I can hear the pages turning, can see them in my friend’s trembling hands. One by one, six pages, front and back, printed pages, from a typewriter back when letters punched the paper, words laid out like bricks in a wall, offering permanency and finality.
Todd Wyatt reads the words over the phone. Found in his dad’s stuff, the papers were typed by George J. Kappler, whomever that is, from Hallandale, Florida. Kappler had sent them to Todd’s dad on July 16, 1998, with a note about a phone call appointment. Todd skips over a sentence here or there and stops on words, places, moments. Indelible to him, to his dad. To me, his friend.
James R. Wyatt, Jr. died Friday morning. The 83-year-old former jockey and lifelong horseman, died from the coronavirus. Suffering from dementia, it was time, everybody knew it was time, but it’s still cold, unforgiving, the passage of time slamming its door in the middle of a time when doors are swinging off the hinges.
You might not have known Todd’s dad (Timmy’s dad, Jamie’s dad, Kim’s dad, Kristine’s dad, Nancy’s dad, Betty’s husband, James’ grandfather, Paige’s grandfather…) but he was everything steeplechasing. A kid with a dream. A fledgling jump jockey. A broken-up, dream-shattered ex-jockey. A hands-on, do-it-yourself owner/trainer. A young jockey’s father. A young trainer’s father. A racing fan. An old man at the races. Kappler’s letter serves as the strange, unsolicited tabulation of a career, races and results, and somehow, dreams and desires. It’s what sons hold onto when their fathers leave.
Todd continues to read the words. For two jump rats, it’s the places, the horses, the people, the races that mean everything. Media. Camden. Deep Run. Montpelier. Laurel. Malvern. Purchase. Aqueduct. Belmont. Saratoga. Watermount. Doural. Hill Farmer. Latch. It Happened Fast. Bampton Castle. Gassendi. Walrus. Beckys Ship. W. B. Cocks. M. G. Walsh. G. Ohrstrom. R. D. Rouse. F. E. Dixon. A. C. Bostwick. T. A. Randolph. S. H. R. Fred. The Midsummer Hurdle. The Daniel Sands Cup. The Grand National. Turf Writers Hurdle. Monmouth Gold Cup. International steeplechase at Ligonier. The Spring Steeplechase at Belmont. 1 1/2-mile maiden hurdle at Warrenton. Six-furlong allowance flat at Tryon.
Jimmy Wyatt was a jump jockey. No, he wasn’t a champion jump jockey or a Hall of Fame jump jockey, just a hard-core journeyman in a career cut short. Eight years, 259 rides, 14 wins, 18 seconds, 25 thirds and 23 DNFs. That’s what the papers in Todd’s hands tell him, tell us. No, those numbers don’t get you on the ballot of the Hall of Fame or the tips of anybody’s tongue when it comes to jump jockeys, but it does get you a spot in your child’s mind, your child’s memory, in the thoughts of the steeplechase lifers, the ones in the trenches, who knew him, knew of his toil, knew of his time served.
“…Dad was just a son of a dairy farmer…five sisters… Dad and Mom met in Saratoga…she was from Saratoga…back when they played baseball on the backside…he bought her a Coke…got married at the meet and went to Lake George…he started with Dick Atkinson…over near Malvern…went to Mr. Cocks…working for Mikey…schooling in the morning at Aqueduct…that was it…woke up after a few days and was paralyzed on his left side, fractured skull, my mother was pregnant with my sister…went back to Mikey’s to rehab…they wouldn’t give him his license back…he was devastated…considered himself a horseman…stayed married for 50 odd years…had six kids…owned his own home…”
The words drifted through the phone, off the ledge of memory.
First ride Sept. 11, 1954. Maiden hurdle. Fair Hill. Last ride June 1, 1962. Allowance hurdle. Belmont.
“That must have been something to ride jumpers in the 50s, every good trainer and every good jockey…”
Yeah, it must have been something.
“…Paddy Smithwick retired the year Dad got hurt…Dad would always say…not saying he was going to take over from him, but he sure would have gotten nicer rides…Mrs. Phipps came to see him in the hospital and brought him a box of chocolates…his career was over…his wife was pregnant…he never got over it…to never fulfill that dream…training never panned out…I’d like to think he got a big kick over what we’ve been able to do…he came to visit me in Camden…he was wandering around and looking at those old bunk houses…he said, ‘I remember sharing one of these with Sonny Keane…living in one of these and dreaming about being leading rider...’ ”
Funny how old men once had little kid’s dreams.
“…Looked like he won a race at Saratoga…1,200-dollar pot…allowance flat race at Middleburg had a $300 purse…riding at Warrenton for a $500 purse…next race he rode was at Belmont Park…purse was $4,500…he rode Doural in the maiden hurdle at Ligonier, finished second on the 7th of October…on the 10th, he rode him back in the International Steeplechase Saturday…finished sixth…carried 33 in the International Steeplechase…”
After 37 minutes on the phone, Todd pauses, takes a deep breath, “Kind of got sidetracked there…”
He talks some more. I type, hoping the noise of the keyboard doesn’t break his thoughts, break his therapy, his escape, as we think about life, feeling a lot older than we did when we woke up that morning.
“…he didn’t really have any hobbies…he liked to garden…whenever anybody asked him, he considered himself a horseman and an ex-steeplechase jockey…”
A husband, a father, a grandfather, a gardener, a horseman, an ex-steeplechase jockey.
That’s pretty good.
James R. Wyatt, Jr.’s obituary
Lifelong horseman James R. Wyatt, Jr., 83, of Marshallton, Pa. died April 17. He was born in Chilhowie, Va. Sept. 24, 1936.
Known to his friends as Jimmy, Wyatt began his career as a steeplechase jockey with Richard Atkinson, near Malvern, Pa. before riding races for Hall of Fame trainers Burley Cocks, Mickey Walsh and Mikey Smithwick. Retiring after a schooling fall at Aqueduct Racetrack in 1962, Wyatt owned and trained horses from his Pennsylvania base before retiring to cheer on his sons’ horses on the flat and steeplechase circuit.
Wyatt was the son of James R. and Pearl Wyatt Sr. and was predeceased by four sisters.
Wyatt is survived by his wife, Betty Hogan Wyatt. They were married in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Aug. 20, 1961. They met at a backstretch baseball game, Jimmy bought Betty a Coke and they were together ever since.
Wyatt is survived by sister, Edie Nance, daughters Jamie Wyatt, Kimberly (Randy) Edgar, Kristine (Richard) Woodall, Nancy (David) Rodriguez and sons Timothy (Tricia) Wyatt and Todd (Blair) Wyatt. He is also survived by seven grandchildren.
Due to the coronavirus restrictions, a memorial service will be held at a later day.
Charitable donations can be made to the Injured Jockeys Fund at the National Steeplechase Association, 400 Fair Hill Drive, Elkton, MD 21921