Ted quickly discovered that Admiral Vee didn't like horses coming up on his outside early in a race," Jerkens said. "So Ted would let other horses come up inside him. He'd lose a little ground, but Admiral Vee would keep on running."

Pat Lynch, turf writer for the New York Journal-American, dubbed Atkinson "The Slasher," a nickname that stuck, although Ted regarded it as a misnomer.

"I used a heavily feathered whip and I never hit hard," Atkinson once said. "I raised the whip high so I could hit the horse high on the rump and avoid hitting him on the flank, where the skin was more tender."

Jerkens noted that Atkinson's whipping style didn't knock a horse off stride, adding, "He didn't put welts on any of the horses he rode for me."

Atkinson retired after the 1958 season after experiencing back trouble. His doctor told him the problem was not severe enough to end his career, but Atkinson chose to retire because he was unable to ride giving 100 percent effort.

The first time I met Atkinson was in January 1959, my first year as a racing writer at the Miami Herald, when he came to the press box one morning at old Tropical Park in Coral Gables to announce that he was retiring. Although Atkinson's legacy will always be primarily that of a Hall of Fame rider, the last quarter-century of his racing career has not received due recognition. In the early 1960's, Atkinson served as state steward at Illinois tracks after a brief program of study at Marshall Cassidy's Jockey Club School for racing officials. Atkinson had ridden under Cassidy at New York tracks and regarded him as the epitome of what a steward should be.

Two years later I became a steward, first at Washington Park, then at Arlington Park and Hawthorne, and worked side-by-side with Atkinson for the better part of four years, 1963-66.

It was Atkinson's habit to arrive at the track shortly after dawn and work until after the last race, keeping meticulous notes (Cassidy-style) and writing a detailed report on the day's activities for the Illinois Racing Board, not only of the races but of all the stewards' problems during the morning and afternoon. Sometimes he worked all day on a couple of cups of coffee, no food. Needless to say, he never became an overweight ex-jockey.

Relatively minor incidents often reveal a lot about someone's character. Atkinson was proud of being a jockey and he wanted other riders to be proud as well. One hot afternoon before the first race at Arlington while walking from the stewards' office to the racetrack, he spotted a group of riders sitting on a bench outside the jockey room wearing undershirts. Walking over, he said: "I know we're not the Big A here, but we like to think we have some class. So when you sit out here, with the public walking by, wear proper attire. Don't let us see you out here again in your undershirts."

Atkinson had affection and respect for horses. If a horse went lame at the finish of a race but the jockey rode him back to be unsaddled despite the animal's distress, Atkinson would call the clerk of scales and say, "Put the rider of that lame horse on the phone." Then he would tell the jockey: "Look, you and I made a good living riding these horses. Don't you think we owe them some compassion? The next time you're on a horse that's going lame, dismount and hold him until you can get some help."

After leaving Chicago, I corresponded with Atkinson over a long period of time; there are 30-some letters in the Atkinson file in my office that reveal his likes and dislikes. He loved to read and his favorite books included "Gone With the Wind." He rode numerous top horses - Nashua, Bold Ruler, Capot, Coaltown, War Relic, Olympia, Misty Morn, Busher, and Gallorette. But he regarded Greentree Stable's Tom Fool, the 1953 Horse of the Year, as the greatest of all. He admired him as much for his courage and intelligence as for his speed and endurance. Tom Fool won 21 of 30 career starts, concluding his career with a 10-for-10 record in his 4-year-old campaign. He finished worse than third only once, often gave 10 pounds or more to his opponents, and Atkinson was aboard for all 30 starts.

Of arch-rival Arcaro, he said, "Eddie was not only a great rider. He was a great politician. The other riders worshiped him. If he had gone into politics, he'd have been elected governor of New York, at least."

Atkinson could have succeeded in almost any trade or profession. He made his fame as a jockey, but he should also be remembered as an outstanding steward - like Cassidy and Keene Daingerfield, the brilliant and widely respected Kentuckian. Atkinson belongs in the same category.

Russ Harris is a public handicapper for the Daily News in New York and former turf writer for the News.