September 25, 2012
Southern California horse racing has chosen a fitting way to open up a crucial meeting. It named a race for Eddie Delahoussaye.
Santa Anita will be back in business Friday, for a meeting highlighted by the first of two straight Breeders' Cups. Around here, the best way for the sport to separate itself from the muck that has stalled recent growth is to put on two more dazzling Breeders' Cups, as it did in 2008 and '09.
There is no Zenyatta to carry the show this time, but putting a spotlight on Eddie D. on opening day is a smart and worthy gesture.
Delahoussaye is a Hall of Fame jockey. He may be the nicest guy who almost never finished last. Clearly, Leo Durocher never met him.
In a racing career that included 6,384 wins and nearly $200 million in winnings, he maintained perspective and a sense of humor. He was tough as nails during a race and aw shucks after it. When they named the race after him, he said, "It shows that people respect me for what I did over the years. But you gotta worry. They usually wait until people die to do stuff like this. I hope they don't know something I don't."
Friday morning, he sat at Santa Anita's Clockers' Corner. He was a man in his element. The bright blue sky, signature mountains, nearby sounds of pounding hooves and the joy of being in the midst of his people charged his batteries. It was his 61st birthday, but spending time doing an interview was not a problem. Few things are for Delahoussaye. He is the kind of person who will see a rash and call it freckles.
The topic was to be about him, about his consecutive Kentucky Derby victories in 1982 and '83 aboard Gato Del Sol and Sunny's Halo, about winning the Preakness, two Belmonts and seven Breeders' Cup races. But it quickly shifted to the wonders of coming to California in 1979 to race against the likes of Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay Jr. and Chris McCarron.
"If you finished in the top 10 every year, you were doing fine," Delahoussaye said. "That's all I ever wanted."
He said he had only one year in which he won local racing titles, "because those other guys were so good." The facts show that he won five riding titles in Southern California and had won eight at various tracks around the country before he even arrived. In 1978, he led all riders in the nation with 384 wins.
The conversation drifted to the woman he married 41 years ago, when he was 19, she was 18. They had been sweethearts ever since they met at Evangeline Downs in Lafayette, La., just 20 miles up U.S. 90 from where he was born and raised in New Iberia. On June 30, 1968, Delahoussaye won his first race, aboard a $2,000 claimer named Brown Schill. Four days later, he met Juanita at a Fourth of July party.
"She's the best thing ever happened to me," he said.
They had two children, Mandy, 37, and Loren, 34. Mandy is developmentally disabled and needs a wheelchair and help with eating and dressing. When it became clear that she needed more than she was receiving in the places Delahoussaye was riding — mostly Louisiana and Kentucky — it was time to come to California. It was a family move, not a career statement.
"The services were just better for her here," he said. "That's why we moved. Not for the racing."
But the racing didn't work out badly, either. Delahoussaye became a star among stars. He was a master at getting a horse to relax and have plenty left for his famous charges home. The bettors learned to spell his name better than the headline writers. McCarron once said you could hear Delahoussaye coming, "and that was never a good thing."
He wanted to race until he was 56. Three weeks before his 51st birthday, Aug. 30, 2002, riding on the grass at Del Mar aboard Seeingisbelieving, he took a horrific fall as his horse broke a leg and collapsed.
"I rolled under the rail," he said, "But I knew this one was bad. As soon as the adrenaline wore off, I hurt all over."
He now describes one of the injuries as a "slight concussion." That's apparently similar to a "mild" compound fracture.
Delahoussaye, who also had a non-paralyzing neck fracture, stayed in a neck brace for months, and also, as he describes it, "in a fog" for several more months. Eventually, he concluded that his career had ended five years short of his goal. He works now as a bloodstock agent, but keeps only a few accounts and doesn't want or need it as a means of support.
He said the aches and pains of riding are still there, but so is the joy. Typically, one of his prized possessions is a picture of somebody else's success.
Just before Shoemaker died, Juanita went to see him and ask for a photo of the finish of the 1981 Arlington Million, the inaugural race of that series in Chicago.
"She was determined," Delahoussaye said. And Shoemaker gave it to her.
In the race, Shoemaker rode the famed John Henry to victory. Second, by perhaps a whisker, was a horse named The Bart, a 40-1 shot, ridden by Delahoussaye.
"I walk past it every day of my life," Delahoussaye said, "and he still beats me, every time."
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