Year Inducted: 2011
A winner in his very first pari-mutuel race at the age of 16, Robert Nelson ‘Bobby’ Ussery was an astounding young jockey who parlayed a 24-year career in the saddle to National Hall of Fame status. He rode many of the greats of his day and won nearly every major stakes race offered in the eastern United States from his New York and Florida bases.
Born in Vian, Okla. in 1935, like so many jockeys from the southwest area of the country, Ussery got his start in racing by riding in Quarter Horse match races at bush tracks. As close to a prodigy as you could find, his talent had him winning these races at the age of 8!
At 16, Ussery rode his first pari-mutuel race at Fair Grounds in New Orleans in 1951. He won the Thanksgiving Handicap aboard a horse named Reticule and a stellar career was well on its way.
Ussery moved to the New York racing circuit and by the end of the 1950s he had won nearly every major race offered there. His New York triumphs included the Travers Stakes, the Whitney Handicap, the Metropolitan Handicap, the Wood Memorial and the Hopeful Stakes. About the only major New York race that eluded Ussery was the Belmont Stakes, the final jewel of racing’s Triple Crown.
In 1960, Ussery was aboard Bally Ache to win the Florida Derby and the second-jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes after finishing second in that year’s Kentucky Derby behind Venetian Way. Ussery would have to wait until 1967 to capture America’s greatest race.
Aboard Proud Clarion, Ussery gained his only ‘official’ Kentucky Derby triumph. He saved ground with the colt immediately after the start and waited until a half-mile was left to make their bid. Ussery brought Proud Clarion off the rail and was forced to circle the field but had enough horse to achieve the extra distance to win by a length over Barbs Delight with Damascus another three lengths behind in third.
Ussery crossed the finish first in the 1968 Kentucky Derby with Dancer’s Image, 1-1/2 lengths ahead of Forward Pass. With the win Ussery achieved rare back-to-back scores in the Kentucky Derby for a jockey, a feat accomplished only two other times to that point since the race began in 1875. However, a post race test by the Kentucky State Racing Commission found a prohibited medication, phenylbutazone (bute), in the system of Dancer’s Image and he was subsequently disqualified from the win and placed last of 14. Bute is a widely-accepted race-day medication now.
The results of the post-race test came days after the race, well after all trophies had been handed out and wagering tickets cashed. While his horse was denied victory after the fact, Ussery proudly kept his winning jockey trophy from the 1968 derby, declaring it was his since after all, he did ‘win’ the race.
Upon retiring in 1974, Ussery had accumulated 3,611 career wins and had become the 10th jockey in history to reach the 3,000 mark. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. in 1980.