By Jennie Rees
LOUISVILLE, Ky.–Larry Melancon might not have been the top jockey at Churchill Downs during his long career, though he ranks among the winningest riders at the historic Louisville track even a decade after his retirement.
But no Churchill Downs jockey can match the resilience and longevity of Melancon, whose tenure of riding full-time under the Twin Spires for 36 consecutive years is unprecedented. Melancon, whose first official race was in 1971, arrived at Churchill Downs for the 1974 spring session. Up through his retirement on July 4, 2010 at Churchill Downs, the jockey had won at least one race per meet with the exception of the three he did not ride: fall of 1974, spring of 1979 and spring of 1993, when he fractured three ribs at Keeneland.
Melancon died at age 65 Thursday morning with his wife of seven years, Denise Hasher Melancon, at his side in their Louisville home. The former jockey succumbed to complications from the debilitating stroke he suffered four years ago.
“It's a personal loss. Larry was a very close friend and we worked together for a lot of years, going back probably as long as we can both remember,” said Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. “He was a good man and well-liked throughout the racing community. He was respected by a lot of horsemen, and a lot of good horsemen, like Lynn Whiting. There were a lot of people who liked to have Larry on their team because he had such a good opinion of a horse. Riding, he'd always give you a good effort, and we had a lot of great outcomes.”
Melancon totaled 2,857 victories and more than $60 million in purse earnings through his 38 years riding. When he retired, his 914 wins at Churchill Downs ranked No. 3 all-time, with his 47 stakes victories ranking fourth. Even 11 years later, Melancon still ranks seventh in both categories.
“He was a fixture at Churchill Downs,” said jockey, friend and fellow Cajun product Robby Albarado, who in his first career race in 1990 back in their native Louisiana used one of Melancon's old saddles. “He showed up every day and did his job.”
Melancon was at Churchill Downs before the track's legendary all-time win leader Pat Day arrived. He rode an additional five years after his good friend and long-time rival retired in 2005.
Day ruled the roost at Churchill Downs in the 1980s and 1990s. Melancon rode for many of the same outfits and didn't get a lot of the top assignments in the afternoon unless Day was out of town. But he had a long and successful career making the best of his opportunities at the races. And Day is among the first to acknowledge that Melancon was the better choice to put on a horse in the morning.
“He was one of the best all-around horsemen that I've been around,” Day said. “Very proficient rider, but he understood the condition book. He understood horses. I was a good jockey. I wasn't what I'd call an all-around horsemen like he was.
“It used to aggravate him. We'd sit down and start talking, and he'd say, 'Do you know if Lynn is going to run that horse back in the 'non-winners of two?' I'd say, 'Larry, I don't have a clue.' That was my agent's business. Larry knew everything. He'd seen the horse run.”
Mott recalled Melancon working Taylor's Special before the eventual 1984 Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass Stakes winner ever ran. After the work, Melancon simply told the trainer, 'Well, when you run him, just go get your coat and tie on.'”
Retired trainer Don Winfree referred to Melancon as the “real good mechanic” everyone wants to have.
“He could get on a horse, and if you had a little problem, he could help you pinpoint it,” he said. “For years I had a lot of young horses who hadn't started, were coming along. Larry was kind of my test pilot to help me value them before we'd make a start. I used to like to bet on the first-time starters. He'd say, 'Don, this horse can win for $30,000' or 'This horse can win for $50,000.' I told him, 'Larry, I don't want to know what he can win for. I want to know what he can't lose for.' Larry was a dear friend. We used to hunt and fish together, and he was the ultimate professional. Another good one gone.”
Every trainer who rode Melancon seems to have a similar story.
“He was unbelievably good in the morning,” said Al Stall Jr., for whom Melancon worked after he retired from race-riding. “If a horse breezed well, he'd say, 'Get the condition book out.' I didn't need to hear any details such as 'he switched leads' or 'he finished up strong.' When he said 'get the condition book out,' that means everything was ready to go. He was generally right. He rode a nice, patient race and was thoughtful early in a race and had a very strong finish.”
Beyond Melancon's skill with horses, Stall noted how people naturally gravitated to him, recalling a special summer when the former jockey went up with him to Saratoga in 2012.
“We had a really good time,” Stall said, adding of the current president of Claiborne Farm, “Walker Hancock was just a hotwalker, feeling his way up the ranks. Walker would bring all these young guys, his friends, around the barn. They just loved Larry. At night we'd all go to someone's house and Larry would cook Cajun food. Those kids were just in heaven. They thought Larry was like king of the world. Because he was funny–and he could cook.”
Melancon was a quiet leader by example on and off the track, including helping young riders. He and Day united with then-trainer and current WinStar Farm president Elliott Walden and former trainer Bill Million to get Churchill Downs's first full-time chaplain. The quartet subsequently worked to raise the money to build the backstretch chapel.
“He was a brother in the Lord,” Day said. “Larry was instrumental in the chaplaincy as we know it. And a fierce competitor on the racetrack.”
Melancon's mother, the late Winona Champagne, was a trainer. He grew up near Lafayette, La., in Breaux Bridge, the self-proclaimed Crawfish Capital of the World. Long before he was old enough to legally ride at a sanctioned track like nearby Evangeline Downs, Melancon, from the time he was nine, rode match races at the bush tracks around the Acadiana region, the cradle of so many talented American-born jockeys.
Sheila Day, Pat Day's wife, grew up in the area and knew Melancon since she was 6. “The next step was to get into the 'big-time,' Evangeline Downs,” she said. “And he made Churchill Downs. Young people respected that Larry was able to climb those heights, to get to Churchill Downs. His family was very respected in the area. His legacy is going to live on for a long time.”
Melancon won 43 graded stakes, including Keeneland's Grade I Blue Grass on Bachelor Beau for trainer Phil Hauswald in 1986. He captured four Grade II stakes, including Churchill Downs' Stephen Foster, on the Niall O'Callaghan-trained Guided Tour. Melancon rode in the Kentucky Derby four times, his best finish being fourth on Amano in 1976.
He won Oaklawn Park's 1997 Rebel Stakes on the Whiting-trained Phantom On Tour, finishing second by a half-length in the Arkansas Derby. While Jerry Bailey was aboard for the horse's sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, Melancon the next year won the New Orleans Handicap on Phantom On Tour with his mother in attendance. Albarado said that win photo, prominently displayed in the Melancons' house, was his friend's favorite victory.
Melancon remained involved with the track after his retirement, galloping horses and helping out Stall and working as jockey Calvin Borel's agent. When he married Denise seven years ago, the couple began traveling and engaging in outdoors pursuits. With no warning symptoms, he suffered a stroke when the couple were in North Carolina to hike part of the Appalachian Trail.
“Larry was a very good rider and even better person who was courage personified in the face of great personal adversity,” said racing broadcaster Caton Bredar, a family friend.
Even last August the Melancons found a way to go fishing out on Lake Huron in Michigan, which proved to be Larry's last trip. Denise Melancon said her husband continued to greatly look forward to the regular Monday night potluck dinners they'd have over with Dallas Stewart, the trainer getting a ramp for his house to accommodate Larry's wheelchair.
Melancon's health had deteriorated in recent months, with her son, Keelan Allen, and Albarado's son Kaden providing immeasurable assistance in his care with kindness, gentleness and compassion, Denise Melancon said.
“He was at home, went peacefully, for which I'm very grateful,” she said. “Everybody loved him. He never had a cross word and was so giving to people. We still did a lot after the stroke. I said, 'You are not going to be a victim of circumstances.' And we lived life.”
Melancon was preceded in death by mother Winona Champagne and father Vermillian Melancon. In addition to his wife, Melancon is survived by son Lance Melancon, Louisville; daughter Heather Schapansky, Tyler, Texas; stepson Keelan Allen, Annapolis, Md.; sisters Judy Theriot and Vickie Guchereau; and grandchildren Caleb and Nathan Schapansky and Lawrence Melancon.
Denise Melancon said her husband's ashes will join his mother in Breaux Bridge. No public service is scheduled, per the jockey's request. The family suggests memorial gifts go to The Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation, 40 E. 52nd Street, New York, N.Y., 10022, or the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund, P.O. Box 803, Elmhurst, Ill, 60126.