Who is that jockey holding a gun?

Feb 28th 2017 01:20 am |

That might sound like a headline from one of the many click-bait sites that seem to be everywhere online. I assure you, it’s not. It’s a real question and here is the photo that inspired it:

The jockey holding the gun is Charley Thorpe. The photograph comes from the Spell of the Turf, the outstanding 1925 autobiography of Hall of Fame trainer and owner Samuel Hildreth. The image appears before a chapter titled “The American Invasion of England” where Hildreth discusses jockey Tod Sloan’s sensational debut on the English turf — among other things. (Sloan is seated in the top row, second from the left.) The photo is undated and the location is unknown.1

Based on the photograph, you might think Charley Thorpe a roughneck of some sort. While researching the life of the long forgotten jockey, I found that’s not the case at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

In John Davis’s The American Thoroughbred published in 1907, he wrote: “Charley Thorpe is a good jockey and is noted for his honesty to his employers. One may always depend that he will do his best.” This is confirmed by other research. Not a bad word could be found about him in the available sources although it’s a rather bland description for a guy compelled to brandish a gun in a picture with his fellow jockeys.

Born in Chicago in 1862 or 1865 (sources vary on his birth year), his family moved to Iowa when he was eight years old. Thorpe started racing horses competitively in the early 1880s, riding at fairs and small tracks in Iowa and Nebraska, where he spent his early years. During a career that ended in 1908, he piloted horses in races all over the United States as well as Europe and Australia. The most recognized mount of his career was the Mid-west legend Yo Tambien — one of the elite runners profiled by Kent Hollingworth in his book The Great Ones published in 1970.

Thorpe returned to his adopted Nebraska in retirement. His connection to the state still lived in the minds of racing people many years after his death. The great race caller Clem McCarthy mentioned the old jockey in a 1936 column. In writing about Nebraska’s contributions to racing, McCarthy called Thorpe “a star jockey of the 90s.”

In 1904 and 1908, the Omaha Bee published profiles of their state’s hero and adopted son. Here is a curated and compiled selection of quotes from both pieces about Thorpe written over a century ago2:

…Thorpe first came into prominence by winning seventeen consecutive races on Belle K., the property of a Mr. Tucker, about twenty years ago, the races being run in Iowa and Nebraska. Shortly after he captured a big race at St. Louis in a sensational manner on a horse called Yellowtail he was in turn himself captured by the eastern sportsmen…

…Though his name is well known on the American turf, his greatest successes have been in Europe; the French Derby, the Liverpool Cup, a place in the English Derby, and important races in Belgium, Italy and Germany, have been captured by him. He has ridden before many of the crowned heads of Europe, and more than once came ahead of their private horses. Together with [Tod] Sloan, Thorpe introduced the American style of riding in England. From an artistic point of view the style is not pretty; short stirrups being used and the body of the rider being well over the horse’s neck…

…Through all his travels Thorpe has been accompanied by Mrs. Thorpe and a white bulldog as a mascot. ‘The dog brings me luck,’ he said laughingly. ‘I win the race and Mrs. Thorpe sees to the financial end of the proposition, and the last reason is why I am able to retire to a nice farm…'”

…For several years he rode in America for Burns & Waterhouse and during that time his salary from the firm was $12,000 a year, and besides that he was allowed to ride outside mounts in any race in which his employers did not have a horse entered. Thus his earnings ranged most of the time around the $20,000 a year mark…”

…Thorpe’s one ambition while on the American turf was to ride a winner in the American Derby [in Chicago], but this he was never permitted to do. He has won the Tennessee Derby, the Arkansas Derby and numerous other derbys, but never the American…”3

…Charley was called “lucky,” and for years he carried in his pocket his own obituary notice, written and published in three St. Louis papers. The report which was sent out from that city many years ago that he had fallen in front of the grandstand and had the life crushed out of him is still fresh in the minds of many followers of the turf…”

…One of the great assets of any jockey is his nerve, and Thorpe was not lacking in that qualification. He had it in abundance…”

Both of the profiles in the Omaha Bee in 1904 and 1908 — the source of the above — detailed Thorpe’s management of money and how his wife’s role as a financial manager made it possible for him to retire in comfort to a farm. Unfortunately, his wife died in 1907 — as documented in the 1908 article. He re-married in 1910 but, sadly, he died in poverty in 1916. How he lost his money is not clear. In the end, he was making ends meet working as a bartender. His obituary in the Omaha Bee concluded with this:

In his adversity following the depletion of his fortune he never changed a bit. Always the same happy smile adorned his face. Just as it did when he flashed under the wire on the back of a thoroughbred running for a $1,000.00 stake.”

In 2016, a local news outlet remembered Charley Thorpe calling him one of the most famous people to ever live in Geneva, Nebraska — a town about 120 miles from Omaha. The article incorrectly claimed that he won the Kentucky Derby. In spite of the error, it’s nice to know the old jockey is still remembered in his town. He is buried there under a gravestone with this simple inscription: “Far famed honest jockey.”



“Career of a Nebraska Jockey,” Omaha Bee, 5 May 1904

“Charles Thorpe One of Nebraska’s True Sportsmen,” Omaha Bee, 8 March 1908

“Charley Thorpe of Turf Fame Dead,” Omaha Bee, 12 February 1916

Clem McCarthy, “McCarthy at the Races,” Albany Times Union, 13 May 1936

John H. Davis, The American Thoroughbred, 1906

Information about Charley Thorpe gravesite from Find a Grave

Triple Crown series is right around the corner — be sure to keep up to date on all of the Kentucky Derby prep races via Derby Prep Alerts from our friends at Hello Race Fans.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

  1. The jockeys are identified as follows — Top row: Cash Sloan, Tod Sloan, Skeets Martin, Cody. Bottom row: Marty Bergen, Charley Thorpe, Hennessy, Billy Martin. []
  2. Both pieces in their entirety are linked in the Sources section []
  3. Author’s Note: He also won the 1897 Preakness Stakes but, at the time of this profile, it didn’t deserve a mention as its prestige as a race would come later. Furthermore, New York hosted the 1897 edition during a period (1894 to 1908) that — in this writer’s opinion — doesn’t belong in the official history of the race currently run annually at Pimlico. Read more about that here and here. []

Filed in Charlie Thorpe,Jockeys

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