Tall Tales of the Track: When Fortune Smiled on Johnny

December 8th, 2023

Our lives are composed of a series of choices and their results, from the career path that we pursue to the people we spend our lives with. Occasionally, though, circumstance intervenes to divert or delay us and send us on a different path. When that happens, it can change a life in ways that we cannot imagine.

For one Hall of Fame jockey, fate intervened at the right moment to steer him toward the life that he dreamed of and a career that made him a vital part of racing's history.

The Search for Opportunity

Nearly 200 miles north of London and just south of Leeds, England lies Wakefield, a city known for its cathedral, a 14th century structure that has the tallest spire in the Yorkshire region. Because it lies on the River Calder, the city first grew as a market town, where cattle, grain, and wool were traded, while coal was mined on the outskirts of town, an economic engine that lasted centuries and employed hundreds. One of those was Herb Longden.

But opportunities in that area were lacking for Longden, so he and two of his children emigrated east to Canada, settling in Taber, Alberta. The area lay near a large coal field which had attracted Mormon settlers moving northward from Salt Lake City. They initially named their new town Tabor, for Mount Tabor in Palestine, but a clerical error meant that the Canadian government would recognize the area as Taber instead. Because Mormons had been the first to reside in Taber, a strong Latter Day Saints community had grown up in the area, which promised that the Longden family would feel comfortable there. 

It is there in 1909 that Herb and his oldest children put down stakes, the patriarch finding work in the coal mines to save enough money to bring his wife Mary and the rest of their children, Lillian, Doris, John, and Elsie, to Taber. The family had converted to Mormonism after elders from the Wakefield area temple had visited the Longdens when Elsie was sick. The doctor gave her a slim chance to recover but the visiting elders had comforted Mary while her daughter lay ill, and when Elsie recovered, the whole family converted to the faith. When Herb sent travel funds to Mary, she welcomed the chance to move from Wakefield to Taber, the knowledge that they would be among fellow LDS members taking the sting out of leaving behind friends and family. 

Mary Longden packed up her four children and bought train tickets for their journey to Liverpool and then passage on a transatlantic liner bound for New York and their new lives.

A Fateful Delay

The journey from Wakefield to Liverpool was only 80 miles, with their departure from Liverpool set for around noon. But their train was delayed, and Mary tried to be patient as the hours dragged on and no train. Soon, it became clear that they would not make it to their destination in time to travel to the harbor and board their ship to America. When the family finally did arrive, they saw that their intended ride had departed just after noon. It was April 10, 1912, just four days before that transatlantic liner bound for New York, the HMS Titanic, would sink in the frigid North Atlantic, taking more than 1,500 lives. 

Fortunately for the Longdens, their travel delays meant they were not on it. “It would have been curtains for us. The Longden pocketbook wasn’t in any shape to afford upper deck cabins. Most likely we’d have been among the fifteen hundred who went down with her,” remembered John later. Instead, Mary booked passage on the Virginian, which arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then the family made the long journey from the eastern coast of Canada to Taber, Alberta, settling into their new life. Young John loved the open spaces of their part of the province, especially since his older sister Harriet had married a farmer and owned ponies that the young man would do anything to ride. After school, he would even walk five miles to his sister’s farm to spend time with Bill, Bolly, and Mabel. It was the start of a love affair that would last a lifetime.

But riding horses for a living was not a realistic pursuit for a young man and his family needed money. Sure, they had a roof over their heads and food to eat, but that was all they could manage on Herb’s salary as a coal miner. While he pursued riding when he could, John took on odd jobs as early as age 10. He herded local families’ cows to graze on the prairie and then returned them to a corral where their owners would pick them up. He worked for the area’s newspaper washing type among other tasks. Still, that wasn’t enough, so John joined his father in the mines at age 13, where he greased the ore cars and then drove the mules that pulled the cars to the surface. 

As he worked in the darkness down below, though, John dreamed of working with horses in some capacity, a goal that he never gave up on. Rather than spend his life in the mines, the young man traded his hardhat for a racing saddle and set off for the racetrack. 

A Life in the Saddle

Johnny Longden was 20 years old when he decided to pursue his goal of becoming a jockey. His work in the mines had helped make his 4’11” frame strong and the riding experience he had gained since his earliest years had given him the confidence that he could succeed. And succeed he did. He headed for California and worked hard to build a career from his base at Santa Anita Park. In his first year riding, he made $980 riding in Canada; by 1935, his earnings topped $100,000 and did not dip below that for the rest of his career. 

In 1936, Longden won the Latonia, Illinois, and Louisiana Derbies on Rushaway, and then rode in his first Kentucky Derby the following year. By decade’s end, he was the leading rider in the country, winning 21% of his mounts in 1938. His work in the saddle earned him the chance to ride for John D. and Fannie Hertz, who had won the Kentucky Derby with Reigh Count in 1928 and had a promising colt by that stallion named Count Fleet. Longden understood the two-year-old and was able to get along with the roguish and headstrong brown colt. The following year, they would win the Triple Crown.

Longden’s long career in the saddle earned a spot in both the American and Canadian racing Hall of Fames. After riding horses like Noor, Swaps, and T.V. Lark in his nearly 40-year career, he moved on to life as a trainer and conditioned Majestic Prince to wins in the 1969 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, becoming the first jockey to also train a winner of those classics. But none of this could have been possible were it not for a delayed train from Wakefield to Liverpool decades earlier. If fate had not intervened that day, as Longden himself said, “this story would have ended before it ever got started.”