It was a highlight in career as jockey that spanned 7 decades, led to fame and the Hollywood high life
Whenever the first Saturday in May rolls around the memories come flooding back for Ray York.
His thoughts turn to Churchill Downs and the five times he rode in the Kentucky Derby. At the head of the memory list is the year (1954) he won thoroughbred racing’s biggest prize.
“I have a lot of memories,” he said, “good memories.”
His victory aboard Determine, the first gray horse to win the Derby, came 58 years ago when he was a 20-year-old flash and kept company with legends like Willie Shoemaker and Johnny Longden, York’s idol whose life he once saved.
York won’t ever forget his third try at Churchill Downs.
“Oh yeah, I remember that day,” he said. “I’m still proud to say I won the Kentucky Derby.”
While he takes enormous pride in the Derby win and his other notable achievements, he doesn’t wear them on his sleeve.
York, who lives in Valley Acres where he and longtime girlfriend Michael McKay tend to their horses, is the sport’s most prolific rider.
The only jockey to ride in seven decades, York began his career in 1948 at the age of 15 (he lied about his age so he could ride professionally) and rode his last race Jan. 13, 2000, aboard Culebra at Santa Anita at the age of 66.
He brought Culebra home with him as a souvenir.
“That horse is in my back yard now,” he said.
York made a nostalgic visit to Churchill Downs five years ago where he took a trip down the famous track’s backstretch, added his cement handprints to the “Gallop to Glory” exhibit at Louisville’s famous Galt House Hotel, and was recognized at the Mint Jubilee Gala.
He also participated in an oral history project at the Kentucky Derby Museum, which is collecting oral histories of retired jockeys for research purposes.
York won more than 3,000 races, and his earnings topped $14 million.
A year after winning the derby, he won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in recognition of his racing successes and “high standard of personal and professional conduct on and off the racetrack.”
The award came primarily for saving Longdon’s life during a race at Golden Gate Fields in San Francisco. Watching Longdon’s mount go over the rail and into a ditch, pinning the famous jockey beneath it, York sprang into action.
“I said to myself, ‘my buddy’s in trouble.’ He was underneath the horse. The legs were hitting him in the head. I jumped off my horse, grabbed the reins and just jerked it away.”
He then got back on his horse and won the race.
His success on thoroughbred racing’s biggest stage made him a celebrity and led to hobnobbing and partying with Hollywood elites like Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Durante, and Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller (“He always called me boy”), doing stunt riding in movies with the likes of John Wayne, even dating screen siren Natalie Wood.
“I played a lot of golf with these people,” he said. “I even tried to take Joe Louis with me once, but there was a color barrier in those days.”
York moved to Taft in 1985 to work for the mosquito abatement district where one of his tasks was racing thoroughbreds owned by agency manager Sid Ryall, who was later convicted of misappropriating funds.
The move came at a time when York’s life was in a downward spiral because of his drinking.
“I was not doing well at all,” he recalled. “I was really in bad shape.”
That change of scenery would change him forever.
A year later he had a chance meeting with McKay after he fell off a horse he was riding on a track next to the Franklin Field stables.
“It sounded to me like he was yodeling when he went down,” McKay said, who was tending to horses she boarded there. “It really was a strange noise.”
She ran over and helped him get to his feet.
McKay let York ride her horses, and the pair struck up a friendship.
When she bought a house in Valley Acres because it had plenty of room for her horses, she invited York to live with her.
There was one condition, though.
She wouldn’t tolerate his drinking.
So he quit.
“This lady saved my life,” he’ll readily tell you. “She really did.”
A 1964 Taft High graduate, McKay recently retired after 34 years in accounting at the Elk Hills petroleum reserve where she worked for every operator that has managed the field since it was privatized in 1976.
The couple plans to do more traveling now, maybe even another trip back to Churchill Downs.
But one tradition they’ll skip is the mint juleps. He doesn’t drink anymore and she can’t stand them. She tried one on their visit five years ago.
“I just thought, well, it’s part of the tradition so try one,” she said. “Those things are just awful. I don’t understand how anyone can drink them.”