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Joe Aitcheson's obituary was a tough one to write

Joe Aitcheson, Hall of Fame steeplechase jockey, at the Carroll Lutheran Village in Westminster with a collage of framed photos and a magazine cover spanning his career.
Joe Aitcheson, Hall of Fame steeplechase jockey, at the Carroll Lutheran Village in Westminster with a collage of framed photos and a magazine cover spanning his career.(Gene Sweeney Jr. / Baltimore Sun)

Write enough obituaries in this business and you learn, to some extent, to steel yourself against any personal draw to the departed.

That was tough to do when Joe Aitcheson died. Not because of who he was — the winningest steeplechase rider of all time — but because of the friendship we'd struck up since meeting just one year ago.

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I'd sought out Aitcheson to do a story on the Hall of Fame jockey, who'd ridden professionally for 21 years and won 440 timber races. I found Joe living in a retirement community in Westminster, an 84-year-old codger moving about more easily than you'd expect for one who'd broken as many bones as he had while racing.

We talked at length about his accomplishments, how much he missed riding and his deep-seated passion for the equines he raced.

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"Very few horses that I rode were destroyed," Joe 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."

I thanked him for the interview and got up to leave, mentioning casually that I'd be stopping on the way home at a nearby ice cream store. Joe's eyes brightened.

"I love black cherry ice cream," he said.

Minutes later, I returned with a half-gallon of the stuff. Joe placed it in the freezer, cradling it as carefully he had the trophies in that tiny apartment.

Time and again, in the months that followed, I returned with more ice cream. Each time, Joe and I sat and talked some more. Each time, I left feeling more nourished than this man to whom I'd brought the sweets.

In May, we learned that Joe Aitcheson had passed away. Sadly I wrote the obit, then remembered the sign on his apartment door.

"Gone ridin," it said. "Be back. Maybe."

Joe, I knew, couldn't be happier.

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