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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


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.

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17 Responses

  1. Love that Hill story – as a long time Aqueduct patron I’m embarrassed to say that I was completely unaware of that.

    And I agree with him 100% on keeping the Derby trophy. He earned it.

    RIP Bobby Ussery

  2. Guess this means that I’ve got a few years on you… beats the alternative though!

    Trying to remember if the NYRA eventually groomed that portion of the Big A surface to take away that advantage. Think so, just can’t swear it.

    Now if there’s somebody older than me out there who does know, please share…

    1. John,
      Thanks for the memory of Ussery. It brings back that “alley” where my dad and I made a few bucks taking advantage of. I don’t know what happened to that portion of the track , and if I did know, age took away the answer.
      BTW- section 2S my second home on Saturdays.
      RIP Bobby Ussery

      1. Mark, you’re entirely welcome. I just had to share after hearing the news. Thanks for checking in …

  3. My early visits to Aqueduct included quite a few wagers on Bobby Ussery. I had so many wagers placed on Johnny Rotz and also Bobby Ussery as they were my turn to riders. Also John Ruane was a turn to guy in the 6F sprints. What great racing days they were before getting the knock, knock, “Here I am” letter telling me to report to Ft. Hamilton for induction. I still have that “Greetings” letter from Lyndon from July of ’68. My Big A visits were indeed cut far too short, and I never learned about story of the Hill. I may have caught a few of the wins anyway however, as for five cents you could head to the track with Pricci in your hand with a Newsday sports page. For a dime you had Russ Harris as well.

    RIP Bob Ussery and thank youfor the memories. I celebrate you home as you enter the fullness of life.

  4. Doc, if you find some video, please pass along the coordinates…

    McD, hopefully Doc Disaster will find some video, though that seems unlikely unless it were a stakes. Don’t believe Ussery stole added-money with that maneuver.

    Indeed, the game was good then, a time when races spaced close together was a good thing, and no one barn dominated the proceedings.

    Who remembers, Ussery for Jacobson on Palenque III in those Saturday stater handicap finales. That’s when racing secretaries like Tommy Trotter were not afraid to pile on the pounds, often 130 or more.

    Table Hopper for Frank Martin; another great memory.

    Got to go, I’m getting verklempt.

  5. John, Doctor D, and Mark, I found the following verse at DRF and borrowed a part of David Grening’s post that was written and posted on 11/17 on DRF. If I am crossing any lines, please delete the post. I can’t see why Mr. Greening would object however, as his words being shared are all in tribute to the greatness and talent of Bobby Ussery. The “alley” is very well explained in David’s comments. I also had forgotten that it was Bobby Ussery who had won the Roses with Proud Clarion in ’67. Also of note is the Thanksgiving connection coming up this Thursday.

    David Grening follows:

    “Bobby Ussery, the Hall of Fame jockey whose exploits as a rider led to a particular portion of Aqueduct’s main track to be dubbed “Ussery’s Alley,” died earlier this week in Hollywood, Fla., due to congestive heart failure, according to his son Robert Ussery Jr. He was 88.

    Officially, Ussery rode his first mount, Reticule, to victory in the 1951 Thanksgiving Handicap in New Orleans. He rode in Florida throughout the 1950s before moving his tack in 1959 to New York, where he rode a then-record 215 winners that year. In 1960, Ussery won the Preakness, Florida Derby, and Flamingo on Bally Ache and was the regular rider of champion 2-year-old Hail to Reason.

    In 1967, Ussery won the Kentucky Derby aboard Proud Clarion in a 30-1 upset. He finished first in the 1968 Derby on Dancer’s Image, who was later disqualified from that victory for testing positive for phenylbutazone in his post-race sample.

    Ussery, a native of Vian, Okla., enjoyed great success in New York. At Aqueduct, Ussery had a knack of guiding horses to the outside on the backstretch and far turn, then gunning down the banked turn. The outside part of the track on the backstretch and the far turn became known as “Ussery’s Alley.”

    “Ussery noted that the water trucks and other equipment often left the huge storage tank near the five-eighths pole and then slanted down to the rail on the far turn,” Seymour Smith wrote in the April 28, 1979, Baltimore Sun. “He reasoned the path must be fast, and if he had horse and post position, down the path he would go.”

    Ussery won many of New York’s most prestigious races, including the Travers, Alabama, Whitney, Manhattan, Coaching Club American Oaks, Mother Goose, Carter, Hopeful, Brooklyn (twice), and Wood Memorial (twice).

    Ussery won the 1959 Queen’s Plate on New Providence. That horse would go on to win the Canadian triple crown, but Ussery did not ride the horse in the final two legs.

    Nine times in his career Ussery ranked in the top 10 in earnings among riders.

    Ussery retired in 1974 and in 1980 he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Ussery won 3,611 races and upon his retirement was just the 10th jockey to surpass 3,000 wins and he ranked fifth all-time in earnings.”

    RIP Mr. Ussery. And a Happy Thanksgiving to all at HRI viewing this.

    1. Nice write up thanks. I don’t venture over to DRF often so I would have missed that.

      In terms of video, I assume John might know this; does NYRA have a video library of regular daily races going back into the 60s? About how far back do you think they go? They might be missing out on a nice revenue stream by not offering access to those for a subscription fee or something.

      1. I would be shocked if NYRA had videos going back that far. Those were pre YouTube days, and I never heard of any “video library” in their archives gong back that far.

        1. Thanks for the info. To be honest, I’d pay a couple of bucks just to watch some races from my early fandom, 1992-93. Would love to sit and watch the replays of the 1993 Aqu fall and 1994 winter meets, and see the old familiar claimer names and Ferriola & Moschera entries. The Red Scamper era!

  6. Thank you McD, nice tribute by all. Does a heart good at holiday time sharing great memories and especially given the current state of the world.

    Happy Thanksgiving indeed.

  7. I am thinking Frank Martin also had great successs in the last race Starter’s Handcap with Career Lady at Aqueduct. Each week the weights went up higher, and the wins just kept on coming. Loved that last race the best, as when the fall dusk was just setting in, and the tote board lights went dark and flashing bright with the odds changes, we all had our shot a getting some get even money or maybe even geting away a winner. We were all Kings of the Sport back in that time with only a two dollar ticket in hand. Was it moderation in excess or excess in moderation?

    And now for a Thanksgiving wrap up, I get to say to you all with a heartfelt smile, “Just Stuff It.”

  8. Career Lady, yes, she was a terror in those stater handicaps for fillies and mares. But when I think of Pancho in the nightcap on Saturday’s it was Table Hopper. Pretty sure he won carrying 136 pounds one late afternoon. Game was a lot more fun back in the day…

  9. Racing from a different era. Not only did racing fans know Ussery’s Alley, but most sport fans knew it, even though in some cases it had to be explained to them. Racing had personalities back then and Bobby Ussery was one that shined bright. Rest In Peace, Mr. Ussery.

  10. Great article John, and great Comments from your readers.

    Any Saturday on the third floor as close to the finish line as possible is good with me. Remember those heaters on the roof? If you were cold in that airport facing grandstand, you sat down under one of those heaters and turn your head upward to get warm. That track grandstand got cold in the weeks leading up to the close of the meet in October and then the first few weeks starting with the Pomonak in March.

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