John Longden: Kentucky Derby Legend

Johnny Longden, pictured in the winner's circle aboard Drill Site, is the only person to both train and ride a Kentucky Derby winner.
Johnny Longden, pictured in the winner's circle aboard Drill Site, is the only person to both train and ride a Kentucky Derby winner. (BloodHorse photo)

In the long history of the Kentucky Derby, there have been relatively few jockeys lucky enough to win the historic race, and relatively few trainers as well. Thus, it is almost impossible to imagine a horseman so equally skilled at both pursuits that he could win the Derby as a jockey and as a trainer, yet that is exactly what the legendary John “Johnny” Longden accomplished during his remarkable career.

Longden was born in 1907 and hailed from England, but moved to Canada at a young age and rode with success in unofficial races there before heading to the United States in 1924. Before long, he settled in California, where he would remain based throughout the majority of his career.

His early years in the U.S. were slow as Longden struggled to build his reputation and gain mounts, but in the 1930s, things began to pick up. In 1936, he guided the good colt Rushaway to victories in the Louisiana Derby, Illinois Derby, and Latonia Derby, and the following year, he rode in the Kentucky Derby for the first time, finishing fourth aboard a colt named Melodist. In 1938, Longden led all North American jockeys by races won, scoring 236 victories while winning 21% of his races.

Longden on the backside at Hollywood Park
Longden on the backside at Hollywood Park (BloodHorse photo)

Then the champions started coming. His first was Count Fleet, who won four stakes races in 1942 – including the Champagne Stakes, Pimlico Futurity, and Walden Stakes – to earn the title of champion 2-year-old colt of 1942. The following year, Count Fleet was unbeatable, winning all six of his races by a minimum of three lengths. These included a three-length win in the Kentucky Derby, an eight-length romp in the Preakness Stakes, and a 25-length demonstration of superiority in the Belmont Stakes to complete a sweep of the Triple Crown. Thanks in great part to Count Fleet, Longden was the leading North American rider by money won in 1943, with his mounts earning a record-setting $573,276.

Two years later, Longden repeated the title when his mounts earned a spectacular $981,977, again a record. A large portion of that total was earned by Horse of the Year Busher, a 3-year-old filly that Longden guided to seven stakes victories, including wins against colts in the Washington Park Handicap, Hollywood Derby, Arlington Handicap, and San Vicente Stakes.

At the end of 1949, Longden picked up the mount on a little-known Irish import named Noor and guided him to six major stakes wins in 1950, including four consecutive triumphs over Triple Crown winner Citation. That gained him the title of champion handicap horse, and if not for a runner-up effort behind Hill Prince in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Noor might have been Horse of the Year.

Berseem, Porterhourse, Silver Spoon, St. Vincent – Longden rode all of these horses and more to major stakes victories during the next decade. He also had the good fortune to ride T.V. Lark on six occasions in 1961. Five other jockeys tried and failed to guide T.V. Lark to victory that year, but Longden seemed to have a special knack with the colt, riding him to victory in the Los Angeles Handicap at seven furlongs on dirt, the Hawthorne Gold Cup at 10 furlongs on dirt, the Knickerbocker Handicap at 13 furlongs on turf, and the prestigious Washington D.C. International at 12 furlongs on turf (defeating reigning Horse of the Year Kelso by three-quarters of a length.)

In 1966, with 6,032 wins and $24,665,800 in earnings under his belt, John Longden retired from the saddle at the incredible age of 59. Almost as incredible was the fact that he ended this part of his career in a burst of glory. Announcing to the world that his last ride would come aboard George Royal in the prestigious San Juan Capistrano Handicap, Longden delivered with a flourish in the final ride of his career. It looked like an impossible task when George Royal dropped 15 lengths behind the leaders early on, but with Longden urging him on, and with a massive crowd cheering in excitement, George Royal rallied dramatically to win by a nose.

Thus, John Longden retired from the saddle as the leading rider of all time by races won, but his involvement in the sport was far from over. Turning his attention to a new career as a trainer, he found success almost overnight. Just three years after his last ride, he saddled the unbeaten Majestic Prince to win the 1969 Kentucky Derby, an incredible accomplishment that ranks among the greatest in the history of the sport. Majestic Prince would also win the Preakness and finish second in the Belmont Stakes, meaning that Longden came within shouting range of sweeping the Triple Crown both as a jockey and as a trainer.

Longden would continue to train with strong success through the early 1980s, winning graded stakes races with horses like Regal Bearing and Kangaroo Court. The last few years of his career were slower, but he continued to train a handful of horses until retiring in 1992. He passed away in 2003 at the age of 96, but lives on forever as one of only 12 jockeys to win the Triple Crown, and as the only person to win the Derby both as a jockey and as a trainer. What a career!

Fun Facts

  • In addition to leading all North American jockeys by races won in 1938, Longden also won that title in 1947 and 1948, when he rode 316 and 319 winners, respectively.
  • Longden’s feat of winning the Kentucky Derby both as a jockey and as a trainer was ranked No. 51 on BloodHorse’s list of Horse Racing’s Top 100 Moments.
  • Longden won the San Juan Capistrano Handicap five times – twice aboard George Royal (1965 and 1966) and once apiece aboard Noor (1950), Be Fleet (1951), and St. Vincent (1955). He also won the Santa Anita Derby five times aboard On Trust (1947), Salmagundi (1948), Your Host (1950), Swaps (1955), and Four-and-Twenty (1961) and the Santa Anita Handicap four times aboard Thumbs Up (1945), Noor (1950), Moonrush (1951), and Poona II (1955).
  • Although his total of 6,032 wins is no longer a record, Longden is still ranked 19th on the list of all-time leading riders by races won in the U.S. and Canada.
  • Longden was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1958.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!