Former jump jockey Maloney remembered

- -
Woody Maloney and Sailor’s Clue (left) battle champion Zaccio in the 1981 Grand National at Foxfield. Douglas Lees photo

By Joe Clancy and Van Cushny

James W. “Woody” Maloney Jr., former steeplechase jockey, safety steward, assistant starter and patrol judge for the National Steeplechase Association, died Feb. 5 in Aiken, S.C. He was 69.

An accomplished athlete who enjoyed sports of all kinds, Woody was born into a racing family and was surrounded by horses from an early age. The youngest of four siblings, he grew up primarily on Long Island in East Norwich, N.Y., where his parents owned a house on several acres that included a barn full of ponies and hunters. Woody joined the Meadow Brook Hounds Pony Club and competed in three-day events throughout his childhood along with fellow members Tad Coffin and Michael Plumb. While Woody never won Olympic gold medals like Coffin and Plumb, he developed a strong competitive spirit that was always on display whether he was competing in horse events, Little League baseball, soccer, hockey or any number of racquet sports, including tennis, squash, paddle tennis and, later in life, court tennis.

As the son of a Thoroughbred trainer, Woody was well traveled. He accompanied his parents to Southern California in the 1960’s where he attended Southwestern Military Academy, and spending every August of his youth in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. After graduating from The Gunnery boarding school in Washington, Conn., in 1972, Woody next graduated from Menlo Junior College near Palo Alto, Calif.; he played on the varsity soccer team at both schools.

Woody loved racing and galloped horses for his father and namesake, James W. Maloney, as soon as he was old enough to be licensed. Woody was determined to become a jockey and, against the advice of his father, a steeplechase jockey in his youth, Woody gravitated toward jump racing and was licensed by the National Steeplechase Association as an apprentice in 1976.

 He tasted success in his second year, winning an allowance hurdle race at Saratoga on War Reason for trainer and former steeplechase jockey Peter Pugh. Woody won another race at Saratoga in 1978 on Pumpkin Pie for trainer Rick Watters, like Woody the son of a Hall of Fame trainer.

Woody continued to have moderate success as a steeplechase jockey, winning four hurdle races and two flat races in 1979, and 11 races (two on the flat) the following year. The 1980 season included a double at Strawberry Hill on Augustin Stable runners Odd Man and Town And Country.

Later that year Woody won another race at Saratoga, upsetting an allowance hurdle at odds of 25-1 on Coconut Creek. The Barbara Kraeling trainee established a course record of 3:21 for 1 7/8 miles. The feat still stands since Saratoga steeplechase distances were standardized to 2 1/16 and 2 3/8 miles.

Woody’s best year as a jockey came in 1981 when he won 18 steeplechase races and four flat races from 91 rides, finishing second to his friend John Cushman (26 jump wins) in the standings. Woody’s 1981 season included wins for eight trainers – smaller stables led by Kraeling, Johnny Griggs, Kenny Field, Ridgely White, Barry Watson, Ronnie Armstrong, Jill Fanning plus a single tally for overall leader Jonathan Sheppard.

“He never got into a big stable, which would hold you back,” said Cushman, who won four consecutive NSA riding championships while teaming up with Sheppard, Burley Cocks and the other leaders of the time. “He was picking up rides, and winning races. He was a very, very fit athlete and got a lot of run out of horses. He was strong, really strong, and that helped him ride horses.”

In what turned out to be a two-horse match race, Woody and Sailor’s Clue finished second by a neck to Zaccio and Cushman in the American Grand National at Foxfield that fall. Trained by White, Sailor’s Clue had posted back-to-back victories (under Maloney) at Rolling Rock and Fair Hill coming into the race while Zaccio was the defending Eclipse Award winner as champion steeplechaser. Zaccio went on to win the season-ending Colonial Cup, where Sailor’s Clue placed third, to clinch another Eclipse Award.

Cushman, reached Monday afternoon while in the midst of a golf game, immediately replayed the Grand National’s final fence.

“He missed the last jump a little bit and I beat him,” he said after setting his phone down to make a shot. “If he jumps the last jump better, I don’t win. It was close. Woody got a lot out of horses, and he did that day.”

Woody rode less frequently for several more years and finished with 33 steeplechase wins and eight National Steeplechase Association flat victories.

Like many in steeplechasing, Cushman will miss Maloney.

“My dad and his dad were trainers, so we knew each other and spent time together,” he said of their early days. “I had a lot of fun with him, riding races with him and just being around him. He loved to play golf too. He was a smart guy who did a lot of things and I’m going to miss him.”

After his riding career, Woody trained horses for Mill House Stables and William Farish Gerry (the son of Forego’s owner Martha F. Gerry) before he went back to college. He obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of South Carolina before going on to earn a Master of Science in geology from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. While working toward his master’s Woody was a teaching assistant and lab manager for the Geology Department at the University of Louisiana. After graduating, he carved out a career as a geologist and worked to mitigate the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (the B.P. oil spill) in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, regarded as one of the largest environmental disasters in history.

Woody was a member of the Association of American Petroleum Geologists, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, the Carolina Geological Society and the American Water Resources Association. He was a member of the Aiken Court Tennis Club, the Philadelphia Racquet Club and the Beaver Dam Winter Sports Cub in Locust Valley, N.Y. where he was a proud member of the Braves hockey team in his 30’s.

Woody returned to steeplechasing recently, serving as an official at various race meetings on the circuit including safety steward, assistant starter and patrol judge.

He is survived by a sister, Shelia Maloney of Camden, S.C.; cousins Chip and Kevin Maloney of Warrenton, Va.; and former wives Dana Adcock of Houston, Texas and Susie Bricker of Aiken, S.C. He was preceded in death by his brother, Stewart; his sister, Deborah Ann; his mother Elizabeth “Lib” Maloney, an accomplished show ring rider who won the Alfred B. Maclay Trophy in 1934; and his father, James W. Maloney, a member of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame in Aiken, S.C. The elder Maloney trained champions Lamb Chop and Gamely (a Hall of Famer) plus Dewan, Boldnesian, Loud, Proud Birdie and Traffic Judge.

The March 25 Aiken Spring Races will feature a tribute to Woody in the program and a moment of silence before the race named after his father.  In addition, on July 26 at Saratoga there will be a memorial celebration of Woody’s life following the steeplechase race that day.

Memorial donations may be made to the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation.

Steeplechase owner Van Cushny, a member of the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation board and longtime friend of Woody Maloney suggested an expanded article on the former jump jockey and did much of the initial work to produce this.