Ted Atkinson: An uncommon path to glory
A fortuitous recommendation from a stranger convinced Ted Atkinson to become a jockey. He developed into one of the best ever, winning 3,795 races, becoming the first rider to surpass $1 million in purse earnings in a single year, and earning a spot in the Hall of Fame.
By Brien Bouyea
Hall of Fame and Communications Director
Sometimes the best advice comes from the most unexpected sources. For Ted Atkinson, it came in the form of a chance encounter with the driver of a truck he was loading while working at a chemical plant in Brooklyn, New York.
“Hey, kid! You crazy, hauling stuff like that? A kid your size, wiry and strong — you could make dollars riding horses, instead of the doughnuts you’re making here,” the driver told the 19-year-old Atkinson, taking note of his 5-foot-2 frame and the strength he possessed while packing the truck with heavy cases of bleach.
“Sure,” Atkinson responded sarcastically. “You just walk up to a racetrack and get hired.”
“I got a friend who knows someone who can help you,” the driver said.
Although he grew up in a family with no connection to thoroughbred racing, and his experience with horses was minimal, Atkinson was intrigued. The driver gave him the name of Louis Raduazzo, a former exercise rider who had a connection with the famous Greentree Stable.
And just like that, Theodore Francis Atkinson was off to the races.
Born in Toronto in 1916, Atkinson was one of eight children. When he was four, Atkinson’s family moved to Pennsylvania. They later settled in Corning, New York, where his father worked as a glass engraver. An excellent student, Atkinson graduated as salutatorian from Corning Free Academy. The difficult financial conditions of the Great Depression, however, prevented Atkinson from attending college, so he began working at Corning Glass Works. He also worked as a messenger for a dental laboratory and planted trees for the Civilian Conservation Corps before the family moved to Brooklyn in the mid-1930s.
Atkinson had only been working for the Roselux Chemical Co. for a short time — while also studying airplane mechanics at the Brooklyn Engineering Institute — when he fortuitously had the life-changing interaction with the truck driver.
After connecting with the former exercise rider Raduazzo, Atkinson was sent to a riding academy in the Bronx to see if he had the necessary aptitude in the saddle. Having shown Raduazzo enough in his lessons, Atkinson was hired as an entry-level exercise rider for Greentree. The opportunity, however, wasn’t what he had hoped for. After being employed by Greentree for more than a year, it became obvious to Atkinson that the stable wasn’t interested in giving him the chance to ride in races. He decided to leave Greentree and head to Ohio, where he worked for three small stables — mostly exercising horses as he had for Greentree — but making valuable contacts and marketing himself as a jockey prospect.
On Dec. 2, 1937, Atkinson finally received the opportunity he desired and made his riding debut aboard Guinea Law at Charles Town in West Virginia. He found the winner’s circle for the first time a few months later on May 18, 1938, aboard Musical Jack at Beulah Park in Ohio. One of Atkinson’s early mentors, trainer Horace C. Rumage, advised the fledgling rider to use his crop only on the horse’s hindquarters, never on the side. Atkinson developed a motion in which he elevated the crop skyward and brought it down in a circular motion. Despite the exaggerated optics of the style and being nicknamed “The Slasher” by a sportswriter, Atkinson was mostly a finesse rider.
“I thought the nickname was a misnomer,” Atkinson said. “I never hit hard and used a heavy feathered whip. My style was to raise my stick high so I could hit the horse high on the rump. I never hit on the flank. I never cut a horse in my life.”
Atkinson piloted his first stakes winner in 1940, riding Dunade to victory in the Governor’s Handicap at Suffolk Downs in Boston. That year, he also met his wife, Martha, while riding at Thistledown in Ohio. The couple had three children and were married for 64 years.
Atkinson attracted national attention in 1941 when he rode War Relic to victory in the Narragansett Special, defeating Triple Crown winner Whirlaway, ridden by Eddie Arcaro. Stardom soon followed. Atkinson led the nation’s jockeys in 1944 with 287 victories and record earnings purse of $899,101. In 1946, he became the first jockey to win purses totaling $1 million in a single season ($1,036,825), while winning 233 races. Atkinson signed that year as a contract rider for Greentree Stable, where he had started as an exercise rider. In 1947, he won the first of three consecutive riding titles at Saratoga Race Course. He was also the top rider at Saratoga in 1952 and 1956.
In 1949, Atkinson just missed the Triple Crown, riding Capot to finish second in the Kentucky Derby before winning the Preakness Stakes in a record 1:56 and going on to take the Belmont Stakes. Capot was named Horse of the Year. Other great horses Atkinson rode included Hall of Famers Bold Ruler, Busher, Devil Diver, Coaltown, Gallorette, and Nashua, as well as champions Capot, Conniver, Grecian Queen, High Voltage, Miss Request, and Misty Morn.
Atkinson’s most famous mount was Hall of Famer Tom Fool, a horse he referred to as his “favorite of favorites.” Atkinson rode the Greentree legend in all 30 of his career starts, including 21 wins. Tom Fool was named Champion 2-Year-Old Male in 1951 and was undefeated in 10 starts as a 4-year-old in 1954 en route to being honored as Horse of the Year, Champion Older Male, and Champion Sprint Horse. He was the first horse since Whisk Broom II in 1913 to sweep the New York Handicap Triple of the Metropolitan, Suburban, and Brooklyn.
After 11 years of riding for Greentree, Atkinson was released from his contract in 1957. He rode for two more years before retiring in 1959. His final winner took place on Jan. 10, 1959, at Tropical Park in Florida. At the time of his retirement, Atkinson ranked No. 4 all time with 3,795 wins. For 16 consecutive years (1942 through 1957), he ranked in the top 10 nationally in yearly earnings, including 10 times in the top five.
In a 1957 article in The Saturday Evening Post, Atkinson was described as “the only jockey in the world who rides every race as if it were the Kentucky Derby.”
“I never look and see what the odds on my horse are,” Atkinson said. “If they’re a hundred to one it might discourage me, and I can’t ever get discouraged. I’ve seen some rough days in my time. I’ve got to ride every race to win.”
After retiring from the saddle, Atkinson remained a presence in the sport. He studied in Marshall Cassidy’s program for racing officials, then served at the New York Racing Association tracks, Charles Town, and Keeneland. In 1961, Atkinson was named chief steward for the Illinois Racing Board, a position he held until 1976. After leaving Illinois, Atkinson worked as a steward at Thistledown in Ohio.
Atkinson retired to his farm in Beaverdam, Virginia, in 1981. He learned bricklaying and carpentry, built a guest cottage on the property, and on occasion officiated at hunt meetings. Atkinson was 88 when he died at his home in 2005.
The racing world had long celebrated Atkinson for his accomplishments and character. In 1957, he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame and voted the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. In 2002, Atkinson was enshrined in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
A cerebral rider, Atkinson’s eloquent manner of speaking, love for classic literature, and keeping of journals that included notes on his every mount and race contributed to his earning the nickname of “The Professor,” a moniker more fitting of his traits than “The Slasher.”
Turf & Sport Digest described Atkinson as “the essence of honesty, dignity, and respectability.”
A few months before Atkinson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1957, famed sportswriter Roger Kahn wrote a piece titled Case of the Erudite Jockey. Kahn said Atkinson “may well be the most poised and articulate athlete in the country. Conceivably, he is also the most remarkable.”
Born: June 17, 1916, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Died: May 5, 2005, Beaverdam, Virginia
Career dates: 1937-1959
- Won 3,795 races with purse earnings of $17,449,360
- First jockey to surpass $1 million earnings in a single year
- Rode Hall of Famers Tom Fool, Bold Ruler, Busher, Coaltown, Devil Diver, Gallorette, and Nashua, as well as champions Capot, Conniver, Grecian Queen, High Voltage, Miss Request, and Misty Morn
- Led all North American jockeys in wins and earnings 1944, 1946
- Ranked in the top 10 nationally in earnings 10 times
- Won the 1949 Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes with Capot
- Won the Carter Handicap — 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1957
- Won the Sanford Stakes — 1943, 1949, 1951, 1956
- Won the Ladies’ Handicap — 1944, 1946, 1947, 1948
- Won the Dwyer Stakes — 1944, 1945, 1948, 1956
- Won the Youthful Stakes — 1944, 1945, 1948, 1956
- Won the Fashion Stakes — 1942, 1953 1955
- Won the Metropolitan Handicap — 1944, 1945, 1953
- Won the Lawrence Realization Stakes — 1946, 1948, 1956
- Won the Brooklyn Handicap — 1948, 1950, 1953
- Won the Manhattan Handicap — 1948, 1950, 1956
- Won the Diana Stakes — 1949, 1952, 1955
- Won the Champagne Stakes — 1943, 1948
- Won the Suburban Handicap — 1952, 1953, 1954
- Won the Beldame Stakes — 1944, 1947
- Won the Travers Stakes — 1946, 1948
- Won the Futurity Stakes — 1949, 1951
- Won the Whitney Handicap — 1951, 1953
Posted Aug 31, 2023