He was born John Patrick Loftus in Chicago, Illinois, the son of parents who had immigrated to the United States from Ireland. His father was an engineer; his mother birthed five sons: John, Martin, David, Frank, and Robert. Nothing in his background made horses a clear choice for young Johnny, but, nevertheless, he gravitated toward the racing life and made it his own.
When Johnny came of age, he was attracted to horses just as the racetracks around him closed, felled by the movement against gambling in the United States. Unscrupulous gamblers and the resultant scandals led to a wave of anti-gambling legislation in the United States. By the time young Johnny Loftus rode in his first race in 1909, the racing world within the vast expanse of American soil was shrinking down to just Kentucky and Maryland, with limited racing in far-flung corners like Jacksonville, Florida, where young Mr. Loftus rode his first race. He finished last.
Not an auspicious start to his career, but the young Loftus was determined to make a go of it. He loved horses, inhaled them even, content to sleep in their stalls and learn everything he could about them. Horses responded to him; he learned to become a master of pace, knowing how fast the horses around him were going and judging when to move his own mount in response. The skills he acquired in his years of traveling from place to place in search of mounts netted him wins in prestigious races like the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, the Travers Stakes, and more. He rode the big name horses of the day: Exterminator, Regret, War Cloud, and more.
His biggest problem wasn’t getting the mounts, though; it was his physique. Loftus teetered on the brink of unemployment with every pound. His powerful legs might have helped him balance on the brief width of leather beneath him, but those muscles were also weight that he couldn’t shed. Johnny tried to ride at 110 pounds or less; often, he couldn’t manage to get below 112. A brief stint in Europe and the heavier weights horses carried there gave him some respite from the struggle, but, when he returned to the United States, the fight was on again. He could never escape the ravages of weight, but it wouldn’t stop his ascendency either. Johnny Loftus was one of the elite riders of his day, and, as a master of pace; his services would be needed for one Commander JKL Ross to win the 1919 Kentucky Derby and his bet with Arnold Rothstein.
The 1919 Kentucky Derby showed just how tough a fight it was for Loftus to maintain his weight. Sir Barton was assigned 110 pounds, the beneficiary of a twelve-pound break in weight because of his maiden status. His jockey Johnny had a body that rebelled against such light imposts; Sir Barton carried 112.5 pounds because Loftus’s physique, already haggard and sunken from the battles with weight, refused to shed the difference. The extra weight meant little to Commander Ross; Loftus was still one of the best jockeys in the country. He piloted Sir Barton exactly as planned, sending the speedy colt to the front with unexpected results: rather than burning off the speed horses and giving way to his stablemate Billy Kelly, Sir Barton won a wire-to-wire Kentucky Derby in the slop. The Derby winner’s circle photo shows Loftus looking lean and hungry, unable to crack a smile despite the fact that he had just won his second Kentucky Derby. That struggle with weight might mean that Loftus would ride a pound or so overweight, but his skills and record were such that it never seemed to matter to his employers. Johnny had more than his fair share of winners, with 580 winners from 2,449 mounts in his ten-year career.
In his career, Loftus won most of the major American stakes races, including the classics and, of course, the first Triple Crown. He rode Man O’War, Sir Barton, War Cloud, Regret, and many more top horses of that era. The first part of the twentieth century was a time when jockeys had no union and operated with contracts that could be bought and sold like the horses they rode, but Loftus was among the elite, riding for the top owners of the day, including A.K. Macomber, Commander JKL Ross, H.P. Whitney, and Samuel Riddle. For all of the laurels he collected, though, he has the misfortune of one black mark on his record: the 1919 Sanford Memorial Stakes.
One of the first skills that jockeys in this era had to learn was how to balance the plethora of sensory inputs that were the starting barrier for any race. Long before the starting gate became a reality, horses stood in front of a stretched white fabric webbing before them which marked the starting line. On a stand on the other side of the rail was the starter, a man whose goal was to get all of the horses standing still and facing forward in line at the same time and then releasing them. Assistant starters, usually strapping men with horse whips, stood behind them, helping to get anyone unruly into line. Jockeys needed to have their own mounts in position while also watching for the starter to pull the lever and spring the barrier to start the race and do all of this with any number of other horses and jockeys trying to do the same thing. Kicks and shouts and false starts were all trials to be borne for the chance at the perfect start. Loftus mastered this skill as did many of the era’s greatest jockeys, all angling for the flying start that would catch their mounts already in stride as the barrier gave way to the action.
August 13, 1919 saw Saratoga without their usual starter, Mars Cassidy. Loftus was well aware of Cassidy’s tells, but was not at all familiar with his replacement Charles Pettingill. Pettingill, who had once been a starter before becoming a judge, was known for the seeming inability to do his job; a number of the races on the Saratoga card that day had terrible starts, with Pettingill unable to keep things tidy and orderly. Then came the Sanford Memorial Stakes.
Laden with 130 pounds, Man O’War was one of the high weights in the race, Golden Broom the other, also with 130 pounds. Loftus’s instructions were to let Golden Broom set the pace and then to move when he tired, rather than running on the front. The race was only six furlongs with every other horse massive underdogs next to the strapping Big Red. All Johnny had to do was avoid trouble and surely this start would end as all of the others would, with Red coming home first. Pettingill’s inability to get the horses at the start under control meant that Loftus, trying to get Man O’War back into position for a fresh start, wasn’t ready for the lever’s fall. The field got a jump on him and the greatest horse of the 20th century was nearly left at the post.
Doing his best to follow instructions, Johnny kept his mount behind the front runners, but soon realized that he was boxed in. Upset kept Golden Broom close to the rail, preventing him from squeezing through when the latter might bear out on the turn. Next to him was Donnaconna, just back on his flank. If he took Man O’War to the outside, going around all of this horseflesh, he would expend quite a bit of energy, that 130 pounds telling on any mortal body. If they stayed where they were, they would have to wait for an opportunity or create it. Loftus tried to create it, shouting for room to come through. Neither Golden Broom nor Upset gave way. The box was closing quickly as the ground between them and the finish line grew smaller and smaller.
Finally, Golden Broom gave way, the 130-pound impost too much. He fell back, leaving only one horse in front, and finally Loftus was able to swing Big Red to the outside. With only a furlong left, Loftus unleashed Man O’War, urging him to make up ground. Willie Knapp, Upset’s jockey, did the same on his mount and, though the gap between the two was starting to close, the bare furlong turned in mere yards and then only feet for Man O’War to close the gap and then eclipse Upset. But Upset carried only 115 pounds to Man O’War’s 130 pounds, enough to make a difference. The crazy start plus the rough trip meant that despite every inch of the twenty-eight-foot stride that Man O’War possessed was not enough to catch the elusive Upset. They crossed the finish line, with the aptly named Upset a bare half-length in front. In the next couple of strides, Man O’War had caught the upstart, but it was too little too late.
It would be Man O’War’s only loss. It would contribute to Loftus’s undoing.
Despite going on to win three more starts on Man O’War that year, Johnny’s legacy became forever tied to the misfortunes that resulted in Big Red’s only loss. He mysteriously lost his jockey’s license the following year and was never able to regain it; he applied for a trainer’s license, though, and was granted that immediately. He stayed in the game as long as he could, training stakes winners for prominent owners, but, when he had a streak of bad luck, he gave up the racing game for something far calmer and less risky: carpentry. He died in 1976, far away from the bugle’s call and the tiny square of leather that had been his office for so long.
In the end, John Patrick Loftus was remembered less for the classics he won and the Triple Crown he helped to pioneer and more for the bad start and even worse racing luck that plagued Man O’War on that fateful day, the one black mark on Big Red’s career that haunted the jockey, not the horse, for years to come.
His name was Johnny, an Irish boy who rode horses and became one of the era’s best and brightest jockeys. He was one of the First, the right pilot for the right horse at the moment when history was made.
Many great & glorious thanks to Dorothy Ours & her book on Man O’War for giving me inspiration as well as serving as a wonderful source on Johnny Loftus & many other topics.