HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, November 19, 2023 — A little piece of me died on Friday after learning of the passing of the great Bobby Ussery at the age of 88.
Ussery lived a full life in the irons, enough such that he was enshrined in the National Museum and Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga for his exploits between the fences.
It was Ussery who made me a fan of all jockeys, showing a young hope-to-be professional handicapper how riders win races as much as the best horses do.
Ussery, a difference maker, was a pioneer on horseback.
The record books show that he won his first race at the Fair Grounds in 1951 and retired in 1974, but not before he won 3,611 races, including the prestigious Whitney, Travers and Alabama Spa trifecta.
Six years after his retirement he was inducted into Saratoga’s pantheon just across from the track on Union Avenue.
Ussery won the 1967 Derby aboard Proud Clarion at 30-1 and finished first the next year, too.
But the 1968 victory was short-lived–even if it eventually took four years to officially adjudicate the decision.
Days after the race, Dancer’s Image was disqualified when traces of Butazolidin was detected post race. Owner Peter Fuller appealed but ultimately lost his legal battle after four years of trying.
The outspoken Fuller never curried favor with Kentucky hardboots and the controversial demotion had political overtones when powerhouse Calumet Farm’s Forward Pass was awarded the victory.
Six days should have been sufficient withdrawal time but not this time, hence the controversy.
One afternoon at Gulfstream, where Ussery was a regular before entering an assisted living facility, I asked him about a year’s old Associated press quote in which he admitted to holding on to the trophy Churchill awards the winning jockey of America’s race:
“Damn right I kept it,” he said. “What happened to that horse didn’t have anything to do with me. I won it when they made the race official.”
That was the last time I saw him.
Back in the day I never dreamed that I would able to talk with my first racing heroes. From section 3P in the Aqueduct grandstand I would cheer him on, especially the first time I saw him use “The Hill” at Aqueduct.
What was that–how did he do that, I wondered? What it was was genius.
Known as a great position rider, one afternoon he took a speed horse to the far outside on the backstretch. It looked like he had lost control on a horse who was bearing out badly.
But it wasn’t that at all, it was purposeful.
The dirt on the outside portion of the oval, the crown, is higher than the traditional running paths. Ussery kept his horse on the higher, packed-down ground, and at the peak of the turn he angled his mount in sharply to open an insurmountable lead.
He was so successful using the hill, the press dubbed that portion of the track “Ussery’s Alley.”
“I think of it more like Ussery Boulevard,” he said at the time.
Ussery’s success with speed horses belied the fact that rivals didn’t want to hook up with in a stretch battle. He was an extremely strong finisher, and his timing from off the pace was superb.
After all, Dancer’s Image came from last to “win” that Derby, even if victory only lasted for a matter of days.
RIP Mr. Ussery.