Here’s a question to ponder: Suppose that you’re an up-and-coming young jockey, not yet 25 years old and less than a decade into your career. Out of the blue, you’re called upon to ride arguably the greatest horse of all time in the final start of his illustrious career. Could you handle the pressure?
It sounds like something out of a movie, but for jockey Edward “Eddie” Maple, this opportunity was real. And for the record, Maple did handle the pressure, which was arguably the turning point in what would become a legendary Hall of Fame riding career.
Maple was born on Nov. 8, 1948, in Carrollton, Ohio, and grew up as one of nine children on his family’s farm. From an early age, he had the build to be successful as a jockey – writer Jim McCulley notes in the July 13, 1972, edition of the New York Daily News that Maple “was ‘rapidly outgrown’ by his neighborhood pals and classmates, who grew up to be basketball and football players.”
But Maple soon put his size to good use. “It wasn’t easy to be left behind at first,” Maple told McCulley, “but I guess it turned out to be a blessing for me. I got a job with George Stribling, cooking and caring for horses when I was 14 and I loved it. And it’s still horses.”
Before long, Maple was riding horses for Stribling and picked up his first victory aboard a horse named Swami when he was just 17 years old. Swami would be the first of many winners that Maple rode during the ensuing years; after starting out of the smaller racing circuits in Ohio, West Virginia, and New Jersey, a victory in the 1971 Florida Derby aboard Calumet Farm’s Eastern Fleet provided Maple with two new opportunities. For one, it gave him his first ride in the Kentucky Derby – he finished fourth. More importantly, it gave Maple an opportunity to ride for Calumet Farm in New York, where he would have a chance to prove himself against some of the best jockeys in the country.
Success came steadily. A horse named Droll Role gave Maple a string of major wins across the country in 1972 as he prevailed in the Grey Lag Handicap at Aqueduct, the Hawthorne Gold Cup at Hawthorne, and the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs. Maple was also the regular rider of King’s Bishop, the winner of five stakes races in 1972 and 1973.
But Maple’s breakthrough moment came late in 1973 when he was offered the opportunity to ride the record-breaking Triple Crown winner Secretariat in the Canadian International at Woodbine, a prestigious 1 5/8-mile turf race that would mark the finale of Secretariat’s career. Secretariat’s regular rider, Ron Turcotte, was serving a suspension, and Maple – who had ridden for Secretariat’s team in the past – was a last-minute replacement.
Secretariat was already a legend in his own time, and Maple must have felt some pressure to deliver the perfect ride and bring Secretariat home a winner. Fortunately, Secretariat was ready to roll in the Canadian International, and Maple –taking advantage of the colt’s seemingly bottomless stamina – allowed Secretariat to open up a huge 12 length lead partway through the race before cruising home in front by 6 ½ lengths.
“Up until that time, Secretariat was certainly the best horse I had ever ridden, and after that, I don’t think I rode one that was better,” Maple told writer Deirdre B. Biles in an article for the Aug. 15, 2009, edition of BloodHorse. “He was big and powerful, and he carried his head the proper way. He did everything nice beside the pony, and when he went to the starting gate, he broke like a shot, and basically that was it; I just hung on.”
That victory seemingly put Maple on the map, and from that point on his career was a steady ascent to stardom. By 1976, he was riding some of the best horses in the country, including the Grade 1 winners Foolish Pleasure (who upset three-time Horse of the Year Forego in the Suburban Handicap) and Optimistic Gal. Even better, Maple was forging an alliance with the Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens, for whom Maple guided the young filly Mrs. Warren to a pair of Grade 1 wins.
The Maple/Stephens partnership would be among the most powerful in racing over the next decade. The pair teamed up to win the 1978 Kentucky Oaks with White Star Line, while De La Rose, Conquistador Cielo, Swale, Devil’s Bag, Sabin, Miss Oceana, I’m Sweets, and Forty Niner were just a few of the other Grade 1 winners they raced together. Maple and Stephens enjoyed a particularly nice streak of success with Crème Frache, who rattled off Grade 1 wins in the 1985 Belmont Stakes, American Derby, Jerome Handicap, Super Derby, and 1986 Donn Handicap.
But by the 1990s, Stephens’ training career was winding down, and Maple, seeking new opportunities, shook things up by agreeing to ride in Italy for the successful stable of Antonio Balzarini. While Maple did enjoy success, winning the 1991 Premio Regina Elena (Italian 1,000 Guineas) aboard Arranvanna, owner and jockey parted ways after just a few months and Maple returned to the U.S. to rebuild his career on home soil, a task easier said than done.
In September 1991, Maple resumed riding at Belmont Park, but was slow to build momentum. “In the wintertime, I was as low as I could have gotten from a rider’s standpoint,” Maple told writer Bill Finley for an article in the July 30, 1992, edition of the New York Daily News.
But perseverance paid off, and by 1992, Maple was riding as though he had never left, winning Grade 1 races aboard Missy’s Mirage and Sky Beauty. He no longer rode with the frequency that he had before his foray to Italy, but he didn’t need to. At age 43, Maple was a veteran jockey favoring quality over quantity, and the graded stakes wins kept on coming.
“How can you have confidence that things would be this good?” Maple told Finley. “I thought I could claw my way back, but I thought it would be gradual … I think my confidence started to grow and I started riding better horses.”
Maple rode his final races on May 25, 1998, winning with one of his three mounts before announcing his surprise retirement while receiving the Mike Venezia Memorial Award for his “extraordinary sportsmanship and citizenship.” Maple left the sport with a record few jockeys can match – in North America, he rode 4,398 winners and won $105,338,573 in purse money, totals that currently rank him 51st and 50th, respectively, among the sport’s all-time leading jockeys.
Of course, you can take the jockey out of horse racing, but you can’t take horses out of the jockey. Nowadays, Maple and his wife, Kate, are the managers of the Rose Hill Equestrian Center at Rose Hill Plantation in South Carolina, and they were also active in breeding Thoroughbreds for a time.
But although Maple is no longer involved in racing, his achievements have not been forgotten. In 2009, Maple received the sport’s highest honor when he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame, joining his former associates Secretariat and Woody Stephens.
It’s only fitting, don’t you think?
- One of the best horses that Maple rode was Temperence Hill, winner of the 1980 Belmont Stakes, Travers Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup.
- Maple never won the Kentucky Derby, though he did finish second in 1982 aboard longshot Laser Light and third in 1978 aboard Believe It.
- The last Grade 1 winner that Maple rode was Awad, who set a still-standing course record when winning the 1995 1 ¼-mile Arlington Million Stakes in 1:58.69 seconds.
- Maple’s first career win came at Charles Town in West Virginia, and in 2012 he was inducted into the track’s Racing Hall of Fame.
- In 1995, Maple was honored with the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award.
- Maple’s younger brother Sam Maple was also a very successful jockey, with his top mounts including the Grade 1 winners Smart Angle, Jatski, and Heatherten.