History-Making Jockey Ray York Dies at Age 86

Posted on February 29, 2020

One of the most famous jockeys in American Thoroughbred racing died this week at the age of 86. Ray York retired in 1992 and battled with health issues for the last year of his life, finally succumbing to pneumonia on February 23 near his home in Bakersfield, California.

York was a Kentucky Derby-winning jockey who became the first to ride in seven decades. His career took off quickly and lasted many years, running more than 25,000 races and winning more than 3,000 of them. From his most famous run in the Kentucky Derby in 1954 to his last race in 2000 at the age of 66, York made his mark on the industry in many ways.

Teenage Dreams

Born in Massachusetts in November 1933, York spent a lot of his youth around horses and officially began his career in 1949. Still a teenager, he began racing. He garnered praise for his ability to ride with any horse and follow his instincts to guide horses to victory.

York was also well-liked by others in the racing industry. Fellow jockey Angel Valenzuela called him “Walkie-Talkie” because of his cheerful personality and talkative nature.

By the age of 20, York ran what would be the most famous race of his career. He rode Determine, a grey colt, to a win at the 1954 Santa Anita Derby and then the Kentucky Derby that same year. York and Determine won the latter by 1 ½ lengths.

York took Determine to the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita the following year and won that race as well. Determine ultimately sired Decidedly, a gray horse who went on to win the Kentucky Derby in 1962.

A Lengthy and Successful Career

As York spent most of his life in California, he did spend years traveling to ride when necessary.

He won numerous races – 26 stakes races at Santa Anita alone – on horses like famed filly Silver Spoon. He won the 1964 Hollywood Gold Cup on Colorado King. In fact, with California as his base during much of the 1950s and 1960s, he became the leading rider at Del Mar in 1957, 1962, and 1964.

In 1955, York was voted by his peers in the Jockey’s Guild to win the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. He accepted the award that was given to honor a jockey who exhibited high standards of personal and professional conduct, both on and off the track.

For a time in the late 1960s, York called Phoenix home and raced primarily at Turf Paradise. In 1970, he won seven races there in one day.

By 1976, York had chalked up 24,440 starts and continued to race full seasons through the 1970s. He raced less frequently in the 1980s and very rarely in the 1990s. In the year 2000, he ran one race on Culebra at Santa Anita at the age of 66. York and Culebra finished 10th in that race, but told the Los Angeles Times, “I rode better than the horse ran.”

York made history by becoming the first jockey to ride in seven consecutive decades.

At the end of his life, York could point to 25,159 total starts and $14,206,054 in earnings throughout his long and successful career.

York’s Last Years

After retiring and resting in California, York struggled with pneumonia for approximately a year in his mid-80s. He eventually landed at an extended care facility in the Bakersfield area.

He died on Sunday, February 23. Longtime girlfriend Michael McKay said his passing was peaceful. She said that the couple traveled the world after York’s retirement, though the last few years of health challenges prevented him from traveling or even visiting Santa Anita. She remembered him fondly to the media:

“Ray was so much fun, always laughing and always talking. … He loved racing so much and all the people he had known over the years.”

York is survived by McKay and three children.

The Erickson and Brown Funeral Home in Taft, California will host funeral services for York on Saturday, March 7.

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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer Newell is a freelance writer living in her hometown of St. Louis after stints in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. She has written about poker for more than 15 years but added other forms of gambling and horse racing to her repertoire in the last few years. She grew up with a love for horse racing from her now-late father, who loved to play the ponies. Jennifer can be found on Twitter at @writerjen.

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