By Daniel Dullum
This Saturday, Justify will try to become horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner since 2015 when he attempts to win the Belmont Stakes.
Retired jockey Frank Sorci never rode a Triple Crown winner, but he did work with a racing legend.
Sorci was a most successful jockey in the 1940s, and one of his side gigs was working out the famous Seabiscuit. We talked about that experience in early August 2003, along with his then-newly discovered passion for ballroom dancing. He passed away in 2015 at age 95.
Sifting through a stack of photographs from his days as a successful jockey, memories of all kinds flash by for 83-year-old Frank Sorci..
“I’m riding Iron Suit there. That’s around 1938, 1940, it was before Pearl Harbor,” Sorci said while waiting for last week’s Tuesday seniors’ dance to start at The Ballroom in Sacramento. “Then they took all the racetracks and made (internment) camps out of them for the Japanese. And you couldn’t get no gas either.”
After looking at a photo of a horse he remembered as being difficult to motivate, Sorci recalled a horse he had no problem getting to run — Seabiscuit, one of the nation’s top race horses of 1938 and the subject of author Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling novel and a recently-released motion picture.
Sorci had the opportunity to work out Seabiscuit and two of his offspring while serving as a resident jockey at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia in 1945.
“It was $300 a month. All I had to do was gallop three horses – two of his colts and him once in a while,” Sorci remembered. “On Sundays, I would race in Tijuana. Then, after a few months, the owners retired Seabiscuit.
“One day, Charlie Brown (a horse trainer and circus clown) said, ‘Put Frank on the Old Man (Seabiscuit) and let him run a half a mile.’ So I did, and when he pulled up, his ankle was sore. So that’s when they stopped (his racing).”
Sorci continued, “He wasn’t a good-looking horse. But he was a saddle horse and easy to ride. They kept telling me he was a small horse. He wasn’t that small. He was a normal size horse and you had to push him. In that movie, they said, ‘Let him see the other horses eye-to-eye,’ but the boss said, ‘Let him run like he wanted to.’”
Sorci, a 4-foot-8 jockey who rode 800 winners in 12 years of competition, enjoyed viewing “Seabiscuit” and was already looking forward to seeing it again.
“It was authentic,” Sorci said. “The first part, I didn’t know, because I was in Phoenix when (Seabiscuit) was doing good.”
Based on the time he spent at Santa Anita Park, Sorci was familiar with both of Seabiscuit’s jockeys – Red Pollard and George Woolf. When injuries sidelined Pollard, Woolf guided Seabiscuit to a four-length victory over Triple Crown winner War Admiral in a highly-publicized match race in 1938 that attracted an estimated 100 million radio listeners.
Sorci got his start walking horses and cleaning stalls at Santa Anita Park, eventually finding his way to Gila Bend, Ariz., while working the West Coast fair circuit. There, he learned how to break the colts and later ride them in races throughout the Southwest, primarily at Sportsman’s Park in Phoenix.
“It’s all houses now,” Sorci said of Sportsman’s Park. “I rode in Tucson, Bisbee, Flagstaff, all those little places. I’m winning a lot of races.”
A near-fatal spill in 1948 left Sorci semi-conscious for two weeks. He returned briefly to riding, but his wife, Ladonia, insisted he quit, and he did. But he was unable to work for two years.
After doing custom lawn and yard work, and washing dishes, Sorci eventually landed at Canteen Corp. of Sacramento, where he performed vending machine upkeep for 17 years before retiring.
Sorci, and his wife Ladonia ran dances in Orangevale until Ladonia’s death in 1991. “After she died, I didn’t dance for about five or six years. I thought, ‘Maybe I should start dancing again.’
“I’m an old man,” he added, flashing that smile. “But, I’m alive.”
A fact not lost on the ladies who greeted him so cheerfully upon their arrival. The music was starting and further reminiscing about the old days would have to wait.
Frank Sorci had his dancing shoes on. And the ladies were waiting.
Photo above: Still from the 2003 movie “Seabiscuit”