Remembering Manny Ycaza: ‘Here Comes Yackasack!’

“Get out of the way boys, here comes Yackasack!” That may not be the exact phrase a young jockey uttered to me early one Saratoga Saturday morning more than a half century ago. But there was real awe in his voice when asked to describe the riding style of Manny Ycaza, a hard-riding Panamanian who died recently at the age of 80.

Ycaza arrived on the American racing scene after a boyhood riding ponies and horses in Panama City and after learning the ropes immediately took center stage in the New York jockey colony. He was a dapper dresser who carried himself with the grace of Fred Astaire and walked with the strut of a Buckingham Palace guard. The grace ended when he jogged onto the race track. Then it was every man for himself. Yackasack took no prisoners.

He was among the first and most successful in a long line of Latin American jockeys that began arriving here right after the Korean War. Fellow Panamanians Laffit Pincay Jr and Braulio Baeza followed along with Jorge Velasquez.

He was a Hall of Famer, who spent more than 600 days in the penalty box instead of in the steam box, having been ruled off often by the stewards for various aggressive riding tactics. “He literally loves the challenge of cleaving a crowd of horses while perched on a postage stamp saddle,” my CBS News colleague Heywood Hale Broun once wrote about Ycaza. “And it is then, when his club becomes a saddle, that the two-dollar bettors give a loving loop to their version of his name, Yackasack.”

But using riding tactics that were once described as “intimidating” means that there are penalties to be paid other than official suspensions. When we interviewed him at Saratoga in 1971, he had just spent a year and a half recovering from a spill in which he broke an ankle, tore up a knee and fractured a shoulder.

“I have the same attitude about the suspensions and the accidents,” he told us, “ I forget about them as soon as they happen. I never look back when it comes to the past. I live in the present and I dream of the future.” Woodie Broun asked why he received his last suspension. “ I guess I try a little too hard. And there is only one way of trying hard, to win it.” That attitude is what endeared him to the New York railbirds and they were a tough crowd to please.

Manuel Ycaza was an overachiever to say the least. He won on almost a quarter of his ten thousand mounts. He married a former Miss Universe. He won the Saratoga riding title four times. Some of his mounts included Dr Fager and Damascus, two of the finest Thoroughbreds of that era. He rode Quadrangle to victory in the 1964 Belmont, denying the great Northern Dancer his Triple Crown. But because of his “rough and ready” style he probably didn’t get many of the best horses in the big races.

Some owners and trainers shied away from hiring him because of much discussed incidents like that in the stretch run of the 1962 Preakness when he appeared to be trying to unseat jockey John Rotz by sticking an elbow in his direction as they neared the finish, saddles almost touching. When Ycaza lost by a nose on Ridan and claimed a foul, the stewards ruled against him and Rotz won on Greek Money. Ycaza was given a ten-day suspension.

One Saratoga summer we were on the backside talking to Max Hirsch, then the dean of American trainers who had won four Belmonts, three Derbys and the Triple Crown with Assault in 1946. Hirsch got to talking about his mount in that weekend’s big race and when asked how he felt about his chances he blurted out that he would feel better “if I had Mr Rotz as my rider rather than Mr Ycaza,” evidence enough that sometimes on the big horses, Ycaza was not always the first choice.

Unlike most of his fellow Latin jockeys, Ycaza did not enjoy a long career. The injuries took their toll and in 1971, weeks after our interview, and except for a couple of brief comeback attempts, he effectively hung up his tack for good. He was 33 years old. He claimed that he never backed off, not once, that he always gave his employers and his fans their money’s worth.

As he told us at Saratoga, “I wouldn’t say it’s dangerous to be in my way. They try one way and I try to the best of my abilities. They are also aware of my reputation. Perhaps that doesn’t help me with the stewards and the other riders. But social matters have entirely nothing to do with it. I don’t care whether they like me or not. When I’m on top of a horse, I mind my business and I’m going to do the best that I know how.”

The old baseball manager Leo Durocher is alleged to have once said that he’d run over his grandmother if that meant winning the pennant. Manny Ycaza just stuck to the basics. He had all the other jocks thinking, “get out of the way boys, here comes Yackasack.”

E.S. “Bud” Lamoreaux III is the former Executive Producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. He has won four Eclipse Awards for his racetrack profiles.

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