September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
As has been said of pornography, great art is impossible of complete definition but we know it when we see it. And the greatest athletes, as with great generals and great violinists, are master artists. A million kids play baseball. One is Babe Ruth. Guys punch each other in the nose. One and only one is Jack Dempsey. The equal of these two in capacity and status during their mutual golden age of sports was the jockey Earl Sande. Anyone can ride a horse, sure. But, said Damon Runyon, someone like the Handy Man, Handy Earl Sande, comes along once in about every ninety years.
Sande had a great seat on a horse with perfect balance and movement in wondrous consonance with the animal; he had hands that could hold the 20th Century Limited yet sense from the reins the precise instant to cease restraining and start urging; he had exquisite timing and knew with blink-of-eye intuitive recognition to swing out or go inside now ! And he had the guts to do so. He sat coldly motionless while it seemed the others were getting away; then he came on, never using too much of his mount, always doing just what was necessary and what was possible. Horses have to run for some riders; for Sande they wanted to. As a kid just months past voting age he was up on Man o’ War to cruise to victory at Saratoga. He took three Kentucky Derbies. One year he won thirty-nine major-stakes races, an almost unbelievable achievement. At the old Havre de Grace track in Maryland he once rode seven horses of the day’s card and came in first with six of them.
Many jockeys off a horse are found to be unforthcoming and very tough little men. Sande was expansive and had a charming grin. He loved to sing—warbling to horses as he worked them in the morning—and, booked into the Stork Club, held the room while showing a delightful personality. Yet his life story, says the columnist-author Jimmy Breslin, “ranks with the saddest in sports.” “One of the most pathetic,” says the racing writer John H. Clark.
That is what has come always to be said about Sande. Maybe it is true. Maybe not.
He was twelve, a Norwegian-ancestry kid growing up near American Falls, Idaho, when he bought a filly for three 5-dollar gold pieces, four ducks, and a bicycle frame. He rode her at informal race meetings. In 1917 he went to the Fair Grounds track in New Orleans, spent mornings walking hots—leading around and around for an hour horses that needed cooling down after a workout—and then got a chance to be a jock. In January 1918 he won on Prince S., who, the Racing Form chart noted, showed “vastly improved form over previous races.”
The golden decade dawned, the fabulous twenties, and Sande was up there with Red Grange, Big Bill Tilden, Knute Rockne and Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen, with Bobby Jones, Helen Wills, and, of course, the Babe and Dempsey. He won the Derby with Zev, did the same with Flying Ebony as he nursed along for a mile and a quarter a horse that’d never before gone beyond six furlongs. He got Gallant Fox across for the roses on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs in 1930, went on with him to the Preakness at Pimlico and the Belmont in New York: the Triple Crown. (Gallant Fox is just one of his five Belmont Stakes victories.) He rode Exterminator, Grey Lag, Sir Barton, Crusader, Mad Hatter, Sarazen. His presence in the saddle always sent down the odds. The money he took down was uncountable.
He had an extraordinary in-the-money record, was known for never “doing business”—pulling a horse. Tall for a jockey at five feet six, he fought to make weight. Twice married, his first wife having died, he was childless. He suffered falls, as do all jocks, took time off, came back with nerve intact, won new victories. “Sande appealed to the racing public in a manner that has never been equaled,” said The Horseman’s Journal .
In 1932 he retired and became a trainer. Six years later he was the country’s leading money winner at his new trade. He decided to go into ownership and breeding. But that, he was told by the great trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, was a terrible mistake. That was for rich men, like a Vanderbilt or a Whitney. “I guess I should have listened to him,” Sande said later. But he didn’t listen. Everything went wrong. Most of his horses couldn’t cover ground any faster than a fat man running up hill. “Earl,” said the race-track clocker Gene (“Frenchy”) Schwartz, “you do better for yourself putting them things into cans for dog food.”
But Sande had never failed at anything and could not connect failure with what he was doing. He madly poured out money, sold his stocks, sold his real estate. Nothing worked. His horses couldn’t run. He went down, down. He mucked out his horses’ stalls himself to save on stable help. By the late 1940s he couldn’t pay at the hotel where he lived, and went to be in one room over a Long Island bar. There was a pullstring light in the ceiling. The shower and toilet were across the hall. He was soon behind with the rent. “How could a guy like him go bad?” Jack Dempsey wondered. “Money and I are incompatible,” Sande explained.
Yet he had ample opportunities for employment at good wages—steward, racing publicist, greeter at tracks. He turned down all offers. He would do it with a horse or not at all, be his own man, he said. In 1953, fifty-five years old, bald, he dieted from 138 pounds to 115 and went to riding again. He was up against jocks a quarter of a century younger—and, in the case of bug boys (apprentices), nearly forty years younger. He won one race and was given, says William Robertson in The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America , “the most enthusiastic ovation ever tendered man or beast” at the ancient Jamaica Racetrack. To many it looked as if the other jocks had taken a dive, as if the whole affair had been a tank job, a boat race. “Hell, naw,” said Eddie Arcaro, who’d been up on the favorite, years later. He winked as he said it.
Sande announced his permanent retirement from riding. The whole business had been gone through in the hope someone would give him some good horses to train. No one did. He remained in his creaking-stairs walkup room over the bar, too impoverished to spend the fifty cents a day required for purchase of a racing paper, dining alone on a can of soup and a tin of salmon. He got an offer for five thousand dollars for a couple of weeks’ work to publicize an upcoming race but turned it down. “We’ve done everything humanly possible to straighten him out, but you just can’t force a man to take money,” said a New York racing official.
Yet the Earl of Sande never seemed bitter, was always pleasant, had a firm handshake, showed not the slightest touch of self-pity. “I sure appreciate it, the way the track sends me a pass every year,” he told a reporter in 1959. “Maybe I could get out there, I’d certainly like to, I really would.” But bus connections were difficult, and of course he didn’t have a car. Didn’t even have a working television; his black-and-white was broken. “There’s a place down the street where they turn on the races and I watch down there.”
Many said he was nuts, had to be, turning down good money for decades while living as he did. Others thought that he was a proud, a very proud, man. That he was too proud to take from anybody. That he would do it his way or not at all. That someone who had been where he had been did not accept what was offered because of who he was or what his name was but instead earned by his own doings or did without.
He became very ill. A couple of horsemen friends put up the money for a one-way ticket so he could go out West to be with his aged father. He spent time in a rocking chair on the porch of an Oregon nursing home and died in the summer of 1968, at age sixty-nine. In the great days Damon Runyon wrote:
Maybe there’ll be another, Heady and game and true. Maybe we’ll find his brother At drivin’ them horses through. Maybe but, say I doubt it, Never his like agin, Never a handy guy like Sande Bootin’ them babies in.