Monday, 03 June 2013 08:27

Jerry Sarka reminisces on racing in the 1960s

Written by Garry Allison - Rocky Mountain Turf Club
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Jerry Sarka Jerry Sarka

Jockey Jerry Sarka seemed to have problems coming out of the number one hole. One day in Prince Albert, charging from the first gate in a two-year-old race, and planning on going three eighths of a mile, Jerry suddenly felt his horse veer left through an opening and there he was, going the wrong way around the track. He managed to keep his horse on the outside fence, and as he reached the finish line, the other horses were arriving as well - along the inside rail from the right direction.

"I decided to teach this horse a lesson and train him a bit for his owner, but he ran me straight into a high fence and knocked me off. Then he stepped on me and broke my rib. But I was up and riding the next day," he said with a laugh.

Jerry likely derived his toughness from a successful amateur boxing career. He was in the ring the same era as Max Gibb and Kai Yip - but never in with them. But Jerry did earn some southern and provincial titles.

As a jockey, Jerry's slickest piece of riding, again out of the one hole, came in Lethbridge in the early 1960s when he was lined up to go a mile and an eighth. Some of the horses were having trouble loading, so they shut off the tractor, which pulled the starting gate off the track, to calm them down. The bell sounded, and everyone was off and running.

As he headed down the backstretch at the head of the pack he could see Pinky MacDonald running and shouting across the infield, but Jerry kept on trucking. Then as he rounded the back turn he realized there was a problem - all the other riders were pulling up. Jerry tried to pull his mount up, a horse owned by Phil Wiest, but it was in a racing mode and didn't slow down.

Up ahead on the track, the starting gate was still sitting there; the tractor wouldn't re-start and the gate was stranded in the middle of the racetrack, just at the top of the stretch.

"Fortunately someone had left all the gates open, and I shot right through the number one gate, for the second time in the same race! When I went through I burned the toes out of both my jockey boots. I crossed the finish line ahead of everyone, but I didn't win. The stewards cancelled the entire race." Despite these somewhat comical, though potentially tragic incidents, Jerry was really a lucky rider. He was only involved in one bad wreck, at Montreal. Al Coy was the leading rider at Montreal and Jerry was riding his first race on the big track there. As the pack turned for home a young rider tried to move and his horse's front hooves clicked the heels of Coy's horse.

"Coy's horse stumbled. But didn't go down . . . but the whole field behind him did, including me. I hit the track and slid off under the rail and into a drainage ditch. I just skinned my arm but two of the riders broke their backs, with the horses thundering over top of them. I rode just one more race after that, and then I quit.

"But a few years later, coming back from Athabasca we stopped in this little place, with a race meet going on. A guy asked me to ride for him, and we were all pretty juiced up and I said yes. Well, there was no starting gate. They just started the race with a shout. It scared me and it scared the horse, but we were off an running. I won by a whole bunch. I guess that was my last race." Jerry, who is still seen at Whoop-Up Downs each weekend, was born at Grassy Lake in 1935, where his father was a house mover. But Jerry grew up in Picture Butte. He was tiny, so everyone said he should try riding. That's when he set out to be a jockey.

He went to work for Ralph Root and a friend breaking horses, but when Root took his horses to Calgary to run he told Jerry he didn't want any "green" kid riding his horses, so he headed back for Picture Butte.

"The first time I ever got to race was on a track at Traver's Dam." said Jerry. "After that I went to Stavely with Ned Northwood, a real Scotsman. I apprenticed with him. We ran in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon and the bush tracks. He was a real great guy. Ned would make bets on us and come around and give us a couple of hundred dollars out of the blue. He only ran $1,000 horses and had seven head."

 

Read 1339 times Last modified on Tuesday, 25 June 2013 21:53