Basil James - Washington Racing Hall of Fame

A polished reinsman

by Susan van Dyke

“Follow James and wear diamonds, bet against him and sleep in Howard Street flophouses . . . Five-a-day James . . . Polished reinsman . . . He might even defy the law of gravity, if he set his mind toward it . . . Follow James . . . A boy with a good pair of hands and a lot of judgment . . . One of the best race riders in America . . . A firecracker with a delayed action fuse . . . Sensational.”

All of these colorful accolades come from late 1930s’ newspaper clippings commending the riding prowess of Basil B. James, the 2005 jockey inductee into the Washington Racing Hall of Fame.

From Bush Tracks to Big City Lights
    He was born in Loveland, CO, on May 18, 1920 (and not 1918, nor in Sunnyside as many of the record books would have you believe) to Lee and Gladys (Maxwell) James. The third of three children, Basil, his sister Shirley and brother Harold were sent to live with their grandparents, Bert and Lucinda James, after their mother died of appendicitis. Basil was just six months old. His dad “was a great rider of bucking horses at Pendleton roundup and other rodeos . . .”
    Grandfather Bert, the major influence in his life, was a migrant farmer who trained a few horses – that doubled as plow horses – at the local bush tracks. The family would spend the summer months in Washington, Montana and Oregon, and winter in Arizona. The James’ family members were all short, and Basil would grow to only 5’ 1” in his stocking feet.
    Basil would always remember his grandfather’s sage advice, “Sonny, always remember that the horse is your best friend. He does not talk, and he may not be very intelligent, but he is flesh and bone. The horses feels, like you and I. Always be kind to him, and you will never regret it.”
    Basil had only a sixth grade education, which was not uncommon for those growing up in the Depression era.
    “I had been riding since I was old enough to walk. In fact, I think my dad and granddad put me in the saddle before they put me on my feet,” said James in a 1937 interview in California.
    His first unofficial win came either aboard his grandfather’s Sineta in Helena, MT, or astride Bert’s Cibble at Salem. Reports are conflicting, but in either case he was just 14.
    “Well, they put me up on Cibble and I was so scared – it was a five-eights mile race on a half-mile track. Did I tell you I was scared? Well, that doesn’t describe my feeling. My knees where shaking so that I guess old Cibble got the idea that I was a greenhorn and chose to get me off to a good start. We broke well in a five-horse field race and I simply hung on,” James would later tell reporter George T. Davis. “Before I knew it we were out in front, and I realized it wasn’t so different from galloping around the exercise track. I can tell you I was the happiest kid in the world when we hit the wire first and I moved into the winner’s circle. Gee, when I rode another winner the next day – two wins out of three races – I wondered how long that racket had been going on. I saw visions of Earl Sande and Tod Sloan [Sande, a three-time leading rider in the 1920s turned successful trainer, would later make use of the young James’ talent; Ted Sloan made his hefty reputation as a rider at the turn of the 20th century] rolled into one.”
    From there, James went to the newly reopened Playfair Race Course in the summer of 1935 and rode his first “official” winner at that Spokane track aboard Infanta on September 1, 1935. A year later, he lost his apprenticeship while riding at Washington Park in Illinois. While the 1936 (covering the year 1935) American Racing Manual lists the then 15-year-old James as riding “freelance” in 1936 and 1937, his contract was held by H. H. Cross’s Tranquility Farm. By 1938 he was employed by noted Seattle airplane manufacturer William E. Boeing, who raced a very high class stable. He soon would buy his contract from Boeing for $7,000. In later years, C.V. Whitney would hold his contract and he would also ride for the likes of Fred Astaire, Calumet Farm, Jock Whitney and Mrs. Damon Runyon.

America’s Champion Rider of 1936
    James’ first stakes win came aboard A.C.T. Stock Farm’s three-year-old Indian Broom in the April 11, 1936, $10,000 Marchbank Handicap at Tanforan against older runners – and in world record time. Top Row, who had won the second running of the Santa Anita Handicap in his previous start, went off as favorite in the nine furlong stakes. But, “Jockey B. James made perfect disposition of the speed of Indian Broom. He took his mount to the front at once, opened up a good lead under slight restraint, and kept enough in his mount that Indian Broom could widen his margin steadily through the stretch. He won off by himself, seven lengths in front of Top Row,” with 1935 Santa Anita Handicap winner *Azucar running third. Indian Broom’s 1:47 3/5 mark knocked three-fifths a second off the previous world mark. Indian Broom would later run third to Bold Venture in the Kentucky Derby, though not with James aboard.
    On August 1, James rode Calumet Farm’s Sun Teddy to a head victory in the $10,000 Arlington Handicap. The 2:02 was the fastest 10 furlongs run to that point in time in 1936.
    James would earn his third stakes victory aboard Jaipur (a son of *War Cry, not the one who memorably vied with Ridan) at Bay Meadows on Thanksgiving Day. Just a few weeks prior to that second stakes win, James was suspended until the end of the meet at Churchill Downs, when on November 2, his mount Surveyor moved over on Biff in the stretch and was disqualified from first to last. James, who was in a close battle with Frank Chojnacki for the leading national riding title, actually lost little time, as the Kentucky meeting ended just five days later.
    James would win the national title as a 16-year-old apprentice (see box) with 245 wins at 12 different tracks in California, Kentucky and Illinois. Johnny Longden finished in second place with 212 victories, three more than Frank Chojnacki. “James’ meteoric spurt during September and part of October at Lincoln Fields where he averaged almost two winners per day, and during the last weeks of October at Sportsman’s Park, where he actually passed Chojnacki, won him the championship. When both riders resumed hostilities at Bay Meadows in November and early December, Chojnacki was still within easy striking distance of the lead, but James’ brilliant form continued . . . and James drew farther away with each passing day.”

    James made the first of his five appearances in the Kentucky Derby in 1937, when he finished seventh to War Admiral while aboard J. W. Parrish’s Dellor in a field of 20. He won three stakes races that season, but only one, the San Pasqual Handicap with Special Agent at Santa Anita – where he was leading rider for the meet – was on the west coast. The other two were in Maryland.

    The year 1938 would start out on a less than auspicious note, when on January 12 the young rider was suspended for the remainder of the Santa Anita meet. The California Racing Board later extended the suspension to 90 days. James received the severe penalty for “grabbing Herbert Litzenberger during the running of the seventh race.” The time out for the infraction would more than likely cost him the mount on Stagehand, who James regularly galloped during morning workouts for trainer Earle Sande. Stagehand would score a major upset over Seabiscuit in that year’s edition of the Santa Anita Handicap and later be named the nation’s champion three-year-old colt of 1938. It was not the first, nor would it be the last, major suspension James would be handed.
    In a newspaper interview by Bob Herbert that year, the young James was asked what was important in race riding. “It’s all in knowing how to rate your horses - and knowing how much he’s got left for the finish,” he said. “The most important part of a race is the start. If you can’t keep your horse straight in the stall, so that he can get away well, and if you can’t keep him out of trouble going around that first turn, you haven’t much of a chance. That’s where most races are won and lost – right on that first turn,” he remarked. James would later add, “. . . but you got to have a good horse,” to the equation.
    Though at the time he was noted to be a strong whip rider, James preferred giving a horse a hand ride to the finish. “When you whip a horse, you turn his head loose, and when you turn a tired horse’s head loose you can’t tell what’s going to happen.”
    James would hit the New York circuit for the first time in 1938. Later that year, he would be astride Boeing’s top two-year-old Porter’s Mite when the son of The Porter won the $3,000 Champage Stakes over the 6 1/2 furlong Widener course after having “skittered over the straight six furlongs in 1:14 2/5, four-fifths of a second faster than the world record set by Menow in last year’s Futurity.” In their next outing together, James and Porter’s Mite took the $25,000 Futurity at Belmont by a nose over Eight Thirty.
    Winnie O’Connor, who had been America’s leading rider in 1901, hailed the riding ability of James after seeing him ride at Jamaica Race Track. “I’ve been watching that kid and he’s a natural if ever I’ve seen one,” said O’Connor. “Perfect seat and a nice pair of hands on a horse. Horses seem to run for him whether on the head end or off the pace, because he tries to help them.”
    James led the nation with 22 percent winners from starters in 1938. Sixty-six of those winners came during an incredible run at the Tanforan fall meet. “His riding at Tanforan has been practically flawless,” wrote turf writer Oscar Otis. On at least two days during the 25-day meet, James rode five winners. “James’ amazing percentage of 41 percent is considered a new high for any single meeting in turf history.”
    According to a newspaper clipping of the time there were three reasons for James’ incredible success. “He was the best rider at Tanforan . . . He has a clever agent, one ‘Bones’ LaBoyne, who is also something of a handicapper. Bones goes over the entries and selects the best mounts for James. Basil does the rest.” The other factor was the 40-odd head of Thoroughbreds in James’ contract employer Boeing’s stable, where there were “no cheap ones.”

    James would have a banner year in 1939, winning 10 stakes and leading all jockeys in the country with $353,333 in earnings. He would also finish third in number of winning mounts with 191, behind only Don Meade and Johnny Longden.
    The former Sunnyside boy would be aboard Townsend B. Martin’s Cravat when that runner became the 113th horse to hit the $100,000 mark in North America and set a new track record in the $20,000 Brooklyn Handicap. Cravat and James were once again partnered for the $5,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup, in which “Cravat came out smartly at the finish, and won by a length and a half” over *Isolater. James was also aboard John Hay Whitney’s Heather Broom when the Earl Sande-trained runner won the $5,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Saranac Handicap later that summer at Saratoga. In the Kentucky race, after being the “distant trailer,” “Basil James kept Heather Broom on the rail, which most riders at the meeting consistently avoided, and saved ground around the turn.” He then sent Heather Broom “up fast” to catch Third Degree in the last 100 yards and win by a length.
    James would also be the jockey of choice for Falaise Stable’s good mare Red Eye when she easily won the 69th running of the $5,000 Ladies Handicap (the oldest stakes exclusively for fillies or mares in America) and the Gazelle Stakes.
    Columnist Jack Guenther would later write of James, “As a stretch rider he has few – if any – equals.”

    Among James’ 11 major stakes triumphs in 1940 was a victory aboard Foxcatcher Farms’ Fairy Chant in the $5,000 Gazelle Stakes. In a torrential rain storm, she and James won the 1 1/16 miles stakes by five lengths. The daughter of Chance Shot would later be named the nation’s champion three-year-old filly and champion older filly or mare in 1941 as well. Other notable wins came with Can’t Wait in the Butler Handicap, Good Turn in the Sanford Stakes, High Breeze in the Juvenile Stakes at Belmont, Parasang in the Saranac Handicap and astride that season’s Kentucky Derby winner, Gallahadion, in the San Vicente Handicap.
    James was also aboard Whichcee for that famous running of the Santa Anita Handicap in which Seabiscuit finally got up for an emotional victory after running second twice in the $100,000 event. Whichcee, the second betting choice, ran third, beaten two lengths, in the 10 furlong stakes behind the entrymates of Seabiscuit and *Kayak II. James would lodge “a claim of foul against the winner, saying Seabiscuit had cut him off at the sixteenth pole, but the protest was not allowed.” If the claim had been allowed, rules of the day would have made Whichcee the winner, as entrymates were considered as one.

    James began the year with a six length win in the $10,000 Santa Susanna Stakes at Santa Anita astride Mrs. Vera S. Bragg’s Cute Trick on January 18. The following day, James gave a performance which would go down in California racing lore.
    “Basil James turned in a bareback performance. He was moving up with Roman General, the four-to-five chance [in a $1,500 claimer], in the stretch when the saddle slipped and the jockey lost both stirrups. Leaving the saddle to its own devices, James sat down and rode and won by a neck.” Joe Hernandez got on the public address system and called James’ unusual victory, “one of the great feats in American turf history.”
    He would later be aboard C.V. Whitney’s good three-year-old colt Parasang for two 1941 stakes victories. The first was in the Carter Handicap at Aqueduct, where the pair set a new track record of 1:23 for seven furlongs while running over a track labeled “muddy.” Later that summer, James and Parasang won the Wilson Stakes at Saratoga.
    In what James would later declare one of his most exciting moments in racing, the young rider would drive hard with Louis Tufuano’s Market Wise to defeat recent Triple Crown winner Whirlaway by a nose in the $10,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup. The two three-year-old colts exchanged the lead several times in the stretch with Wood Memorial winner Market Wise prevailing in a new American record time of 3:30 4/5 for the two-mile marathon.

    Alsab has gone down in turf history as one of the greatest bargains of all time. Purchased as a yearling for a mere $700 by Albert Sabath – who named the runner after himself – Alsab would earn $350,015.
    Alsab ran a strenuous 22 times as a juvenile in 1942, winning 15 races, including 11 stakes and was named champion two-year-old. He then almost immediately began his three-year-old campaign in Florida.
    Noted author/illustrator C. W. Anderson would write, “No three-year-old in years had been asked for so much and had given so generously.” He poignantly added, “If a little less had been asked, there would have been more to give.”
    As it was, Alsab went to the post 23 times at three. James was the rider of choice for all three of the son of Good Goods efforts in the Triple Crown. Just prior to the Derby, James had ridden Alsab in the Chesapeake Stakes and finished second by a length to Colchis over a cuppy track.
    On May 2, 1942, 15 three-year-olds faced the starter in the 68th Kentucky Derby with favoritism going to the Greentree Stable entrymates of Shut Out and Devil Diver. Lukewarm second choices, both at $5.10-to-one, went to the non-coupled colts Alsab and Requested. James had been confident going into the race that Alsab would wear the roses. According to the Derby chart, “Alsab, taken to the outside after a half-mile, started up after three-quarters and closed resolutely to head Valdina Orphan. But in the end it was Shut Out who won the race by 2 1/4 lengths, with Alsab second.
    The 67th running of racing’s second jewel, run only one week after the Derby on May 9, saw 10 runners making the call to post for 1 3/16 miles race. In his ninth start of the year, Alsab finally got his first win. But oh, the press mutterings that were heard before and after Alsab’s long overdue win were colorful and opinionated, to say the very least.
    “On the night before the Preakness Stakes, a frequently heard jest in Baltimore was, ‘Let’s run out to the track; they might work Alsab again.’ . . . seldom has there been such practically universal criticism of a horse’s conditioning as there was of Alsab’s. Some of it got in print, some was hardly printable. Trainer Augustus Swenke got off pretty lightly, most of it going to Albert Sabath and his friends – notably Al Jolson – who were often referred collectively as ‘Alsab’s trainers.’ Sports writers were most vociferate about it all, but many a horseman shook his head and vowed – off the record, of course – that he had never seen a good horse so badly managed.” Nowhere was James vilified in the proceedings.
    The report continued, “On the following afternoon, Alsab swept down the Pimlico homestretch with a smothering rush, drew clear at the end, and won what was, by 1 1/5 seconds, the fastest Preakness at the present distance.” The track record, only two ticks faster at 1:56 3/5, was set by Seabiscuit when that runner vaulted to victory over War Admiral in the famous Pimlico Special (match race) of 1938.
    In the race itself, “Alsab, which was knocked against Valdina Orphan [who later became T9O Ranches’ first stallion] at the start and had got none the best of it, was next to last the first time past. . .” Requested soon took the lead from Apache, and “Alsab still had but one horse beaten” as they straightened in the backstretch. As Requested drew clear in the final turn, “Alsab moved at last. He picked up two more horses before he reached the turn. Coming to the furlong pole Alsab had reached full stride, and he rapidly cut down the field ahead of him . . . a sixteenth from the finish it was a question of how much would Alsab win by, for he was running much faster than anything in the field.” The official margin was one length with Requested and Sun Again dead-heating for second.
    James would say after the victory, “I knew I was home at the quarter pole. He was a great horse today.”
    “Coming from second to last, and superlatively ridden by Basil James, Alsab drive past the field to win going away . . .,” wrote Thoroughbred Record editor William Robertson.
    In between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, Alsab and James went to Belmont Park for the mile Withers Stakes. In a stakes report of the race, it was commented: “After the Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles, and the Preakness at 1 3/16, and with the 1 1/2 mile Belmont Stakes next in prospect, the one mile Withers Stakes ($15,000 added, three-year-olds) at Belmont Park makes no kind of sense as far as training routine is concerned, since horses already up to 10 furlongs, and getting ready for 12, are asked to drop back to eight.” Nevertheless, the Swenke-trained Alsab won the race by 2 1/2 lengths.
    Just one week later, Alsab, bet down as the .40-to-one favorite, went forward with six others for the Belmont Stakes. Leading up to the race much of the criticism had died down due to Alsab’s sterling performances in the Preakness and Withers. “Alsab was about to become a super-horse again, and when someone asked Basil James about his mount’s chance, he answered, ‘You mean how far we’ll win, don’t you?’”
     It was a different story the Monday after the race, the Associated Press frankly stated that Alsab “had been overtrained, and matters were back where they started.” As for the Belmont, Eddie Arcaro, aboard Shut Out, was told to “wait on Alsab and then move with him.” By the mile post, Shut Out held the lead by a half-length over Alsab and that’s how they stayed, with Shut Out defeating the game Alsab by two lengths.
    Alsab would race 11 more times at three, including seven more wins (all in stakes) and gain his second year end champion title. At four, he won one of five starts and was unplaced in one try at five. By the time of his retirement to stud, the hickory Alsab’s record stood at 25-11-5 from 51 starts.

The Rest of 1942
    Besides his Preakness victory that May, James was also the winning rider aboard Market Wise in “America’s premier handicap – [when] tradition, class of horses, and severity of test considered – in the $30,000 Suburban Handicap on May 30.” It marked the richest running in the history of the 56-year-old event. Attending the Suburban that year was the largest crowd in New York history and they proceeded to “break the state record for betting on one race and the national record on betting for one day of sport.” Favoritism in the 10 furlong stakes went to Calumet Farm’s 129 pound highweight Whirlaway and the fans’ second choice was Market Wise, with 124 pounds, including James in the irons. James kept his mount closer to the pace than usual and in the final stretch slipped Market Wise down on the rail. Before the eighth pole had been passed, Market Wise held the lead and while “Whirlaway was boiling down the track, fourth, gaining in every stride,” Market Wise won by two lengths and “was pulling away from the entire field, including Whirlaway.”

Uncle Sam’s Army
    World War II changed the life of many a young American man, and Basil James was no exception. He was inducted into the U.S. Army on August 28, 1942 and just a day later, when his former classic mount Alsab was winning the American Derby, James was taking his second Army physical. A newspaper clipping of the day written by Harry Grayson said, “Basil James will miss the winter season, of course, but is happy to ride for Uncle Sam, the greatest trainer of them all, until victory is achieved.”
    Even with his abbreviated year, the New York Turf Writers’ Association named him the country’s leading rider of 1942.
    James was sent to Ft. Robinson, NB, which was the largest U.S. Army Remount Depot in the 1930s and would process most of the pack mules used during the Second World War. While there, he “broke horses and mules for the army, but managed to ride in a few races” at many “local” fair meets.
    “While stationed at the fort, several former riders got weekend passes and furloughs to ride at some of the ‘bush tracks’ in the west. Some of the memorable tracks included Columbus, Mitchell and Harrison, Nebraska; Lusk, Wyoming; the Bot Stot Stampede in Sheridan, Wyoming and Billings, Montana,” wrote Hildebrandt.
    During the war, the fort also served as the “army’s primary dog training center and was a major internment camp for German prisoners of war.” Several top young riders spent their war years in middle America. Other members of the Ft. Robinson jockey colony included Louis Hildebrandt, who became a good personal friend of James and later would win the 1946 Flamingo Stakes aboard Round View; Ira Hanford, who had won the 1936 Kentucky Derby on Bold Venture; his brother Carl Hanford, trainer of future great Kelso; Bobby Dotter; and Ed Connolly. Polo also became a part of their daily routine.
    Colonel Carr, the commander of the depot and who was considered a topnotch horseman, kept the former riders busy and “safe” at home.
    It was during his stay in Nebraska that James met, courted and married his future wife Grizelle, a very pretty blonde who worked as a bank teller in a local bank in Crawford. The couple would later have two daughters, Jacqueline and Charlene.

    After the war, James set up shop in New York. In the meantime, his former agent Bones LaBoyne had become the agent for Arcaro. There were hard and hurt feelings when LaBoyne decided to stick with Arcaro, instead of returning to guide James’ career. Arcaro would later add leading money riding titles in 1948, 1950, 1952 and 1955, to those he had already earned in his pre-LaBoyne days in 1940 and 1942.
    Among James’ dozen stakes wins in 1946 were six aboard Hirsch Jacob’s $1,500 claiming treasure Stymie, a victory aboard dancer/actor Fred Astaire’s Triplicate in the $100,000 Hollywood Gold Cup and a win with Mighty Story in the Discovery Handicap over the great Assault.
    In late July, James had flown in from his New York base to ride Triplicate, a five-year-old son of Reigh Count, in the California race after his regular rider Job Jessup had been suspended. James, who reported after the race, “We got all the breaks,” edged out Louis B. Mayer’s great mare Honeymoon by a neck in the 10 furlong race. The final time of 2:00 2/5 equaled the Hollywood Park track record.
    James was aboard Stymie through much of his five-year-old season. The pair won the Edgemere Handicap at Aqueduct, the Gallant Fox Handicap at Jamaica, the New York and Manhattan Handicaps at Belmont and the Saratoga Cup and Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. In the August 31 running of $15,000 Saratoga Cup, Stymie became the fourth horse to win the 1 3/4 mile race in a walkover. Stymie won the 45th running of the Manhattan Handicap over Pavot with that year’s Triple Crown winner Assault dead-heating with Flareback for third in the $25,000 stakes. Stymie and James also finished second to Assault, Arcaro up, in the $25,000, winner take all, Pimlico Special.
    In 1947, James ranked fourth in the nation in monies earned. Among his 80 victories was a win aboard his gallant partner Stymie in the $25,000 Metropolitan Handicap. Champion distaffer Gallorette, whose connections were never afraid to run her outside of her sex, finished third.
    In 1948, Pavot, with Arcaro in the saddle, evened the score on James and Stymie when he defeated him in the $25,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup. “Basil James, Stymie’s rider, is a superior reinsman, and possibly no jockey could have avoided the predicament created by Arcaro’s tactics, which was to make Stymie make the pace. Arcaro knew that the son of Equestrian disliked the front-running chore, is also at a disadvantage behind a slow pace.” “Cinderella” Stymie would eventually retire with 35 wins in 131 starts over seven seasons and the title of world’s leading money winner ($918,485).
    From 1949 until 1955, James would record nine more stakes wins, including two prominent New York stakes on the good juvenile Ferd in 1949. His last recorded stakes win came at Pimlico in 1955, when he was astride Alberta and George Gardiner’s English import *St. Vincent when he set a new American record in the $25,000 Dixie Handicap at Pimlico.

Retirement from Racing – First, Second and Third Times
    James retired from riding – the first time – in 1956 and moved back to California where he opened up a restaurant and bar in Arcadia called Basil James Handicap. In 1959, he and Grizelle divorced and he went briefly back to riding. He tried training for a short spell, but found himself “not enough of a well-rounded horseman” to carve a success in that demanding profession, according to daughter Jackie Hogan.
    Hogan recounted that as a child, she, her sister and her mother were not allowed to go to the track to watch him ride. James told them, “It was his job. How he made his living. If I was a fireman, you wouldn’t be coming to the firehouse.”
    “I was raised the child of a famous athlete,” said Hogan, remembering the heady days in California when people like actor Mickey Rooney and Buster Wiles would come to the house. “He was a very unique little man,” she added. “He called a spade a shovel!”
    Hogan finally got to see her father ride at age 18 when her visiting Aunt Shirley took her to Santa Anita one day. (In 1969, Hogan began her career in horse racing, first as a hotwalker and then with a small vanning company in California and later Washington. She was noted for her ability to handle rough colts and stallions. At first, she didn’t tell her father of her racetrack activities, but of course he later found out. When he did, he cautioned his daughter to “Always conduct yourself as a lady when on the backside.”)
    In the fall of 1960, James’ nephew and namesake Basil Frazier (son of his sister Shirley and her husband Don Frazier) was struggling as a jockey after recently losing his “bug.” Uncle James suggested they go to the east coast, where he would serve as the young rider’s agent. They first went to Florida for the winter racing and later up into the mid-Atlantic states. Frazier vividly remembers the respect the elder horsemen gave his uncle, especially in New York.
    “Greatness exuded off of him. If you put him in a room with a group of people, they would gravitate towards him,” remembered Frazier.
    Their partnership ended after the better part of two years and James went to ride at the newly opened Finger Lakes in 1962. Later he would take his tack to Agua Caliente, where sometimes the two Basils would compete against each other.
    Frazier also remembered his uncle’s sometimes “dual nature.” He could be somewhat cranky or perverse, though he was privately immensely proud of his nephew. “When I won the Longacres Mile in 1974 [aboard Times Rush], upon returning to the jock’s room, he was waiting in my corner. I was expecting something like ‘nice ride,’ but true to form, he said, ‘Well, that horse made you look pretty good.’ Coming from Uncle Basil, that was high praise indeed.”
    Other memories of his uncle were warmed by his out-in-out generosity. “My dad was a rider also, but never the caliber of Basil,” Frazier continued. He was relegated to the ‘bushes’ and it was always a struggle of survival. But one thing you could count on; every Christmas there would always be gifts from Basil and Grizzelle, and they would always be something special. As much of a curmudgeon as he could be, he was always generous with his success. Especially with me. There have been occasions when someone was angry with me and said something like, ‘You’re just like your uncle.’ I always took it as high praise.”

Back in Washington
    In 1963, Longacres president Joe Gottstein journeyed to the Mexico track to offer James a position with his organization. The horseman would be a devoted member of the Longacres family for 30 years.
    James served as assistant clocker and as a film race analyst until Longacres closed in 1992. He was also employed as film analyst at both Playfair and Yakima Meadows.
    According to Hogan, James maintained his strong work ethic throughout his years at Longacres, rising early every morning to be at the clocker’s stand by 5:00., home for lunch, and then back at the track by 1:00 p.m. to work as film analyst. “The racetrack was his life,” said Hogan.
    In 1967, James was installed in the Washington State Sports Hall of Fame. As of today, only two other racing figures are in this elite group and neither one of them – racetrack and horse owner Joe Gottstein or breeder Harry Deegan – came from an athletic category.
    In 1982, James was diagnosed with oral cancer. He had radical surgery in March of 1983 and remarkably by May of 1983 was back part to work part-time at the Renton track. Though his voice box had to be removed and he had to eat with a straw, “he never missed work,” said Hogan.
    When the track wasn’t running, James was an avid fisherman, and “liked to work with his hands. He was good with wood,” said his daughter. “He also loved cooking and cookbooks.”
    On April 10, 1998, James died in a Des Moines nursing home at age 77. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease the last few years of his life. His youngest daughter Charlene (Saffaf) died seven years later in February 2005. Today, he is survived by his daughter, Jackie, of Kent; her half-brother Basil James, of Seattle; grandchildren Jess James Hogan and Miranda James; his nephew Basil James and various other nieces and nephews.
    Famous turf writer and radio announcer Clem McCarthy once wrote of Basil James during his riding hey-days: “If you took a vote among modern-day jockeys and asked them who they’d like to be built like . . . same size . . . they’d probably tell you, Basil James. And his is the face of a typical high-class race rider. As to pugnacity, there’s a bit of the battler in him, and a touch of the diplomat . . . James knows when to take a desperate chance . . . and when to sit cool and bide his time. Such a rider is not made, but born . . . and too few of them are born.”
    Special thanks to Jacqueline Hogan and Basil Frazier for sharing their insights and memories of their famous father and uncle, respectively.

Basil James Riding Record
Basil James National 1936 Championship Year Basil James Triple Crown Record

Sources: 1947 Year Book of the Jockey’s Guild; various editions of American Racing Manual; various editions of The Blood-Horse; The History of Thoroughbred Racing, by William Robertson; Riders Up, by Louis Hildebrant; The Smashers, by C. W. Anderson; various issues of The Washington Horse; and many 1930-1940s unaccredited and undated newspaper clippings.

Click here for a complete list of all the Washington Hall of Fame inductees.

WASHINGTON THOROUGHBRED, September 2006, page 610

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