It’s hardly surprising that racing fans can reel off the names of dozens or even scores of great horses far easier than they can bring to mind, say, ten great jockeys. After all, no matter how talented, gutsy or just plain good a rider is, there’s no way he or she is going to compete with a Secretariat or a Ruffian or a Phar Lap or a Whirlaway for the affections and loyalty of your average railbird. Racing fans admire great jockeys; but they love great horses.
Still, as memorable as great horses are, it’s tough to explain how a truly magnificent jockey, who rode so well for so long on so many different mounts, could be virtually forgotten after riding for decades and (incidentally) retiring as the winningest jockey in the history of racing. But that’s been the fate of the late, great Johnny Longden — an English-born, Canadian-raised titan who first made a name for himself riding in California and, by the end of his four-decade career, had won the Triple Crown (aboard Count Fleet) and most every important race in the land.
On the eve of the Belmont Stakes and as yet another horse — the wonderful I’ll Have Another — makes a run at the prized and elusive Crown, LIFE remembers Longden’s life and his mind-boggling career as a rider and, later, as a trainer.
As LIFE magazine put it 60 years ago, in a May 1952 issue:
When wizened 42-year-old jockey Johnny Longden booted home his 3,999th winner, the routine of horse racing at California’s Hollywood Park was completely upset. Fans suddenly stopped playing form and, anxious to help Longden get his 400th win, began playing his horses for sentimental reasons. Officials who had planned a big ceremony fidgeted: Longden himself acted coy. “I never give it no thought,” he said. “I know it’s come, just like night and day.” It came seven races later hen, next day, he won No. 4,000, about 1,000 more than any other U.S. jockey.
Famous for getting his horses off to a fast start and keeping them out in front, little (4 ft. 11 in.) Johnny Longden has at one time or another won almost every big race in the country. Despite his age and a fat bank account, he is still the most industrious jockey going, riding six or seven races every day of the week and occasionally flying down to Agua Caliente, Mexico to ride on Sunday. Rising horses, says Longden, is the one thing he really enjoys. And he expects to win 5,000 before he is 50.
In fact, he ended his career with more than 6,000 wins — including his very last race, the 1966 San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap at Santa Anita Park, where Longden had enjoyed so many of his greatest triumphs.
But Longden wasn’t merely a Hall of Fame rider who competed as a jockey until he was 59; he is also the only man to ride to victory in the Kentucky Derby, and then train a horse that won the Derby, as well, in 1969 with Majestic Prince. (Majestic Prince won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, falling just short of a Triple Crown as physical problems prevented a win at Belmont. Longden, valuing the health of the horse above all, reportedly tried to pull Majestic Prince from the race — only to be overruled by the owner.)
Johnny Longden was, in many ways, one of the major figures in horse racing for decades. He should be remembered, and celebrated, for even longer. This is a start.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.