In the hope of living down his past as a sportswriter, Bill McDonald long ago fled Washington for the bucolic bliss of the Leesburg, Va., countryside. But lately, Squire McDonald has blown his cover, reinvolving himself in the Washington scene with an indignant howl at justice betrayed.
McDonald is in a dither about the display known as Washington's Hall of Stars, all of those names in bold lettering on the panels of the mezzanine ringing RFK Stadium. This honor proclaims them to be sports legends who supposedly evoke Washington's everlasting memory.
McDonald wants the name of Sonny Workman included in this company, and in a firm note to the allegedly rational people who constitute the selection committee, he suggests that corrective action be taken forthwith. His logic, easily shared, is that as long as the name of Workman is missing from any gallery of heroic Washington sports figures, the whole thing is a travesty, a sham, a repugnance and, perhaps, a criminal act.
"How could they possibly overlook Sonny Workman?" is the pained question McDonald puts to the committee, and he has a strong point. It demands an answer in the form of a swift inclusion of Workman's name, and preferably near the head of the class.
And who, precisely was this Sonny Workman, whose snub by the committee has left McDonald so agitated? Well, for openers, Workman's Washington credentials are intact.
He was a Northeast D.C. kid, a refugee from a home for orphans who began hanging around horses at the Benning training track at 14. Five years later, he was, arguably, the best jockey in the United States.
Compared with some of those who got into the Hall of Stars by routes that can be labeled mysterious, at best, Workman is more than a legitimate candidate. Among so many names that ring a bell faintly, Workman, who died in 1966, is a figure of the highest magnitude.
Workman was the nation's leading money-winning jockey in 1929. And again in 1930 and in 1933. No other rider matched his percentage of winning mounts over three years in the '30s, when he was in daily competition with such men as Earl Sande, Eddie Arcaro, Laverne Fator, Jackie Westrope and Don Meade. How many races did Workman win? Eleven-hundred fifty-two.
He also was king of the jocks' room in another sense. Even in his apprentice years, nobody intimidated him. As a 90-pounder playing football on the Washington sandlots, Workman always fancied himself a tough hombre. In the many arguments that raged in the jocks' room, Workman frequently invited the party of the second part to slug it out.
Racing folks generally agree that Workman had the greatest technique with the whip of any rider of his time, although he maintained he was never cruel to mounts. When one rider lodged a foul claim after losing by a nose, contending he had been struck by Workman's whip, Workman later advised him in the jocks' room: "I can beat you on horseback or beat you on the ground."
At 15, after he began riding winners by the bushel at half-mile bush tracks in the Midwest, Harry Payne Whitney's trainer, James Rowe, signed him as a contract rider. Also impressed was Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, for whom Workman also became a contract rider. Later, Alfred Vanderbilt negotiated for Workman's services.
Two Whitneys and a Vanderbilt, who could afford the best in the land, had opted for Workman. That tells something about his credentials.
He rode in eight Preaknesses, winning with Victorian in 1928, and in four Kentucky Derbys. Such thoroughbred legends as Equipoise, Whiskery, Questionnaire, Flying Heels, Menow, Top Flight, Whichone and Boojum were among his winning mounts. Among these, his favorite was Equipoise, "the little chocolate soldier."
As an unraced 2-year-old, Equipoise wasn't supposed to be a hot number in the Whitney stable in 1930. The colt was consigned to the Benning training track with others under second-string trainer Freddie Hopkins, while the first-string Whitney contingent went to New York with chief trainer Rowe. Equipoise made Hopkins famous.
At Benning, Hopkins was euphoric about the workouts of Equipoise. And, he said, "I finally found a boy who could handle that little rogue." His find was the strong-armed, strong-headed Workman, who tamed Equipoise and raced with him into history.
Equipoise and Workman opened eyes in the 1930 Pimlico Futurity. Equipoise turned sideways at the start, grabbed his quarter and lost all four shoes while racing in deep mud. But Workman, persevering with his shoeless mount, brought him from behind in time to beat both the vaunted Mate and Twenty Grand by a half-length.
A Baltimore newspaper headlined the feat as the "Greatest Race of a Decade." Later, Workman himself said of Equipoise's victory, "Hell, it may have been the greatest race anybody ever saw."
Now, truth to tell and with malice toward none, some of those worthies enshrined in Washington's Hall of Stars were, in contrast with Workman's resume, barely a blip on the Washington scene.
George Selkirk, a good friend and a great major league outfielder by everybody's estimate, somehow is listed among Washington legends at the stadium. Why? Apparently because he was the general manager for a few years of the departed expansion Washington Senators of unsainted memory.
In 1956, the National Museum Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga decided Workman was worthy enough to induct in an early round and his bust is there today. A year later, he was a quick inductee into Pimlico's Jockey Hall of Fame.
It happens that Bill McDonald is a horse person, high in the councils of the Charles Town Race Track. So he is understandably distressed that the entire sport of kings and queens, as well as those of small means, is given scant consideration in the Hall of Stars. In plumping for his cause, McDonald does not insist that his candidate's full name, Raymond Sonny Workman, be installed. Just Sonny Workman will do.