William John Hartack, Jr’s life began on December 9, 1932 in Ebensburg, Pennsylvania. His mother, Nancy, died on Christmas morning from injuries suffered in an automobile accident when he was eight years old. While his father worked in coal mines, young Bill attended school and helped farm their property. Upon graduating from Black Lick Township High School Hartack tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy but at 5′ 4″ and only 111 pounds he was deemed too small. Life just seemed to enjoy throwing obstacles in the path of Bill Hartack.
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At the suggestion of a family friend, Hartack took a bus to Charles Town, West Virginia were he began working for racehorse trainer “Junie” Corbin as a stable hand. Before long Hartack began excising horses in the mornings and rode his first race at Waterford Park (now known as Charles Town) on October 11, 1952. Two days later he won his first race on Nickelby. Success soon followed.
In 1953, while riding at minor tracks, Hartack won 350 races, second only to Bill Shoemaker’s 485 wins for the year. The following year, prominent trainer T.J. Kelly bought Hartack’s contract from the financially troubled Corbin for $15,000 and hired him to ride at major tracks in Maryland, Chicago and Florida. In this period of racing history it was not uncommon for jockeys to be contracted by a trainer and prohibited from riding for other barns.
Within a couple of years, Bill Hartack had emerged as one of the top riders in the country. 1957 saw him win the Kentucky Derby for the first time aboard Iron Liege, who bested Gallant Man by a nose when Gallant Man’s jockey and Hartack’s rival, Bill Shoemaker, misjudged the finish line. Hartack once said this was his favorite Kentucky Derby win because he was not supposed to win the race. Hartack and Eddie Arcaro remain the only two jockeys in history to win the Kentucky Derby five times. In 1959, at the age of 26, Hartack became the youngest person ever to be inducted into the Racing Hall Of Fame.
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Had he not broken his leg two weeks before the Kentucky Derby in 1958, Hartack would have likely secured a single spot in the record for most wins in the Kentucky Derby. Hartack’s mount that year was Tim Tam who went on to win the roses without his regular rider Hartack in the irons..
Although his riding skills were stellar, Hartack’s personality was not. In 1958 he was fired from his job as regular rider for Calumet Farms when he argued with management and trainers over the handling of the horses. They wanted him to change his riding style and he refused. Those who knew him often stated that Hartack wasn’t the easiest person to get along with.
After ruling the American turf, Hartack moved to Hong Kong for the final three years of his career before retiring in 1981. He stayed involved in racing for the remainder of his life, first as a jockey agent and later as a steward in Louisiana.
When not working Hartack was an avid hunter and fisherman. It was on a hunting trip in South Texas when the lifelong bachelor passed away at the age of 74 of natural causes.
During Bill Hartack’s 24 year career in the United States he led the nation in jockey earnings in 1956 and 1957, had the most wins of any jockey from 1955-1957 and again in 1960, made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1956 and 1964 and the cover of Time magazine in 1958.
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