A year ago, Joe Aitcheson, Jr. sat in his room at Carroll Lutheran Village in Westminster, surrounded by racing mementos, and pondered a reporter's question: How could a jockey who's broken nearly every bone in his body have the gumption to win a record 440 timber races?
"I've got a lot of nerve," he said. "And I thank the Lord for that."
Aitcheson, the most successful steeplechase rider in history, died Saturday of complications from pneumonia at the Carroll Hospice in Westminster. He was 85.
A native of Olney, he rode competitively for 21 years and won an unprecedented seven North American championships between 1961 and 1970. Aitcheson also won eight Virginia Gold Cups and seven Carolina Cups while forging a career that landed him in the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 1978.
"He was the Babe Ruth of steeplechasing," said Brien Bouyea, spokesman for the NMRHF. "Those 440 wins over jumps [43 more than runnerup Paddy Smithwick] is an incredible number that will probably never be touched."
In 2012, when The Sun ranked the top 175 Maryland athletes of all time, "Jumpin' Joe" Aitcheson checked in at No. 49. He retired having ridden 2,457 races, winning 19 percent of them. He also won 38 times on flat tracks, though, at 5-foot-10, his size was a drawback.
"I liked jump racing better anyway," he told The Baltimore Sun. "I remember going to horse shows as a kid and enjoying the thrill of it. Seeing a jockey fall once in a while made it look dangerous. I liked that."
A farmboy who attended Montgomery Blair High, he grew up on the family's 100-acre spread near Burtonsville doing chores, where, he said, "I developed a good strong grip." It ran in the family. His father, Joe Sr., pitched briefly for the Baltimore Orioles, International League champions of 1921.
Early on, Aitcheson bounced from job to job, working as a truck driver and laborer. He began racing professionally at 28, following two hitches in the Navy, the last during the Korean War. Then the reins came.
"I loved horses and, riding them, I felt like I really was somebody," he told The Sun.
He won his first national title in 1961, posting 37 victories. In 1964 he set a one-year record with 40 jump wins, piling up injuries all the while. All told, he suffered eight broken collarbones, two legs, one jaw and more ribs and teeth than he could count. A broken ankle couldn't keep him off his mount. Aitcheson used shoe polish to color his cast brown, like a riding boot, to dupe officials.
"I've fractured everything from my skull to my toes," he said in 2013. "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."
Aitcheson continued to ride long after quitting racing in 1977 at age 48. At 80, he could be found galloping thoroughbreds many mornings at Laurel Park.
"We had to make him stop [five years ago] or he wouldn't have done it," said his daughter, Jody Davis, of Sykesville. "Riding was his entire life. It's amazing that he could do what he did with all of those aches and pains, but he never complained and fought through them all. He's the toughest person I've ever known."
Aitcheson stayed a fitness buff to the end, his daughter said. At Carroll Lutheran, a retirement community, he lifted weights in his room and exercised daily.
"Once, the nurses came into his room, found him on the floor and freaked out," Davis said. "They didn't know Dad was down there doing push-ups."
Advancing age didn't lessen Aitcheson's passion for riding. At 84, he'd give visitors a tour of his room filled with trophies and photographs of the national champions he'd ridden, from Peal to Tuscalee to Top Bid. Come winter, with steeplechase season over, he would exercise thoroughbreds at local tracks.
"One day, I breezed 30 horses in four hours at Pimlico," he said proudly. "Some tried to buck you off and some did everything just right. I always talked to them, smacked them on the neck and said, 'Love you, boy.'"
Besides Davis, Aitcheson is survived by another daughter, Kathy Aitcheson, of Covington, La.,; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held June 6 at 11 a.m. at Pritts Funeral Home in Westminster. Family will receive visitors at 10.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun