I really never had any desire or ambitions to become a jockey, plus I'm positive my weight, size and growth as a young kid were strong factors that determined I wouldn't be choosing a career path toward that profession anyways. For me, I dabbled in baseball, football and hockey. Therefore, it's a fair assumption that my favorite sports personality should have been selected from one of those three sports, but no, it was a jockey named Sandy Hawley who would hold that distinct title for me while I was growing up.
It's tough to say who was the greatest jockey in Fort Erie's rich history. It's fair to say, though, that Sandy Hawley is at least in the runing. Hawley was a frequent visitor to the Fort and its winner's circle. I was ten years old when Hawley began riding in 1968. In his first year of riding he won North America’s top apprentice award, as well as Canada’s leading jockey, a title he held for six straight years. Hawley was cool, he had long hair, mod looks and dress, plus he was a hit with the girls. At the same time in the United States, another pro athlete was also gathering the sports headlines, Joe Namath, the quaterback and leader of the New York Jets. Broadway Joe was another cool cat with the long hair, a Fu-Manchu at times, sharp clothes, and of course a bevy of girls. For me though, I always preferred going to the track on Sunday (or any day) to watch Hawley ride, as opposed to sitting in front of the television and watch Namath throw spirals down field. I vividly recall my cousin and I climbing aboard the wooden saw horses in my uncle's basement, with me pretending to be Sandy Hawley booting home a winner.
There was no internet. but nonetheless, Sandy Hawley was a household name in my residence, due mainly to my father's love for horse racing, his following of and frequent visits to Fort Erie. I always accompanied my father to the track, which included a visit now and then to Greenwood and Woodbine. I use to love to watch Hawley ride. His style was distinctive, especially in the stretch. He would bounce up and down a lot and sit further back in the saddle than other jockeys. A look at many Hawley photo finishes were often startling. At first glance it appeared that he had lost, because his body was completely behind that of the rival jockey, but the nose of his horse usually had hit the wire first. My father and I saw Hawley win races he should have lost and lose some he should have won. At this young age, I was still learning how to handicap the races, but, handicapping went out the window for me when Hawley rode in a race. My father always placed a $2.00 wager for me on whatever horse Sandy was aboard. He tried to explain to me, that should the horse win, the payoff wasn't going to be very much, but hell, I didn't care. A win for Sandy was a win for me.
Hawley won 230 races in 1969, and then went on to be the top winning jockey in the
United States four times in the Seventies. In 1973, at the age of 24, he became
the first jockey to win 500 races in a single season breaking Bill Shoemaker's
20-year-old record of 485. In the high stakes pressure-packed environment of
race riding, Hawley always distinguished himself with his clean living, a fierce
competitive spirit and just an uncanny way with horses. The numbers are staggering. Hawley finished with 6,450 wins, including four wins each in the Queen's Plate and Prince Of Wales Stakes. He's in the Horse Racing Hall of Fame and Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, among many other honors. Hawley even beat skin cancer along the way, overcoming a diagnosis in 1987 that only gave him a few months to live. Sandy Hawley retired from racing in 1998. He now works for Woodbine Entertainment and lives near Toronto.
I'm telling you this because when I started writing and blogging, I knew there
was a Sandy Hawley column in me. I knew our paths would cross, I knew I'd write about it, I just didn't know the ending.
On Tuesday, June 26th, Fort Erie Racetrack celebrated its 115th birthday. Despite
2012 being the final year of racing at the "Grand Old Lady," many fans turned
out, not only for the birthday celebration, but because the big hulabaloo was the autograph session that featured 19 former Prince Of Wales winning riders. The Prince Of Wales is the second jewel in the Candian Triple Crown, and will be run this year at Fort Erie for the last time on July 15th. The lineup featured notable names: Sam McComb, Richard Grubb, Hugo Dittfach, Lloyd Duffy, Robin Platts, Gary Stahlbaum, Joey Belowus, John Leblanc, Irwin Driedger, Mickey Walls, Brian Swatuk, Don Seymour, Larry Attard, Robert Landry, Constant Montpelier, Brian Bochinski, Luis Contreras, Corey Fraser and the greatest Canadian jockey ever born, Sandy Hawley. Seventeen of the riders have either recently retired or have been retired for quite some time. Two of the signees, Contreras, who won last year's P.O.W. and Fraser, the 2009 winner, are currently still active.
One by one. the jockeys were intoduced on the track following the third race before they headed over to a long table setup on the Tiki bar side of the Fort Erie grandstand from where they would meet and greet fans, and sign autographs. Knowing this information beforehand, I situated myself in the pre-determined passageway. I snagged Sandy Hawley as he made his way through, and politely asked him if he would allow me to have a picture taken with him. Hawley, always the gentleman, looked at me, smiled and said "Absolutely." After the picture was taken by my girlfriend Toni, I proceeded to get my place in the queue which was filling in quite rapidly and stretching out a long way. When I finally made my way up to the table where the jockeys sat side-by-side, I had my commemorative program signed by each one of them. When I reached the seat where Sandy Hawley was sitting, we exchanged a few pleasantries, as I rehashed a few memories that I have of him riding at Fort Erie, and excitedly waited for him to sign my program. At this point, I'll admit, I then reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out a couple of jockey cards of Hawley that I had collected many years ago and still had in my possession, just waiting for this golden opportunity. I asked the legendary Hall-Of-Fame rider if he would sign the cards, and once again he came through, inking his signature on each one. It was wonderful to say hello to all the riders, especially the Fort Erie jockeys I used to watch compete when I was growing up. As celebrity encounters go, this was as good as it gets. Walking away from the table completely satisfied, I looked up to the heavens to let my late father know that I had finally met my favorite, Sandy Hawley, Then an old saying came to mind: "The more things change, the more they remain the same." Yes, so true indeed, because now as an adult some many years removed from my childhood, I have changed, the world has changed, sports has changed. But then again some things have remained the same. One that has remained constant is: Sandy Hawley, although now retired, still stands on the top of the sports plateau for me, and will forever remain number one.