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Catching Up With ... Joe Aitcheson

Winningest steeplechase rider of all time says he'd 'like to ride another race'

By Mike Klingaman

The Baltimore Sun

6:18 PM EDT, April 19, 2013

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"Gone Ridin' " reads the sign on Joe Aitcheson's door, beneath a wooden silhouette of a horse's head. "Be Back. Maybe."

It's an apt howdy-do from Aitcheson, 84, the winngingest steeplechase rider of all time. A member of the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame, he lives in a retirement community in Westminster, surrounded by keepsakes of a 21-year pro career in which he won a record 440 timber races and a record seven North American championships between 1961 and 1970.

If they tallied the number of bones broken by jockeys, Aitcheson would likely hold that record, too. His knack of bouncing back from falls is legend. Once, in order to compete with a broken ankle, he painted his cast brown to look like a riding boot to fool race officials.

"I've fractured everything from my skull to my toes," he said. "I've had seven broken noses, eight collarbones, lots of ribs and teeth and a couple of broken legs. Oh, and two punctured lungs. One time, I broke my jaw, and I chipped a vertebrae in my neck that was real sore for awhile."

On the upside, he still has his hair.

Last year, Aitcheson fell backwards down some stairs and chipped an elbow.

"My arm was the one thing I'd never broken," he said. "Now, I guess I've done it all."

Not that you'd notice. The Olney native remains active for his age. Aitcheson said he does more than 100 push-ups daily, plus several hundred arm curls with the 10-pound weights he keeps in a corner of his room at Carroll Lutheran Village.

Though he retired from competitive racing at 49, he continued to ride, galloping horses at Laurel Park until he was 80.

He treasured that life — the thrills, the dangers and the spotlight that shone, for more than two decades, on the 5-foot-10 jockey horsemen called "Jumpin' Joe."

"I'd like to ride another race," Aitcheson said. "I miss it. I miss the people, the attention I got from it, and how everyone knew my name."

Raised on a farm during the Great Depression, he wasn't content just milking cows.

"I grew up poor, I wasn't a smart person and the only jobs I had were as a laborer, driving trucks or carrying lumber. But I loved horses and, riding them, I felt like I really was somebody."

At 5, Aitcheson rode his first race aboard a pony named Nancy, who "put on the brakes at the finish so that I toppled off. I remember crying until my dad picked me up and swung me around, singing, 'Jockey Joe fell off' to make me stop."

It worked. Aitcheson was hooked on the sport. Too big to race at tracks like Pimlico and Laurel, he turned to steeplechase with its hurdles and hedges.

The bronze plaque on his wall, from the Hall of Fame, is testament to his talent. Enshrined in 1978, Aitcheson won 478 races (including 38 on the flat) despite having begun his career, after two hitches in the Navy, at age 28.

His 40 victories in 1964 is a Ripken-like record; likewise, the 440 career timber wins, 42 more than that of runner-up Paddy Smithwick.

A list of Aitcheson's mounts are a who's who of steeplechase lore, including national champions Peal, Tuscalee, Bon Nouvel and Top Bid.

"Tuscalee was a grand horse who would run his heart out when he was half sore," he said. "Top Bid was the one I won the most big money on. But Peal was the best I ever rode."

His room is a museum of equine treasures, from horse statues and calendars to a program from a 1990 Hall of Fame reunion bearing personal greetings from hallowed jockeys Bill Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden, Angel Cordero and others.

On one wall, a favorite photo shows Aitcheson aboard Happy Intellectual after their victory in the 1977 New York Turf Writers Cup. It was the last big win in the jockey's career, and one in which he raced with a broken collarbone.

"I rode that horse with one hand," he said. "We were on the lead but [Happy Intellectual] had a habit of dropping back at the end. This time, though, he just took off and set a course record. Good thing, because I couldn't raise my hand to use the whip."

The media rallied around his Iron Man persona. A framed cartoon above Aitcheson's bed shows a line of well-kept cars bearing jockeys' names — Cruget, Maple and Velasquez — and one beat-up clunker, swathed in bandages, with a broken windshield and flat tire. "Aitcheson," the dented license plate reads.

"I was in the hospital when the cartoon came out," he said.

"My worst accident was at Aqueduct, when the horse I was riding fell and rolled over on me. I had enough internal injuries that doctors called my family and said, 'He won't live through the night.' I fooled them, though."

Again and again. Usually, his mounts survived the spills.

"Very few horses that I rode were destroyed," he said. "I got the worst of it, but that's OK. I love animals and I feel bad about losing them. And I'd go to church and believe that the good Lord was taking care of me.

"Still do."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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