Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hall of Fame Jockey Bill Hartack Found His Final Resting Place in a Small Missouri Town

Posted By on Wed, Jul 29, 2015 at 7:00 AM

Bill Hartack's fifth and final Kentucky Derby win. - COURTESY GARY CONDRA
  • Courtesy Gary Condra
  • Bill Hartack's fifth and final Kentucky Derby win.

I grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, and lived there and in Belleville for 26 years without ever hearing of Iberia, Missouri. But then I started writing a biography about Bill Hartack, the Hall of Fame jockey who won the Kentucky Derby a record-tying five times, and right off I needed a Missouri state map.

Hartack, who died in 2007, was buried in tiny Iberia, 900 miles from where he suffered his fatal heart attack, and in a state where he never lived and never rode a horse. How could that be? He was left light-years removed from the neon of New York, the towering palms of Florida and California, the architectural grandeur of Chicago and the twin spires of Kentucky's Churchill Downs, all places wherewith a strong left hand and an innate sense of horsemanship he coerced bloodstock into running farther and faster than most.

Always the bachelor, with no children and two surviving sisters who had left his life decades before, Hartack was virtually pre-ordained to fall into the purview of Gary Condra after he died. Condra was his oldest friend, by a margin of about a half a century, he was from Iberia, and there was room in his family's section of the local cemetery. Connecting the dots was not that hard.

"We hit it off right away," Condra says of the friendship that began in the late 1950s. "I don't rightly know why. I've asked myself a hundred times what made it happen, and never came up with the answer. It just happened, that's all."

Condra was not one-of-a-kind, but he was close. The working subtitle for my book is something about how Hartack "won all those Kentucky Derbys and insulted almost everybody." But not Condra. "We never had an argument," he says. "Not a real argument."

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