A jockey's life: The true tall tales of gatebreakin' Ray Adair

  A Jockey’s Life: The True Tall Tales of Gatebreakin’ Ray Adair    By Peter J. Sacopulos    Like many baby boomers who entered their teens in the mid-1960s, Raymond Adair Jr. had an issue with his father. But it wasn’t a disagreement over long hair, rock music, or his choice of friends. The problem, in young Ray Adair’s eyes, was his father’s appalling ability to stretch the truth.    Ray Sr. claimed he began life as a foundling, left under a pinion tree by a band of Crow Indians before being adopted by a couple who ran a ranch in New Mexico. That was bad enough, but it was Ray Adair’s endless exaggerations about his horseracing career that really embarrassed his son.    In the elder Adair’s accounts, he won his first Thoroughbred race at age six. He lost a match race against the legendary Seabiscuit by a nose. He won the Bluegrass Stakes, finished second in the Preakness, and rode in the Kentucky Derby twice. He stood down gangsters and befriended greats like Eddie Arcaro. It was all too much.    “Growing up, I thought Dad was just a bullshitter. Or a horseshitter, anyway,” Ray Jr. says with a soft chuckle. “Imagine how I felt when I figured out all those horseracing stories were true.”    Throughout his childhood, Ray Jr. had been aware that his father was a jockey and horse trainer. His family, including his mother Evelyn and his older sister Rayette, had tagged along on the racing circuit for years. But Ray Sr.’s racing days and the Adair family’s nomadic ways came to an end in 1961. Evelyn had been diagnosed with cancer and could no longer travel. The family settled in Phoenix, and Ray Sr. hung up his silks and worked for a fruit distributor. Evelyn died in 1963, and Ray moved the family to Window Rock to work for his brother-in-law, who taught him how to operate construction equipment.    In Colorado for an unrelated job interview in 1964, Ray decided to call Thoroughbred breeder Conyer (“Connie”) Stewart. Connie Stewart had first seen Ray ride at the Jamaica Race Course in New York around 1950*. Deeply impressed, Stewart offered Adair a job as his jockey at the newly built Centennial Track near Littleton, Colorado. Adair and Stewart hit it off, but Ray, a top rider on the prestigious east coast circuit, passed on the offer. After he left the east coast in the mid-1950s, Ray did do some riding for Stewart at Centennial.    The day Ray called him, Connie Stewart answered the phone at his new Stewart Thoroughbred Farm. He immediately offered Ray the job of manager. Adair and his children came to live at the ranch, and Rayette and Ray Jr. attended school in Rye and helped out with the chores. Ray    *Ray Sr. sometimes said he first met Conyer Stewart in 1943. However, the Centennial Track did not open until 1950, making the late 1940s more likely.       Jr. worked alongside his dad for four years, seeing firsthand how good his father was with horses. Ray Sr. seemed to have found the ideal life after racing—until he and Connie Stewart abruptly fell out.    “I never really knew why,” Ray Jr. says, but he believes it was likely due to a quirk of his dad’s personality. Raymond Adair Sr. could be as sweet as soda pop or as stubborn as a mule. “The same thing had happened with my uncle in Window Rock. Dad was a little guy, only five feet three,” his oldest son recalls. “He was sensitive about it, and I think it made him quick to jump to the conclusion that someone was trying to push him around.”    Ray Sr. left and took a job maintaining roads for the county. Not wanting to change high schools, Ray Jr. stayed on. It was while working for Connie Stewart that Ray Jr. began to realize his father’s fantastic racing tales were true. Ray Jr. would bring one of them up as an example of his dad’s penchant for telling whoppers, only to have Stewart say, “Actually, your dad did do that.” It would take many years and some research to get the full picture, but eventually, Ray Jr. and his relatives would marvel at the true adventures of the jockey known as Gatebreakin’ Ray Adair.    Those adventures began in the summer of 1928, when a Texan named Louie Kirk arrived in the town of Blanco, New Mexico, and entered a Thoroughbred stallion named Static in a match race at the San Juan County Fair. Kirk stabled the horse at the track, and found an eager, if unlikely, caretaker in six-year-old Raymond Adair. Small for his age but full of energy, Ray was growing up on a nearby ranch and had a remarkable knack with horses. The boy not only loved them, he seemed to understand and communicate with them in that special way that only a few people can. Little Ray Adair earned a half-dollar a day feeding Static, cleaning his stall and riding the horse to the river for water.    Kirk told the boy that the horse was extremely fast and warned him never to make Static gallop. But routine is hard on a six-year-old, and returning from the river one day, Ray dug in his heels. The horse took off like a rocket. Riding bareback with only a bridle, Ray grabbed the mane and held on for dear life. The mad dash included a spectacular leap over a decrepit Model T. Horse and rider arrived at the stables safe and sound, and the hands roared with laughter over Ray’s wild ride. Word quickly got back to Louie Kirk, who decided he admired the boy’s gumption and suggested Ray ride in the match race. Ray’s mother disapproved, but his father didn’t seem to mind.    And so Ray Adair found himself riding Static bareback and barefoot on a quarter-mile straight against an adult jockey, decked out in silks atop a fleet-footed grey mare. Ray won not once but three times, when the mare’s owner, reluctant to concede to a six-year-old, demanded two do- overs before admitting defeat. Ray was paid six silver dollars, which he took home to his folks.    Ray’s slightly older cousin, Jimmy, also had a knack for horses. In the late 1930s, Jimmy left New Mexico as a teenager, taking a job on the San Ysidro Stock Farm. Ray soon joined his cousin in California, mucking stalls and training green horses. Jack Atkins of Pasadena Stables had had his eye on young Ray for quite a while, and eventually traded a mare for the boy’s contract. Ray spent a year caring for a Thoroughbred named Wigtown before Mr. Atkins decided Ray was ready to ride professionally. In January 1938, Atkins took Adair to Agua Caliente, the storied racetrack across the border in wide-open Tijuana.    Officially, Ray was 16 years old and weighed 72 pounds in his full colors. His first mount, Gaul, was required to carry 120 pounds. It took every lead weight Atkins could find and some silver dollars in Ray’s pockets to make up the difference. Ray’s age had been padded as well; he was actually 15. Whether Ray or his employer tacked on the extra year remains unknown. Ray squeaked out a win in his very first race. It was the first win of many. The sports pages were soon buzzing about the red-hot apprentice jockey who had a way with longshots, including Wigtown, who Ray rode to victory in her inaugural run.    It was during his remarkable season at Agua Caliente that Adair rode in a match race against Seabiscuit. Ray’s mount was San Luis Rey, a horse so small his tail dragged the ground. Ray and Rey lost by a nose. Incredibly, Ray Adair almost became Seabiscuit’s jockey as well. When Jack Atkins died suddenly, his estate put Ray’s contract up for sale. Seabiscuit’s owner George Howard put in a bid but lost out to George Clark, from Rosedale Stables in Boston. Adair left Agua Caliente, and when the track’s season ended, he missed the top rider honors by a whisker, with 29 wins to George Russo’s 30.    Ray brought his winning ways to Suffolk Downs and River Downs. He was soon in a dead heat with Johnny Longden for the title of leading rider in America. In the fall of 1938, Ray returned to California. He quickly chalked up three wins at Tanforan, pulling ahead of Longden for the year. Then a hard-headed horse Ray was riding took to the inside rail and refused to surrender space or speed, giving Adair another victory. A steward accused Ray of rough riding for failing to allow another horse to pass on the rail, scratched the win, and banned Adair for three weeks. Ray’s numbers suffered accordingly, and Longden took leading rider honors in 1938. Still, teenaged Ray Adair had chalked up 82 wins, 57 places, and 50 shows in a spectacular debut year.    When Ray came back to California in 1939, the revolutionary mobile electronic starting gate was in use. Ray spent five days getting a high-strung contender named Baccalaureate used to the gate. In their first race, Baccalaureate shot out of the gate and held the lead till the finish line. Afterwards, Adair noticed paint streaks on the sides of his boots. He realized that Baccalaureate had actually left the gate before the doors were fully open, taking the click of the locking bolt’s release as his starting signal rather than the ring of the bell, which immediately followed. Ray began listening for the click himself, nudging his mounts when he heard it so they would explode out of the gate. In a few years, the evolving design of the starting gate eliminated Ray’s secret advantage. But by the time that happened, he had earned the nickname “Gatebreakin’ Ray Adair.”    Sadly, 1939 brought tragedy as well. During a race at the Detroit Fairgrounds, Ray was running third on Tony’s Girl when another horse swerved, clipping Tony’s Girl’s heels and causing her to tumble. Tony’s Girl arose unhurt and scrambled off the track. Ray lay face down as the rest of the field thundered by, only to be trampled by a straggler before he could escape. He suffered five broken vertebrae and three injured ribs. A few months later, Ray ignored doctor’s orders and had a farrier friend cut off his body cast with a hoof knife. Five days later he was racing at Keeneland.    That toughness served Ray well when the dark side of racing came calling. As author John Christgau details in The Gambler and the Bug Boy, a Los Angeles bookmaker named Barnard “Big” Mooney cooked up a race-fixing scheme as the 1930s came to a close. Mooney offered jockeys bribes to throw races. If that didn’t work, Mooney’s hired goons would threaten riders with beatings and death. When the threats failed, the beatings began.    Ray told Mooney’s goons he wasn’t interested. The thugs demanded another meeting, figuring the pint-sized teenager would be a pushover. Ray opened the second meeting by placing a pistol on the table. The goons decided to find an easier mark.    Ray’s success led to a longtime rivalry with Johnny Longden, as the two of them continued to battle for leading rider honors. Ray figured he had a real shot in 1943, the year he faced Longden in the Kentucky Derby. Ray was set to ride the undefeated Double S from Ethel Mars’ Milky Way Farms. Tragically, Double S was found dead from an apparent heart attack a week before the race.    Ray wound up on No Wrinkles, whose best performances came at three-quarters of a mile. The Run for the Roses is a half-mile longer than that. When Derby Day arrived, Ray gave his all, but despite holding his horse back early on, No Wrinkles ran out of steam, finishing sixth. Longden and Count Fleet won the Derby and went on to capture the Triple Crown.    In 1948, Ray was working a Thoroughbred named Hoosier on the track at Hialeah Park when a runaway horse charged them in a blind panic. The collision killed both animals. Ray suffered a broken back, a ruptured diaphragm, and twisted pelvis. He spent a month in the hospital, but when a doctor told him he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, Adair rolled himself out in a huff. He spent four miserable months at home, using canes to learn how to walk again. He left racing and became the owner of the Patio Club in Miami and a fishing camp in the Keys, but his mind was never far from the track.    Helping a friend train a couple of colts got Ray back in the saddle again. January 1st, 1951, marked his official return to racing. Adair won at Hialeah on Ensign, one of the colts he had trained. Adair headed to Lexington to ride Mameluke in the Blue Grass Stakes for W.C. Whitney. Mameluke was sired by Mahmoud, who had set a record in the English Derby that stood for nearly 60 years.    The field flew out of the gate, but Ray nearly fell off his mount as soon as the race began. His right stirrup had detached from the saddle. Ray righted himself, kicked out of the left stirrup, and rode Mameluke “Indian style,” just as he had ridden Static all those years before. And ride he did, roaring up from worst to first. Afterwards, the assistant starter pulled Ray aside. He had recovered Ray’s missing stirrup from the starting gate. The webbing that held it to the saddle had been sliced with a sharp blade. “Somebody doesn’t like you,” the starter said ominously. The saboteur was never identified.    Winning the Blue Grass qualified Mameluke for the 1951 Kentucky Derby. Hopes ran high on Derby Day, but Mameluke pulled up lame on the first turn. A disappointed Ray put the horse into an easy gallop and finished last in a field of 20.    Mameluke’s stablemate, Counterpoint, also ran in the Derby, finishing in the middle of the pack. Trainer Syl Veitch decided Ray should ride Counterpoint in the Preakness. The race became a duel between Counterpoint and Bold, ridden by Ray’s friend Eddie Arcaro. Ray was certain Counterpoint would pull ahead, but Arcaro summoned his horse’s reserves and left Adair behind. Counterpoint finished second, seven lengths behind Bold.    For the Belmont Stakes, Veitch put David Gorman on Counterpoint and returned Ray to Mameluke, whose legs appeared to be fully healed. Mameluke pulled up lame again and finished last again. Counterpoint won the race and went on to be named champion three-year-old male and Horse of the Year.    Ray won a total of 15 races in his comeback year and would continue racing for another decade. His mother Irene Adair and his grandfather finally saw him race in 1959, when he won at Centennial on Miz Liz.    “There’s a photo of them all in the winner’s circle,” Ray Jr. says. “And yes, it’s Dad’s biological mother and grandfather. One of the few of Dad’s stories that wasn’t true was the one about being a foundling left by the Crow tribe.” Hardly surprising, since early press accounts describe the young jockey as a “fair skinned and fair-haired lad.”    Ray Jr. eventually pinned down his father’s birthday as well. There was no birth certificate, since Ray had been born at home on a ranch near Gallup. Using a baptismal certificate from the Mormon archive, Ray Jr. placed the date of his dad’s birth as July 19, 1922. Good to know, since Ray Sr. had fudged his age as needed early in his career, claiming four different birth years along the way.    Ray Adair would remarry, father two more children, and divorce before retiring from his job maintaining roads in Colorado’s Greenhorn Valley. Gatebreakin’ Ray Adair arrived at the Pearly Gates on November 24, 2012, having spent a happy final year living in San Diego at his son Ray’s house.

By Peter J. Sacopulos

Like many baby boomers who entered their teens in the mid-1960s, Raymond Adair Jr. had an issue with his father. But it wasn’t a disagreement over long hair, rock music, or his choice of friends. The problem, in young Ray Adair’s eyes, was his father’s appalling ability to stretch the truth.

Ray Sr. claimed he began life as a foundling, left under a pinion tree by a band of Crow Indians before being adopted by a couple who ran a ranch in New Mexico. That was bad enough, but it was Ray Adair’s endless exaggerations about his horseracing career that really embarrassed his son.

In the elder Adair’s accounts, he won his first Thoroughbred race at age six. He lost a match race against the legendary Seabiscuit by a nose. He won the Bluegrass Stakes, finished second in the Preakness, and rode in the Kentucky Derby twice. He stood down gangsters and befriended greats like Eddie Arcaro. It was all too much.

“Growing up, I thought Dad was just a bullshitter. Or a horseshitter, anyway,” Ray Jr. says with a soft chuckle. “Imagine how I felt when I figured out all those horseracing stories were true.”

Throughout his childhood, Ray Jr. had been aware that his father was a jockey and horse trainer. His family, including his mother Evelyn and his older sister Rayette, had tagged along on the racing circuit for years. But Ray Sr.’s racing days and the Adair family’s nomadic ways came to an end in 1961. Evelyn had been diagnosed with cancer and could no longer travel. The family settled in Phoenix, and Ray Sr. hung up his silks and worked for a fruit distributor. Evelyn died in 1963, and Ray moved the family to Window Rock to work for his brother-in-law, who taught him how to operate construction equipment.

In Colorado for an unrelated job interview in 1964, Ray decided to call Thoroughbred breeder Conyer (“Connie”) Stewart. Connie Stewart had first seen Ray ride at the Jamaica Race Course in New York around 1950 (Ray Sr. sometimes said he first met Conyer Stewart in 1943. However, the Centennial Track did not open until 1950, making the late 1940s more likely). Deeply impressed, Stewart offered Adair a job as his jockey at the newly built Centennial Track near Littleton, Colorado. Adair and Stewart hit it off, but Ray, a top rider on the prestigious east coast circuit, passed on the offer. After he left the east coast in the mid-1950s, Ray did do some riding for Stewart at Centennial.

The day Ray called him, Connie Stewart answered the phone at his new Stewart Thoroughbred Farm. He immediately offered Ray the job of manager. Adair and his children came to live at the ranch, and Rayette and Ray Jr. attended school in Rye and helped out with the chores. Ray Jr. worked alongside his dad for four years, seeing firsthand how good his father was with horses. Ray Sr. seemed to have found the ideal life after racing—until he and Connie Stewart abruptly fell out.

  Ray Adair after winning the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on Mameluke

Ray Adair after winning the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on Mameluke

“I never really knew why,” Ray Jr. says, but he believes it was likely due to a quirk of his dad’s personality. Raymond Adair Sr. could be as sweet as soda pop or as stubborn as a mule. “The same thing had happened with my uncle in Window Rock. Dad was a little guy, only five feet three,” his oldest son recalls. “He was sensitive about it, and I think it made him quick to jump to the conclusion that someone was trying to push him around.”

Ray Sr. left and took a job maintaining roads for the county. Not wanting to change high schools, Ray Jr. stayed on. It was while working for Connie Stewart that Ray Jr. began to realize his father’s fantastic racing tales were true. Ray Jr. would bring one of them up as an example of his dad’s penchant for telling whoppers, only to have Stewart say, “Actually, your dad did do that.” It would take many years and some research to get the full picture, but eventually, Ray Jr. and his relatives would marvel at the true adventures of the jockey known as Gatebreakin’ Ray Adair.

Those adventures began in the summer of 1928, when a Texan named Louie Kirk arrived in the town of Blanco, New Mexico, and entered a Thoroughbred stallion named Static in a match race at the San Juan County Fair. Kirk stabled the horse at the track, and found an eager, if unlikely, caretaker in six-year-old Raymond Adair. Small for his age but full of energy, Ray was growing up on a nearby ranch and had a remarkable knack with horses. The boy not only loved them, he seemed to understand and communicate with them in that special way that only a few people can. Little Ray Adair earned a half-dollar a day feeding Static, cleaning his stall and riding the horse to the river for water.

TO READ MORE --

BUY THIS ISSUE IN PRINT OR DOWNLOAD -

August - October 2018, issue 49 (PRINT)

$5.95

August - October 2018, issue 49 (DOWNLOAD)

$3.99

Why not subscribe?

Don't miss out and subscribe to receive the next four issues!

Print & Online Subscription

$24.95

The thought-provoking Sid Fernando

Castrating Racehorses: A routine procedure not without its pitfalls

0