Jerry Fishback dominated his sport as thoroughly as Muhammad Ali and Bobby Orr dominated theirs. But when he announced his retirement here last week, the nation's best steeplechase rider was given little attention, little acclaim and no testimonial dinners.
Not many pwople care about steeplechase racing, and the few who are part of the sport's inner circle shed no tears over Fishback's decision. The jockey said, "Almost nobody has told me, "Congratulations on your retirement." And an assistant racing secretary told me, "I'm really glad you retired." "
Members of the horsey set who might have been Fishback's greatest admirers are the very people with whom he has waged a running battle over the last decade. In their eyes, as one high steeplechasing official put it, "Jerry's got a very low boiling point. He's abusive to authorities and he's quick to mouth off."
To this Fishback would reply: "I feel that's an unjust reputation. I think I have reasonably sound judgment but I haven't had much luck getting people in this sport to listen to me."
Fishback could have been the darling of the steeplechase crowd if he had so chosen. He is good-looking, well-groomed, smart, articulate; he comes from the proper sort of background. Reared in the horse country of Warrenton, Va., he started riding ponies when he was a tot and soon began to take part in fox hunts and point-to-point events.
In 1968 he began riding regularly as a professional, and he wasted little time ruffling the feathers of the Establishment. "My first mistake was in 1969," he said. "I was supposed to marry Burling Cocks' daughter and I didn't. From then on it was all downhill as far as my social reputation went."
Fishback would commit worse sins. In a game where everything is supposed to be done with gentility, or at least a pretense of gentility, he rode with fierce competitiveness, got into fights, lashed back verbally whenever he was criticized. At the Radnor Hunt in Pennsylvania, where decorum and good sportsmanship reign supreme, Fishback was accused of doing something unspeakable.
He was riding part of a stable entry - the other half was ridden by a girl jockey - and when his stablemate moved alongside of him, he allegedly reached over and grabbed her bridle and yanked her out of contention.
The stewards slapped him with a 20-day suspension. Fishback denied the offense, got a court injunction and questioned the motives of his accusers. "The very people who are so against me," he said, "owned the horses I rode against."
That was a typical Fishback outburst. Whenever he had the opportunity, he deplored the hypocrisy, the stuffiness, the ineptitude of the clubby group that runs steeplechasing in America.
"I've heard people say that they'd love to own jumpers and they go to the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association. And they can't even get any information. If your name isn't Phipps or Scott or Smithwick they don't even want to see you walk into the office. The same people who are in steeplechasing now are the ones who were in it 25 or 30 years ago. That's one reason the sport is dying."
Even if he didn't like the politics of the sport and didn't like many of the people in it, Fishback did love to ride. Guiding an animal over 13 hurdles at a distance of more than two miles requires consummate horsemanship, and even Fishback's personal critics cannot repress their respect for his talent.
"I was very happy riding," Fishback said. "I felt I had a good rapport with horses. When I rode temperamental horses they'd run for me and I got pleasure out of it."
Fishback rode so well that he was the country's leading steeplechase jockey six times during the last decade. This year at the age of 32, he won with 13 of his 25 mounts, an incredible percentage.
When one of his favorite old horses, Cafe Prince, won the Lovely Night Handicap at Saratoga, Fishback decided to bow out a winner.He is looking forward to a new career running a farm in Camden, N.J., where he will prepare young horses for racing and for sales. His retirement was a matter of choice, not necessity. "If I had wanted to stay a rider," he said, "I think I could have lasted as long as the sport of steeplechasing is going to last."