A horseman first and foremost
by Kimberly French
e was involved in at least three of
Thoroughbred racings more memorable moments, was the fourth jockey to win
3,000 races and conditioned the horse that beat the only undefeated Triple
Crown victor, yet Johnny Adams, a member of the National and Washington Racing
Halls of Fame, seemed comfortable allowing others to steal the spotlight.
The Iola Mite
Born in 1915 in
Carlisle, Arkansas, Adams family relocated to Iola, Kansas, while he was
still very young. Nicknamed the Iola Mite because of his smaller
than average stature (he was only 48), the youngster began
riding in 1934 at the county fair tracks where his father distributed feed, and
where he captured his first of 3,270 career triumphs aboard Marble Girl at
Riverside Park in Kansas City that same year.
My mother didnt want me to turn
jockey, he told the San Diego Union. So, since it was
necessary for her to sign papers as a minor age apprentice, I fibbed about my
age. I think I said I was 20 or 22, so I could get going as a journeyman
In 1937, after riding for only three
years and concentrating on many of the bush tracks (county fairs)
in Kansas and Oklahoma, Adams led the nation with 260 victories. His
competition included future National Hall of Famers Eddie Arcaro, Johnny
Longden and Ted Atkinson. Another of his contemporaries was fellow Washington
Racing Hall of Famer Basil James.
year, the 28-year-old Longden wrested the title of leading rider from Adams
(who finished second,) but Longden, the only person to ever win the Kentucky
Derby as a rider (Count Fleet, 1943) and trainer (Majestic Prince, 1969),
definitely possessed several advantages.
Johnny Longden has raced on the Big
Apple (New York tracks), has matched his skill against the top-notch
jockeys of the country at all the Eastern tracks, is the second highest money
winner ($250,000) as well as the leading rider, wrote a correspondent for
Time magazine on December 19, 1938. Ever since 1935, when he made his
Eastern debut by winning five out of six races on Bert Baronis Top Row,
Johnny Longden has been in great demand. A contract rider for the famed
Wheatley Stable until two months ago, he is now under contract to Don Cameron,
trainer for the stables of Mrs. John Hertz, Vera Bragg and J. Shirley Riley, at
$17,000 a year highest salary of any US jockey.
Unlike all of his top competitors, Adams did not have a
contract or ride first call for any stable until the following
year, when he was signed by Seattleite William E. Boeing of aircraft fame. The
24-year-old rode wherever and whenever he had the opportunity and normally did
not guide the strongest of contenders.
Californians will never forget the thrill they experienced when jockey Adams
rode six winners in a row (five of them longshots) at Bay Meadows one afternoon
last spring a feat that only seven US jockeys have ever
accomplished, said Time magazine. Others who had seen him
break a leg during a race at Del Mar last summer, marveled at his ability to be
out in front again after being dismounted for two months.
Johnny Adams has an extraordinary flair for getting the
best out of the cheapest plater. Adams was never known for the elegance
of his seat or the dexterity of his hands. In fact, he rode with a very long
rein, probably because he was so short, but his arm and shoulder strength
allowed him to ably control his mounts.
article in Time acknowledged Adams ability, it was hardly
complimentary about his appearance or even his abode: A barrel-chested
pee-wee who learned to ride on the Western bush tracks, still lives
in a trailer and looks as clumsy as Ichabod Crane on a horse.
year (1938), Adams performance aboard Count Atlas in the Santa Anita
Handicap which was the countrys richest race ($100,000)
drew considerable ire from the media and racing fans, as he was considered
partly to blame for Seabiscuits nose loss to Stagehand.
As Seabiscuit broke from the gate, he was
immediately bashed inward by Count Atlas, a hopeless longshot, wrote
Laura Hillenbrand in her 2001 epic Seabiscuit: An American Legend.
As he staggered sideways, Count Atlas sped up in front of him, then
abruptly cut left and slowed down, pushing back into him again.
Seabiscuits jockey, George Woolf, however, did
manage to extricate his horse from trouble and managed to secure a suspension
for his actions.
Swinging his whip high in
the air, Woolf walloped it down as hard as he could on the buttocks of Count
Atlass jockey, Johnny Adams, then lifted it up and smacked it down
again, Hillenbrand said. Down on the rail, obscured by the pack, he
could not be seen by the stewards or the crowd. But Adams, who would ride back
to the scales sporting angry welts, certainly felt it. He jerked Count
Atlass head to the right. Seabiscuit broke free . . . and delivered what
many of them (in the press box and crowd) thought was the greatest performance
in racing history, and (Seabiscuit) had lost simply because of a fluke in the
weight system (he carried 30 pounds more than Stagehand) and a foul from
Seabiscuits owner, agreed with the masses and felt Adams behavior
was one of the main reasons his prized horse did not win the race, but after
Seabiscuit was sidelined with a ruptured suspensory ligament in 1939, Adams
guided *Kayak II, another Howard horse, to victory in that years edition
of the Big Cap.
Adams also received his big
Derby mount in 1939 when Boeing named him to ride the 1938 Belmont Futurity and
Champagne Stakes winner Porters Mite in that years Kentucky Derby.
The flashy chestnut, however, was withdrawn several days before the race.
Fortunately, Herbert Woolf, the owner of Technician,
offered Adams the ride against the advice of his trainer, six-time Kentucky
Derby winner Ben A. Jones.
Woolf, they say,
brought in Adams over the strong protests of Ben Jones, wrote the
Jefferson City Post Tribune on May 5, 1939. Jones finally told
him: All right, you own the horse and youre shooting at the
$50,000. In the opinion of most of the experts here, however,
Woolfs move was a smart one.
Technician did not settle into good stride until
reaching the backstretch where he showed a brief flash of speed, but was soon
out of contention, and finished fifth behind the post-time favorite,
Throughout his career, Adams reined 13
horses in the Run for the Roses. He never won the classic, but did
finish second with Blue Swords in 1943 and Hasty Road in 1954.
Nearly seven decades later, many racing fans still
argue over who was the best horse in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. Seabiscuit,
who had returned from his injury, beat his stablemate *Kayak II by a length and
a half, but there has been some controversy over the result, as *Kayak II was
never touched by the whip and his rider was Leon Buddy Haas,
instead of Johnny Adams.
Adams nephew, told Bill Christine of the Los Angeles Times in
2003, that his uncle was offered the mount, but rejected it because Howard
intimated that *Kayak II could not win the race if it inhibited a victory by
the favored Seabiscuit and Adams always rode to win.
Haas sister also claimed Haas was told to allow
Seabiscuit to win.
Adams, who called *Kayak II one
of the best horses he ever rode, was in the irons when the 1939 champion
handicap horse captured the 1940 Sunset Handicap later that year. He had a
record of 7-4-1-0 aboard the Argentine-bred. He later won the 1946 Big
Cap with Dark Knight.
1930s and early 1940s Adams regularly rode at Longacres. He won both the
Spokane Handicap (Bartlett) and Speed Handicap (Alviso) in 1936, but never
captured the tracks signature race, the Longacres Mile. He finished fifth
in 1936 with Chief Pilot, fourth in 1937 with Blue Bud and 13th in 1942 with
The chunky jockey, once
again led all riders in total victories with 245 wins in 1942 (including
winning with six of his eight mounts at Thistledown on September 2, and scoring
five wins in eight rides at Detroit 20 days later) and the next year with 228,
without ever really riding a big name horse. Adams best day in the
saddle in 1943 came at Detroit, when on May 29, he rode five winners from six
mounts. He was the first rider in history to head the jockey list three times.
Adams collected his only classic victory in the
1954 Preakness with 1953 two-year-old male co-champion Hasty Road. Trained by
Harry Trotsek and owned by Hasty House Farm, the colt led from gate-to-wire and
just outlasted the favorite Correlation by a neck. Hasty Road had finished
second in the Derby behind Determine and did not compete in the Belmont.
On May 21, 1955, when Mister Black, piloted by Johnny
Adams, annexed the Continental Handicap at Balmoral Park, it marked Adams
Ironically, he was honored as the
1956 recipient of the George Woolf Award, which rewards sportsmanship and
When Adams riding career
ended in June of 1958 because of a back injury, he had spent 24 years in the
saddle and had a record of 3,270 firsts, 2,704 seconds and 2,635 thirds from
20,159 mounts and had earned $9,743,109 in purse money. He was inducted into
the National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in 1965.
His résumé included victories in: San
Pasqual and San Carlos Handicaps, San Felipe Stakes, American Derby,
Arlington-Washington Futurity, San Juan Capistrano Handicap, Kentucky Oaks
(twice), Coaching Club American Oaks (twice,) Ben Ali (three times) and Phoenix
Stakes (three times), Clark Handicap, Arlington-Washington Lassie Stakes,
Jamaica Handicap, Hopeful Stakes, Hollywood Gold Cup, Santa Anita Oaks,
Breeders Futurity, Black-Eyed Susan Stakes and the Arlington Handicap.
Adams, who was based in California, transitioned into
training horses upon his retirement and his son, John R. Adams, or
J.R. as he was listed in racing programs, rode his fathers
first winner as a conditioner and enjoyed moderate success as a jockey, before
solely exercising horses.
J.R.s son, John K.
Adams, also became a jockey in his youth and rode at Calder, the California
fairs, Belmont and Aqueduct, before he became a trainer based in Maryland.
The youngest Adams admits his riding style did not
resemble his famous grandfathers.
way sir, the then 19-year-old told the New York Racing Associations
publicity office in 1974. From what Ive heard tell about him and
from the pictures Ive seen. They tell me they used to call him
Washboard Adams from the way he scrubbed on his mounts. But
Im proud to be his grandson. Would I like to beat his 3,000-win record?
Well, frankly, Id rather beat Sandy Hawleys (then) record of 515
As a trainer, the eldest Adams did
enjoy success and conditioned Niarkos, Prize Spot, Relaunch, New Policy,
Meilleur, Hill Circus, Jumping Hill and Big Raff. He won the San Miguel and San
Marcos Stakes, Santa Monica, San Pasqual, San Luis Rey, San Juan Capistrano
(twice), San Simeon, Beverly Hills and Del Mar Handicaps.
His most notable
achievement as a trainer, however, was with George Pope Jr.s J.O. Tobin.
The son of Never Bend, who was Englands 1976
two-year-old champion male, had lost once in four starts during his European
campaign and that was to Blushing Groom (Fr) in Frances Grand Criterium
(G1) after many people thought jockey Lester Piggott had allowed the colt to
fall too far behind the winner.
Tobins trainer, Sir Noel Murless, retired, Pope transported the colt to
the States with an eye on the classics, even though his colt had not raced on
J.O. Tobin, now under the tutelage of Adams,
ran in the Preakness Stakes (G1) and finished a disappointing fifth behind
Seattle Slew, but his trainer didnt believe that race was a true measure
of his ability.
He had all kinds of
excuses, Adams told The Blood-Horse. It was not a true race
for him. Mr. Pope and I talked it over and decided the Belmont would be too
much for J.O. Tobin at that time. We felt it might knock him out for the rest
of the year. So, we came back to California to point for the Swaps.
Hall of Famer Bill Shoemaker, J.O. Tobins jockey,
concurred with Adams. We got stopped every which way that day, he
said. He didnt break well, and then when he took off, he ran up on
other horses. Then on the far turn, he ran into trouble again, and we had
trouble getting clear going into the stretch. He still finished fifth, got beat
by less than five lengths and had 10 lengths worth of trouble.
J.O. Tobin prepared for Swaps, which was contested on
July 3, 1977, at Hollywood Park, by running in an allowance race and the
Coronado Stakes. Both races were on the grass, and the colt established a new
track record for nine furlongs in the allowance contest, which was a week
before the Swaps.
owned by White Swan, Washington, residents Mickey and Karen Taylor and Jim and
Sally Hill of Florida, ran his record to a perfect nine-for-nine and became
Thoroughbred racings 10th Triple Crown winner when he cruised home in the
Belmont Stakes (G1) on June 11.
Adams was not
concerned when Slews connections announced the Swaps was the next start
on their agenda. When we heard that Seattle Slew was coming out, our
reaction was: Well, well meet him on our grounds, he
said to The Blood-Horse.
Shoemaker had a
tremendous amount of faith in J.O. Tobin and thought the colt was sitting on a
I was telling people
that he was good enough to win, he said, but I dont think
anybody believed me. Even then they thought I was old and senile. But I was
confident against Seattle Slew.
Sent off at
one-to-five, the champion did not resemble his usual self and struggled home
fourth, nearly 16 lengths behind the victorious J.O. Tobin.
Unlike the Preakness, J.O. Tobin broke beautifully,
went straight to the lead and never looked backed. He won by eight dominating
lengths and ran the mile and a quarter in 1:57 3/5, which was 2/5ths of a
second off the world record for the distance.
After the race, which noted author Steve Davidowitz
ranks as the fourth most astonishing upset in Thoroughbred history, everyone
couldnt stop talking about how Slew had not run his race, instead of how
strongly J.O. Tobin had just performed.
Johnny did a hell of a job with that horse,
Shoemaker said. He worked and worked with him in the mornings and got him
to relax. Later, the horse was turned over to Laz Barrera (after a fifth place
finish in that years Woodward Stakes [G1] in New York) and became a
speed-crazy horse. He didnt do much after that.
I guess its the biggest pot ($194,000)
Ive ever won, commented Adams after his charge handed Seattle Slew
his first loss.
Johnny Adams succumbed to the
ravages of a long illness at his Arcadia, California, home on the morning of
August 19, 1995, at age 79. He was survived by his wife Patricia and three
He (Adams) always considered
himself a horseman, first and foremost, wrote Jay Hovdey in The
Pennsylvania resident Kimberly French is a freelance writer
whose work has appeared in Thoroughbred, Standardbred and Quarter Horse
publications. She also freelances as a production assistant for ESPNs
for a complete list of all the Washington Hall of Fame inductees.