Jesse Davidson, champion jockey, dies at 69

Fought successfully for reinstatement after being imprisoned in Bowie betting scandal

January 19, 2010|By Justin Fenton |

Jesse Davidson, a national champion horse racer who was sent to federal prison for race-fixing and fought for reinstatement, died at his Ellicott City home Saturday of complications from hernia surgery. He was 69.

Mr. Davidson, a local folk hero once described as a "hard-scrabble rider with near-demonic dedication to working his trade," was the country's leading rider in 1965, racking up more than 300 wins by taking as many mounts as he could get. But his career was tarnished years later, when he became one of four jockeys implicated in a race-fixing scandal at the old Bowie Race Course in the mid-1970s, leading to a 4 1/2 -month stint in federal prison.

Mr. Davidson maintained his innocence. After a 10-year hiatus, he was relicensed in Maryland through a court order and resumed riding, taking part in the 1986 Kentucky Derby.

According to a profile in Sports Illustrated, Mr. Davidson was a 16-year-old with a fifth-grade education in Manchester, Ky., when he answered a want ad for a stable cleaner and became an apprentice in Mechanicsburg, Ohio.

"He put himself through a wracking daily routine in which he rides all the mounts he can get at two tracks - Maryland in the afternoons, the Charles Town Race Courses or Shenandoah Downs ... nights under the floodlights," the profile said.

That combination of day and night riding made him the winningest jockey in America in 1965, with most of his victories coming at smaller tracks that paid out smaller purses. No one won more races that year - 319 - but nobody participated in more races, either, with Mr. Davidson taking on a total of 1,582 mounts. "He was the perennial leading rider, absolutely the person to beat," recalled Phil Grove, a steward for the Maryland Jockey Club who rode alongside Mr. Davidson. "I learned a lot of things off of him."

In 1969, Mr. Davidson rode Shuvee to victory in the 1968 Frizette Stakes and the 1969 Triple Tiara - the Acorn, the Mother Goose and the Coaching Club American Oaks.

"When I got to be a jock there were four things I always wanted: to get me a Cadillac, to be leadin' rider in th' country, to make the Hall of Fame and to ride in the Kentucky Derby," Mr. Davidson was quoted as telling Sports Illustrated. "I already got two of 'em, and right now I got over 1,700 winners and all I need's 2,000 and I could make the Hall of Fame. Ain't but 30, 40 guys won that many in history. I can keep ridin' another 10 years, so I'm a cinch for it. If I get lucky, maybe I can git to the Derby. Maybe not."

Mr. Davidson would go on to achieve the rest of his goals, racking up 3,035 wins for more than $10 million and racing in the Kentucky Derby. But his career was tarred in 1975 in an incident dubbed the St. Valentine's Massacre, in which he and three others were accused in a $35,000 betting coup. Though he denied fixing races, he admitted in federal court to breaking the rules of racing by betting on horses other than his own. He spent months in a white-collar prison; one of his co-defendants committed suicide before beginning his sentence.

The Baltimore Sun reported that the penalties stunned the local racing industry, with many trainers disapproving of the punishment. Mr. Davidson battled for years to be reinstated, even as he aged into his 40s, when most riders would be calling it quits.

In 1985, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge reinstated the 45-year-old Mr. Davidson, who promptly obtained his jockey's license. Fifteen days later, he was at the track. And four days after he resumed riding, he returned to the winner's circle at Laurel Race Track.

He would ride in the 1986 Kentucky Derby on a horse named Southern Appeal, considered "the longest of Derby long shots." He finished 13th.

In 1988, Mr. Davidson sustained a career-ending injury in a spill at Laurel Park, damaging his kidneys when he fell into a post supporting the inside rail. He underwent four years of dialysis and later received a kidney donated by his sister.

An avid outdoorsman, he spent his later years encouraging his grandsons' interests in horse racing and recovering from numerous medical issues, according to son-in-law Andrew Sancomb. Grandsons Brandon and Grant Whitaker race at Charles Town and Laurel Park.

The night he died, Mr. Davidson watched over the Internet as Brandon Whitaker won a race at Charles Town.

Funeral services are scheduled for today at the Slack Funeral Home in Ellicott City at 10 a.m. He will be buried at Pleasant View Memory Garden in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Mr. Davidson is survived by his wife of 49 years, the former Nancy Martinez; three daughters, Brigitte Whitacre of Laurel; Yvette Leszczynski of Crofton; and Nannette Sancomb of West Friendship; three sisters, Helen Davidson of Seymour, Ind.; Margaret Bader of Hixon, Tenn.; and Roma Hoffman of Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.; and nine grandchildren.

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