On Saturday, Bobby Ussery planned to head out to Gulfstream Park — a 10-minute drive from his place on the beach — take a seat in the Horsemen's Lounge, watch the Preakness on the big screen ... and step back in time. Fifty-five years ago, Ussery won the second leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico aboard Bally Ache, a rags-to-riches horse who wouldn't survive that year.
Ussery, who'd ridden Bally Ache to a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, led all the way in the 1960 Preakness and won by four lengths. It was a blue-collar victory for the bay colt, purchased for $2,500 as a yearling, and for Ussery, a lunch-pail jockey who'd grown up poor in Oklahoma, working in the fields and shining shoes to help pay the family's bills.
Now 80, he's the last surviving jockey of any Preakness winner from that year or earlier.
"It was great to win that race, nice to have it in my catalog," Ussery said from his home in Hollywood, Fla. "Bally Ache was an iron horse — he raced 22 times as a 2-year-old — and a speed horse. There was no speed in that Preakness, so I set my own pace and never looked back.
"I could sense other horses were coming, but it didn't bother me. Bally Ache's ears were pointed so I knew he was running real comfortable, with no stress, at his own clip. At the quarter pole I let him go and he just opened up. Wasn't anybody gonna get him that day."
Bally Ache then won the Jersey Derby, but scratched from the Belmont Stakes when he came up lame before the race. An ankle injury suffered in a subsequent race ended his career, and the horse was retired to stud in October 1960, having won 16 of 31 races.
One week later, he succumbed to acute colitis. In short, Bally Ache died of a belly ache.
"His intestines got clogged up," Ussery said. "He had the best doctors who tried to treat him, but it didn't work out. I was sad. He'd been real good to me, plus I really liked the horse. He was very gentle, never rank or mean, just a nice horse to ride."
Ussery went on to a Hall of Fame career, winning 3,611 races. Twice, he won the Kentucky Derby, aboard Proud Clarion in 1967 and Dancer's Image the following year. But the latter, Maryland-bred, was later disqualifed and placed last for having used phenylbutazone, a pain-killing drug.
Ussery retired in 1974, having ridden more than 22,000 races. It was a stellar showing for the backwoods kid who left home at 11 to try his luck at the track.
"It wasn't my choice, I had to work," he said. "I'd been cutting spinach in the fields and picking cotton. On Saturdays, I shined shoes in a local barbershop, making two or three dollars a day. The part I hated was when soldiers came in wearing combat boots — the leather ate up all of my shoe polish — but they gave me a little tip."
Racing changed all of that. And when Ussery quit riding at 39 ("I got burned out on reducing, I couldn't cut it no more"), he stayed in the sport, galloping thoroughbreds before becoming a jockey's agent.
"A friend said, 'Get off them horses before you get hurt. Agents stay on the ground, and all they need is a book and a pencil.'"
"I'm sitting here in my efficiency [apartment], looking at the ocean," he said. "I hang out on the beach and go to the races on weekends. I'm still here, that's the main thing.
"It was good to come up as I did. It wasn't the easy way but I know the value of money. I was able to work my way out of poverty, and I still believe anyone can be what they want to be. The opportunities are out there. You've just got to go get them."