William J. Passmore Sr., who during a 38-year career became known as the dean of Maryland-based jockeys and then worked as a racing steward for another two decades, died Thursday of complications from emphysema at his Millersville home. He was 76.
Mr. Passmore was born in West Chester, Pa. His father, William L. Passmore, who was a noted steeplechase rider and trainer, worked for horse owner and breeder Bayard Sharp at his farm in the West Chester horse country.
As a youth, Mr. Passmore broke yearlings, and rode his first mount, Minneapolis, at the old Jamaica Race Track in New York when he was 15 years old - one year before the legal age of 16.
"Of course I remember the date. It was on May 23, 1948," Mr. Passmore told a Sun reporter in a 1968 interview.
"Things were a lot different then. The insurance laws weren't as tough, and they weren't as strict about the age limit. A lot of boys rode before they were 16," he said in a 1981 Sun article.
During his years as a jockey, Mr. Passmore rode regularly for King T. Leatherbury, Art Rooney, Jim McKay, Katie Voss and John T. Merryman.
Hitting a slump in the early 1960s, he stopped riding for a year and a half and worked as a jockey's valet, before returning to riding.
His one and only Kentucky Derby came in 1952, when he was aboard Hannibal, who was trained by his father. He finished eighth in a field of 16.
His first Preakness was in 1954 when he rode Galdar and finished seventh. In 1980, he finished seventh aboard Knight Landing; and a year later, he rode Thirty Eight Paces to a fourth-place finish.
In 1983 at the Belmont Stakes, his only appearance, he was on Dixieland Band and came in 14th.
In 1981, Mr. Passmore enjoyed a professional milestone when he became the 32nd jockey in North America to reach the 3,000-win plateau.
"I got there inch by inch," he told The Sun of his achievement.
"However, by the time he retired as a jockey in 1986, he had accumulated 3,531 victories from 29,490 mounts and nearly $23 million in purses," said a daughter, Cathlene Lindberg, a Saratoga, N.Y., attorney.
"Racing is a pretty hurly-burly world, and Bill Passmore, both as a jockey and later as a steward, was an island of calm in what can oftentimes be a turbulent sea," said Ross Peddicord, The Sun's former racing writer and now co-publisher of Maryland Life.
"As a race rider, he sat still on a horse, he rode chilly, he had a clock in his head and horses responded to his calm, confident horsemanship. He was steady as a rock," he said.
Mr. Passmore often said he admired the legendary Eddie Arcaro.
Joseph B. Kelly, retired Washington Star racing editor and turf historian, agreed that Mr. Passmore had a "great sense of pace and a great touch with horses."
He added: "Bill was one of the best riders to come out of the area. He was soft-spoken and quiet, and was the type of person who never seemed to get too excited and was always very calm when aboard a horse."
In a 1971 interview with The Sun, Mr. Passmore explained his technique, which meant rarely using the whip in the stretch run, "preferring to urge his mount with his hands and body as if he were a part of the horse," the newspaper observed.
"When you get a horse and you feel him giving you his best, the whip isn't going to do any good," he said. "Front-runners are prone to fall apart when you hit them. You can whip a speed horse out of the money."
He added: "I ride to win, and if I can't win, I'd rather be second than third, and I'd rather be third than fourth. It means more money to me."
Mr. Passmore had a reputation for being tolerant and patient when being asked questions by the news media. When a reporter once asked, "When you're involved in a close stretch battle, where do you prefer the horse's head?" Mr. Passmore answered: "In front."
After retiring from riding in 1986, he was a steward for the Maryland Racing Commission until retiring last year because of failing health.
"Bill was such an excellent rider, and he used that experience when he became a steward. He was well-liked and so respected by the other riders they wouldn't challenge his calls," said Chick Lang, a friend and former longtime Pimlico manager.
"Maryland racing is really going to miss Bill Passmore," he said.
Mr. Peddicord said Mr. Passmore was as "honest and fair as the day is long," as a steward, and was one of those "pillars that perpetuated the reputation of Maryland racing for world-class horsemanship, undisputed class and quality in a sport whose roots trace back to the founding of the country."
On the subject of asking jockeys for racing tips, Mr. Passmore said, "Jockeys are the worst touts at the track. I think the track makes a big mistake not installing a mutuel window in the jocks' room."
Mr. Passmore, who had lived in Annapolis for 22 years until recently moving to Millersville, was a communicant of St. Mary of the Mills Roman Catholic Church, 114 St. Mary's Place, Laurel, where a memorial Mass will be offered at 10:30 a.m. June 10.
Also surviving are his wife of 54 years, the former Charlene Levy; two sons, William J. Passmore Jr. of Glenelg, and James Passmore of Los Angeles; four other daughters, Sharon Passmore of Millersville, Dr. Patricia Nilles of Boston, Anne Marie Dodds of Melbourne, Fla., and Sandra Criss of Winchester, Mass.; two sisters, Patricia Chavez of Carlsbad, Calif., and Cathryn Langon of Homosassa, Fla.; and 12 grandchildren.