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Yankee Doodle Dandy

Yankee Doodle Dandy: The Life and Times of Tod Sloan

Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Yankee Doodle Dandy
    Book Description:

    In the 1890s, feisty Tod Sloan (1874-1933) abandoned the centuries-old jockey tradition of riding in a straight sitting position and instead crouched low on the neck of his horse. The result was not only a string of victories for young Sloan but also a revolution in horse racing. In this entertaining book, award-winning author John Dizikes recounts the remarkable story of the Indiana boy who rose from obscurity to become the most famous jockey in the United States and Great Britain at the turn of the century. Dizikes evokes the turbulent, colorful world of horse racing and gambling in which Tod Sloan rocketed to celebrity-and from which he was just as dramatically ejected.Sloan's innovative riding style helped to transform horse racing into the first nationally popular spectator sport, drawing in huge crowds and vast amounts of betting money. But Sloan's career was crushingly ended by those who resented and envied him. A dandy, a big spender, a man whose company women loved, Sloan related to horses in an almost magical way, yet foundered in his dealings with people. This book is the biography of a diminutive man who lived in large style, and lives on in George M. Cohan's musicalLittle Johnny Jonesand Ernest Hemingway's short story "My Old Man." The book is also much more-a fascinating cultural history that illuminates the history of horse racing and betting, the democratization of sport, changing conceptions of masculinity, the hypocrisy of Victorian morality, the lionizing and demonizing of celebrities, and a variety of other inviting topics.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13494-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. 1-11)

    Names. Tod Sloan had a lot of names (and very little of anything else). His father, cruelly, called him “Toad” because he was so small. His real name, “that which I was christened by,” was James Forman Sloan. There was a grander version, too, James Todhunter Sloan, which someone, “I forget who,” hung on him. It turned out to be important because it was eventually shortened to Tod, the name everyone called him by. For a number of years he even had a different last name—Blauser—the name of the people who raised him as a boy.

    His upbringing...

    (pp. 12-20)

    The horse racing culture Tod Sloan hoped to enter had a long history. Formal horse racing, in the British colonies of North America, dated from the late seventeenth century in New York, the Middle Atlantic Region, and the South. (New England prohibited it as an immoral and frivolous amusement.) The rough, improvised, scattered racing of this founding period gave way to more settled forms in the eighteenth century. Racing clubs were founded and rules and regulations established, though all racing activity remained modest in scale and meager in material resources. From the beginning, two aspects of American racing were fixed:...

    (pp. 21-30)

    Horse racing has always been both a sport and a form of gambling: handsome, high-spirited animals competing against each other and personal wagers made in agreeable circumstances. In the nineteenth century, however, the nature of horse race betting changed. With the appearance of professional gamblers and bookmakers, it became institutionalized; and it became entangled in the law. Both of these things happened first in Great Britain, and their consequences were soon felt in the United States. In 1853, Parliament passed An Act for the Suppression of Betting Houses, which prohibited betting shops or places but allowed betting with bookmakers at...

    (pp. 31-46)

    A difference of opinion is what makes a horse race,” but human intervention in the form of handicapping—weight to equalize differences in natural ability—is what makes horse racing a commercial activity and spectator sport. “A horse race that people will bet on is a horse race that has been handicapped to make it a betting proposition.” In seventeenth-century England horses ran under “catch” weights, whatever their amateur riders (often their owners) happened to weigh. In the eighteenth century, as horse racing became a public sport, a series of graduated weights was established according to the age, sex, experience,...

    (pp. 47-57)

    Horses raced in California for decades before Tod Sloan got there. Travelers in the 1820s and 1830s were struck by the fondness of the Spanish Californians for the sport. In 1835, Richard Henry Dana identified race courses in San Francisco, Los Angeles, on the beach at Santa Barbara, and along the banks of the San Diego River. And then, with the Mexican War, the coming of the Yankees, the Gold Rush, and California statehood, all this was wiped out. But in the new American settlements the old forms were re-created. The Pioneer Course, the first California race track built on...

    (pp. 58-70)

    What did Tod Sloan do to convert a mediocre career into a stellar one? He adopted a new style of riding, the “forward seat,” or “forward crouch.” As he recalled it years later, what he did and how he did it merged into one dramatic moment. One day he and another jockey were galloping their horses together when his horse started to bolt; in trying to regain control Tod climbed up out of the saddle and onto the horse’s neck. His fellow jockey laughed at the strange sight, and “I laughed louder than he.” On reflection Tod realized that “when...

    (pp. 71-82)

    By the mid-1890s, when Tod Sloan got to New York, the spectacular growth of horse racing as a spectator sport in the United States had resulted in more than three hundred race tracks, large and small, legitimate and outlaw. Nowhere had expansion been so dramatic as in and around New York City, where there were six race tracks in operation, each with its own character and clientele, competing against one another for patronage, rising and falling in popularity. No sooner was something established as traditional than it was replaced by something else, something new.

    Jerome Park was by this time...

    (pp. 83-96)

    Sloan’s success in California had meant little to skeptical eastern racing men. New York journalists didn’t identify Sloan’s forward seat as something radically different but as an exaggerated version of what was already familiar. If anything, it was identified as western or Wild Western, “the reckless cowboy style, admired by spectators and greatly dreaded by other jockeys.” It was disconcerting to many. One perturbed racing writer contrasted it with that of the established jockeys of the day, Sims and Griffin, Doggett and Taral, “who ride the same evenly balanced races as of old.” The payoff was not in style, however,...

    (pp. 97-105)

    In the late summer of 1897, James R. Keene and Tod Sloan had a conversation. Like so many things in Sloan’s life, there is uncertainty about what was said; or, rather, there are two distinct versions of it. Each gives a glimpse of one of his many moods and manners. In Sloan’s own version Keene had sent for him. “Sloan, I’ve got a horse, St. Cloud, in the Cesarwitch and the Cambridgeshire. My trainer, Pincus, thinks he has a good chance. I have been thinking over the advantage of getting you to ride him. Would you like to go over...

    (pp. 106-120)

    Tod Sloan’s first experience of England, however, wasn’t the thrill of invasion, it was loneliness. Keene and Ten Broeck and Lorillard were men with social connections. Sloan, though he had brought a companion with him, was, as always, on his own; he knew “absolutely no one and felt as lonely and out of the swim as a fish on land.” He consoled himself by taking rooms at the Savoy Hotel—he always traveled first class—but roamed its corridors “so homesick I nearly cried. I found myself looking at steamship time-tables.” Then he went to Newmarket and looked up Jake...

    (pp. 121-135)

    As the controversy and ridicule associated with the monkey seat died down, British racing fans and writers were generous in recognizing Tod Sloan’s riding skills.

    T actful

    O riginal

    D aring

    S kilful

    L ucky

    O bservant

    A mbitious

    N erveless

    (“Tactful,” of course, referred to his riding style, not to his personal behavior.) Stories and anecdotes spread quickly about him and the amazing things he could do on a horse. Fred Rickaby, a jockey of few words and of good judgment, when asked about Sloan’s riding, replied, “If I were an owner I should not run a horse unless...

    (pp. 136-152)

    The American Invasion reached its climax in 1900. Several jockeys followed Sloan to England, and four of them—J. H. “Skeets” Martin, Danny Maher, and the Reiff brothers, Lester and Johnny—became very successful. Johnny Reiff, even smaller than Tod, “the merest child to look at,” became a special favorite; he was a “real wonder” and possessed a Sloan-like sense of pace. The Reiffs were quickly in great demand and in 1900 had almost twelve hundred mounts between them. Danny Maher was overshadowed at the time but went on to an outstanding career in England; much respected, “skilful and Straight,”...

    (pp. 153-166)

    The Tod Sloan fairy tale turned into a nightmare. On December 6, 1900, the Jockey Club, in its official organ, theRacing Calendar,published the results of its investigation into charges brought against Lester Reiff concerning an incident at Liverpool and against Tod Sloan concerning the Codoman affair at Newmarket. Reiff was “completely exonerated from blame,” as were the others involved in the Liverpool affair. However, finding that the charges against Sloan had been proved, it “informed him that he need not apply for a license to ride” in the forthcoming year.¹

    Sloan learned of the decision from the New...

    (pp. 167-182)

    Famous, and with friends and acquaintances who could help him out, he started at the top. George M. Cohan, already a commanding figure on Broadway, wrote a monologue for him, and Oscar Hammerstein booked him into a vaudeville act at the Victoria Theater, at $1,500 a week. “I necessarily had a certain amount of nervousness as to whether I should make good or not,” he wrote of his first appearance; but he felt he had done pretty well and had got “a lot of laughs on account of Cohan’s witty lines.” Unfortunately, by the time Tod dictated his memoirs, he...

    (pp. 183-200)

    Stories. Tod Sloan’s career, bordering on the fabulous, the nobody who became somebody, provoked stories: stories about his riding and his manners (or lack of them), about his outrageous comments and the money (exaggerated) he made and lost. His life illustrated the idea of the German novelist Herman Hesse that, however much one strove for objectivity, historical narratives remained literature. “History’s third dimension is always fiction.”¹

    In 1903, George M. Cohan read a newspaper story about Tod Sloan, a glowing estimate of his talent and a sympathetic account of his English misadventures. Cohan, a twenty-six-year-old composer and writer, was looking...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 201-212)
  21. Bibliography
    (pp. 213-216)
  22. Index
    (pp. 217-226)