When outrider William J. Rudolph, known to everyone as Rudy, met with the woman at Social Security, she looked at him in amazement.
"You sure this is right?" she said. "We don't get people in here who've kept the same job for 33 years."
"I just thought that's what you did," he said.
That was, after all, what he did: work 33 years at Maryland thoroughbred tracks as an outrider, chasing down loose horses in the morning and leading post parades in the afternoon.
But on this Labor Day at Timonium, after a career that endeared him to nearly everyone, Rudolph will retire -- quietly, he hopes, without fanfare, because in his mind, he has done nothing spectacular.
"I like my job," he said. "Why would I have changed?"
Rudolph is a month shy of 62, strong and fit with red cheeks and clear eyes. He said that after making a good living, it's time to retire and start collecting a healthy pension from the Maryland Jockey Club.
When Rudolph was 17, the day after graduating from high school in New Jersey, he took a job at a farm galloping horses. A couple of months later, he began galloping them at Jersey racetracks.
Except for two years in the Army, Rudolph has worked only one place: on horseback.
When he grew too big for galloping horses, he fell into the pony business. In 1966, he moved to Maryland as an outrider. The rest can be told in Rudolph's words: "I ain't missed a beat since '66."
Except for his annual two-week vacation and the occasional personal day, Rudolph worked seven days a week, each morning during training and each afternoon during the races.
He got to know nearly everyone involved in the business, and nearly everyone likes him.
"If they took a popularity poll around the racetrack, Rudy would win it," said J.B. Secor, a trainer and exercise rider. "He's always been there to help, always been a gentleman. And he's a very, very good horseman. When Rudy retires, he's going to be one of the most-missed people in racing."
Rudolph's is one of those obscure racetrack jobs, like a jockey's valet, that the public may notice but probably doesn't comprehend. An outrider is a trouble-shooter on horseback. The dictionary calls the outrider "a mounted attendant."
In the morning, Rudolph patrolled the track that had live racing, usually Laurel Park, as riders jogged, galloped or breezed their mounts.
Sometimes as many as 100 animals were coming and going at any one time. He and the other outriders worked in shifts so that one was on the track at all times during training hours, usually 5: 30 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Rudolph chased horses that had lost their riders or run out of control, assisted riders with broken equipment, radioed for help when riders got hurt.
"Our main purpose is to be out there for safety," Rudolph said.
He worked the hottest afternoons and the coldest mornings.
"When you're sitting out there in the winter," Rudolph said, "sometimes you wish you'd never seen a horse."
In the afternoon -- for show time -- Rudolph donned his white polo shirt, red safety vest, white riding pants and black hunt cap and riding boots. He and the other outriders led the parade of horses to the post, made sure they reached the starting gate on time and, again, caught horses who had broken through the gate or dumped their riders.
Rudolph worked every Preakness since 1966, leading the exquisite post parade or escorting the winning horse and jockey back to the winner's circle.
"I've had my hand on a couple of Triple Crown winners," Rudolph said.
Preakness winners during his reign include Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic and the Triple Crown-winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.
Asked which was his favorite, he said: "It's hard to separate Spectacular Bid, Secretariat and Seattle Slew. Those three stick out in my mind, I guess."
He paused, then said: "I did get lucky and pick up Silver Charm the morning he dropped his rider."
As he trained for the Preakness in 1997, Silver Charm dumped his exercise rider at the finish line in the crucial days before the race. Waiting at Pimlico's first turn, Rudolph captured the horse by its bridle, gathering him in before he hurt himself or exerted so much energy as to jeopardize his performance in the big race.
Such unheralded heroics have cost Rudolph through the years.
Asked about injuries, he said: "I've hurt my back a few times, but I don't consider that. This knee here [his right] is all screwed up by outriding, but I don't think nothing of that."
So much for injuries -- to Rudolph. The work has also cost his ponies. Rudolph figures he's had about 40, mostly thoroughbreds retired from racing, usually gifts to him from owners looking for a good home. One, Song of Praise, had broken two track records. Rudolph rode him six or seven years.
"In fact, I broke his leg chasing a loose horse at Pimlico," Rudolph said. "They put him down on the track. He gave me everything he had. That's how he broke his leg."
Rudolph usually kept three ponies at a time. As he approached retirement, he sold two, keeping only Dagwood, his 19-year-old palomino quarter horse.
And Rudolph kept Barbecue, his infamous goat that has been ruled off backstretches for eating flowers and shrubs. When Barbecue was small -- he is now 8 and not small -- Rudolph let him ride in his truck like a dog. In recent years, Rudolph kept him tied up at the barn -- some of the time.
"He's a character," Rudolph said. "Everybody knows Barbecue. He gets into trouble. He's a typical goat. [Trainer] Graham Motion had a real nice set of rose bushes and nice flower display. He went right through that."
Rudolph lives with his wife, Sherry, on the Sparks farm of his mother-in-law, Bobby Kees, the trainer. In retirement, if that's the right word, Rudolph plans on working with the horses at the farm.
The drive to Laurel Park is 100 miles round trip, and days at the track ran 12 hours, minimum. Rudolph drove the distance without complaint and dutifully performed his job as outrider.
But today, after the last race on the last day of Timonium's brief fair meet, Rudolph will, literally, ride off into the sunset. As befits a dedicated worker on the holiday known as Labor Day, Rudolph will quietly load up his pony, load up his goat and go home.
Pub Date: 9/06/99