By Bill Finley
Hall of Famer Bobby Ussery, whose many accomplishments in the saddle included a victory aboard Proud Clarion in the 1967 Kentucky Derby, has passed away, it was reported Friday by the Gulfstream Park media team. He was 88.
Gulfstream reported that Ussery, a native of Vian, Oklahoma, was in Florida at the time of his passing. His son, Robert Ussery Jr. told the Daily Racing Form that his father died earlier this week of congestive heart failure and was living in Hollywood, Florida, at the time.
Sports Illustrated called Ussery's ride aboard Proud Clarion “one of the best in Derby history.” Ussery thought he might have a good weekend in Louisville.
“I might have won it with Bally Ache in 1960, but we finished second,” he said. “Then I thought I'd win it this year with Reflected Glory. When that didn't work out, I still figured–just a hunch, I guess–that it was my year, no matter what horse I rode. I had a real hunch.”
Ussery wasted little time proving he could win at the highest levels of the sport. In his very first official mount, he rode Reticule to victory in the 1951 Thanksgiving Day H. at the Fair Grounds. But, according to a 2020 feature on Ussery on the America's Best Racing website, Ussery had been riding for years, often for trainer Tommy Oliphant in Texas, at a time when official pari-mutuel races weren't being held in Texas and racing was conducted on an unofficial grassroots basis. Dave Kindred wrote in the April 19, 1974, edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal: “At age 5 [Ussery] was first lifted onto a horse … at age 10 he rode Quarter Horses for $5 a race. At 14, he was galloping horses at Texas and Nebraska racetracks.”
Ussery spent much of the 1950's in Florida, where he was a top rider, before moving to the New York circuit. He had one of his best years in 1960 when he was the top North American rider in terms of stakes purses won. His mounts that year included 2-year-old male champion Hail To Reason and Bally Ache, who won the Preakness, Flamingo and Florida Derby.
In 1968, he was aboard Dancer's Image, who crossed the wire first in the Kentucky Derby but was disqualified due to a medication violation for phenylbutazone.
“Dancer's Image is a better horse,” Ussery said in the immediate aftermath of the 1968 Derby. “Proud Clarion just happened to have a day for himself. This is a real good one.”
Other notable wins for the Oklahoma native came in the Whitney H., the Alabama S., the Travers, the Hopeful, the Mother Goose, the Coaching Club American Oaks, the Carter H, the Canadian International S. and the Queens Plate S. He was a two-time winner of the Brooklyn H. and the Wood Memorial.
Ussery retired in 1974 with a record of 3,611 victories from 20,593 races. At the time he was one of only 10 jockeys to have ridden 3,000 or more winners. In 1980, the he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. In 2011, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
Ussery had a unique riding style in which he would often take horse toward the outside of the track, near the crown, on the turn and before diving toward the rail. The theory was that his mounts would pick up momentum as they were essentially racing down hill. The move was dubbed “Ussery's Alley.”
After his retirement he worked as a bloodstock agent and as a jockey agent.
Expressions of sympathy may be made in Ussery's memory to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund at pdjf.org.