On a warm autumn afternoon at Marlboro Race Track, Albert Adams climbed aboard Wandering Jim, a gelding who had won for him just the day before on the same track.
If Adams, a 16-year-old apprentice from Baltimore, was nervous, no one knew. But he certainly might have been. It was a big day, a very big day, for the teenage jockey.
It was Sept. 12, 1930, and over the previous two days he had won with eight consecutive mounts. Now he would have his chance to make history in the first race of the afternoon.
If he and Wandering Jim could prevail once more, Adams would set not only the North American jockey record for consecutive wins, but the world record as well.
Years later, he told Baltimore Evening Sun sports editor Bill Tanton, “I don’t know yet how we win that race . . . I would have bet $1,000 against Wandering Jim.”
But he did win and in style, too, in what was reported as “a furious down-the-stretch duel against Pencil . . . Right at the end, Adams literally lifted Wandering Jim’s head in front,” The Baltimore Sun reported.
It was a glorious moment, celebrated by local newspapers and various racing publications around the world.
Adams was commemorated in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. A sports headline compared him to New York Yankee great Lou Gehrig. Illustrated sports cartoons measured him against Indianapolis 500 champion Ralph DePalma, who competed in more than 1,500 auto races, and New York Giants ace pitcher Art Nehf, who won the deciding games of back-to-back World Series (1921 and 1922).
The world record Adams set on that beautiful afternoon has since been broken –
Tim Moccasin captured 14 consecutive races at northwest Canada’s Marquis Downs in 2001 to hold the current mark and he was preceded by jockeys in England, Russia and Rhodesia. But the United States mark still stands at nine. Adams did it first, way back in 1930. Tony Black matched that total at Atlantic City and Philadelphia Park in 1993, and Travis Dunkelberger made it a three-way tie with nine consecutive wins at Laurel Park and Charles Town in 2009.
And, as long as nobody wins 10 in the meantime, Adams’ original mark will turn 91 years old this September.
It is an achievement his family has kept alive with stories handed down from Adams’ six brothers and sister, to sons, daughters, nieces, great-nephews and great-great-nieces.
Without their efforts, his flaming star may, at this point, have been extinguished.
You won’t find a mention of Albert Adams in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. And Hall of Fame researcher Michael Veitch said he can find no story in The Blood-Horse magazine of that period, mentioning the winning streak. As of mid-April, his name doesn’t even appear in the list of jockeys who competed in the Triple Crown’s Belmont Stakes, which he did in 1932, finishing fifth on Polo Bar, 5 lengths back in a field of 11.
But his name does still pop up in publications from time to time, like in 1993, when Black tied the record; and in 2000 when The Baltimore Sun included it as a benchmark of achievement on the front of the sports section in a list of major records, alongside Joe DiMaggio’s 56 consecutive games with a hit and the 16 consecutive wins by modern-day Thoroughbreds Cigar, Citation and Hallowed Dreams.
Thanks to Adams’ great-nephew Ed Adams, who suggested this story, more racing fans can learn of Albert Adams’ accomplishment and how his basic good character cost him his career.
Certainly with all the clamor and promise for Adams’ future in his chosen sport in 1930, no one could have imagined how short his career would be.
Adams may have seemed an unlikely fellow to be a record-setting jockey. One of eight children, he was a city boy, born in 1914 at 644 South Belnord Avenue near St. Casimir Catholic School in Canton.
His father, John Adams, emigrated from Germany by himself when he was about 14, sent to the United States by his parents to have a better life. And he did all right. By 1905 he was an American citizen and by the time he became a father, he owned and operated a corner grocery/confectionery store.
But horses were never part of the family’s life, until one day when the elder Adams took Albert to Baltimore’s Carlin’s Park. Most people went to Carlin’s for the amazing wooden roller coaster or the wooden horses on the merry-go-round. But once Albert saw the real, live pony rides, he was hooked.
“It’s all he talked about from then on,” said his niece Judy Adams Laane, who spent hours as a child listening to her uncle’s scratchy smoker’s voice and his contagious laughter as he told the stories of his life. “He had a pony ride and that was it. He was about 13 and much shorter than all of his siblings, and horses became everything to him.”
The slight, fresh-faced boy’s determination was fierce. His dad, recognizing his son’s gumption, a trait that had served him well as he made his way to the U.S. years before, decided to help Albert make his dream come true.
“To my grandfather, he was already a young man,” Laane said. “Knowing how he had handled his own trip to this country when he was barely a teenager, my grandfather knew his son could handle it. So, he took him out of St. Casimir’s school and sent him to West Virginia to train as a jockey.”
Three years later, lying about his age so he could compete as an apprentice in 1930, Albert was making a name for himself at Marlboro, Havre de Grace and Hagerstown.
“My brother was only 15 when he began riding,” Albert’s now late brother Edward told reporters after Albert’s death in 1970. “He lied, because you had to be 16 to have a jockey’s license.”
As Adams’ apprentice season went on, reviews were flattering. “For a small boy, he has a wonderful pair of arms, plenty of nerve, and a head chock full of intelligence,” one newspaper report said.
By the end of the year he had the world record, having won on horses that paid from $4.50 to $18.90. Not one was a favorite.
“And this is interesting,” said Veitch, the researcher. “After finishing second in the second race on Sept. 12 on Bounder, Adams came right back and won the third race that day on Secrecy for owner Mrs. R. Christmas and trainer B.F. Christmas. He nearly won 11 straight.”
By the time his apprentice season ended, Adams had ridden in 403 races and had a record of 74 wins, 50 seconds, 49 thirds and earnings of $63,390.
Among those wins were 55 in Maryland that tied him with Raymond Workman for leading rider honors in the state.
Adams, but a child really, was a favorite of the local papers. Everywhere he went there were stories about his record-setting nine in a row and questions about his favorite foods, his philosophy of riding, his dreams.
His answers were almost prophetic.
He loved fried chicken at the racetracks. Turns out, like nearly every kid, he also loved pie, ice cream and candy, but he recognized what that could mean in his chosen profession.
“I can do all that right now, as I only weigh 96 pounds,” he told The Baltimore News. “However, a year or so from now, I may have to stop eating all these goodies in order to keep my weight down. But right now, I’m a better man with a knife and fork than I am a rider.”
His philosophy: “During those three days, when I set the record, many folks asked ‘how I made horses run, how I sat on a horse and what I said to my mounts during a race?’ All I can say is this: I sit astride a horse like any other jockey, try to carry out whatever instructions a trainer gives me . . . and to save ground whenever I can.”
And his dream: “If I can win races often enough and please my employers and the race fans without getting into trouble or having any accidents, then I’ll know I’ve made good in the greatest of all sports.”
Little did the young Adams know what was ahead of him.
“Don’t give up during any part of a race, no matter how much trouble you might get into, is my slogan,” he said during his apprentice season. “Luck plays a big part in any rider’s career, but if a boy never gives up trying, Lady Luck just can’t help but give him a break . . .”
By the end of that very year, Lady Luck was playing a very fickle game and Adams’ noble slogan would wind up costing him.
Adams’ success drew the attention of bigger stables and near the end of 1930 his contract, which had been held by his uncle Billy Garth in Virginia, was bought by Genesis Stable for what was then an incredible $10,000.
It seemed he was on his way, racing in Florida, New York and Canada. But racing in those days wasn’t always on the up-and-up. Owners and trainers sometimes would direct their jockeys to “pull” horses, to assure they didn’t win.
It was a new world for Adams, whose stated philosophy was to “ride to win.” In 1931 his new employers had a different philosophy.
“Plenty of ‘fixed’ races in those days,” Adams told The Evening Sun long after his career was over. “I had one filly in Canada, Baboo. Rode her at Fort Erie, and I did [as I was told] pull her 14 times and then the trainer decided to let her run.
“I called my father in Baltimore and I said, ‘Pop, sell the house, raise all the money you can and put it on this one.’ He placed the bet at a place called Squire’s at Holabird and Dundalk. The old 26 [street]car used to go by there and it was such a big book that when the car got to that corner the conductor used to holler, ‘Racetrack!’ And all the men would get off with their [Racing] Forms.
“Baboo won, all right, and I don’t know how much my father won betting her, but the guy had to go to the bank to get the money to cover it.”
Adams, no doubt, bet the horse to win, too. And why not? A jockey’s wages in those days weren’t what they are today. Adams said any number of times that winning sometimes would gain him only a pack of cigarettes.
“There wasn’t no guarantee for riders,” he explained to a reporter. “We were supposed to get $10 and $25. Twenty-five if you won and $10 if you finished anywhere else. What’s nine times $25?”
Two hundred twenty-five, he was told.
“Well, I should have got $225. That’s all they had to put in that jocks’ room. But I’d say I made close to $5,000 winning them nine in a row. Back then the owners and trainers would give you anything they wanted.”
Pulling horses ate at Adams. It went against his moral code, not to mention his racing philosophy. Finally, he disobeyed his trainer’s instructions – surely another conflict, as he believed in following employers’ directives.
According to race accounts, he was to ride a horse named Chile Gold and before the race in Canada, the trainer told him he didn’t want the horse to finish any closer than fifth.
But, in the race, according to a Canadian newspaper story, “Chile Gold went to the front and set the pace to the stretch, where it began to lag a bit. Other horses caught up and Adams, eager for victory, forgot his instructions and went to the whip.”
After the race, he was “grounded” by his stable.
“Jock, you’ve had it,” one story quoted his owner. “It’ll be a long time before you ride another horse.”
And it was. Adams was benched for a year. And he said nothing publicly about that suspension for more than two decades.
At the end of his suspension, Genesis officials told him he could ride again, if he did what he was told.
Adams, recalling the situation decades later, said “I was just a kid itching to get back in action.” He said he pulled four more horses and then realized he couldn’t stand doing it anymore. That realization brought him another grounding in early 1932 for three months, until his contract ran out.
Seven decades later, his great-great-niece Samantha Adams would hear the story from her father Ed. She was all of 9, but impressed by his character and when asked to write a short paper in her fourth-grade class about someone she admired, she chose her great-great-uncle.
“I admire my Uncle Albert. My Uncle Albert was a horse jockey and he was a very honest man,” she wrote. “Uncle Albert won most of his races because when you race your boss tells you to win or not to win, but Uncle Albert always won, because he was honest. I never met him, but I have heard many stories about him. These are a few of many reasons I admire Uncle Albert.”
Albert Adams would be proud to be viewed that way, but at the time, finding a steady riding job was hard. He’d been through a lot and he’d put on weight.
He drifted, riding for a variety of stables, but in 1932, Lady Luck did smile. Adams was hired by Anne Heighe, who owned Prospect Hill Stud near Bel Air, Md., now the Harford Community College campus. And that year, he finished fifth in the Belmont Stakes aboard Heighe’s Polo Bar.
He rode some more winners after that, including the last two of his career, but not enough to win the minimum number of races to be listed in the American Racing Manuals of that time.
The groundings, basically for wanting to ride an honest race, had taken their toll. By the end of the 1934 season his riding career was over.
It seems Lady Luck may have taken a long lunch in the years Adams needed her, but if anyone believes the late jockey was resentful or held grudges, they’d be wrong.
He continued to gallop horses for Prospect Hill Stud and worked to find younger jockeys rides, until World War II changed the world.
He served as an infantry sergeant in the 29th Division in the Pacific. He came home and worked in an automobile assembly plant for five years before taking a job with the Baltimore Sanitation Department.
On his days off, he still enjoyed going to the races and he rooted for the young jockeys who took aim at his nine-in-a-row record.
When Tanton, The Evening Sun sports editor, visited Adams in 1969 in his Essex home, where the former jockey would die from a heart attack the next year, it was just a few days after Laurel jockey Chuck Baltazar had come up three wins short of breaking Adams’ mark.
The writer might have expected to find a bitter and relieved record-holding ex-jockey. Instead, true to Adams’ moral compass, he found a record-holding jockey who had been rooting for another jockey to break his record.
“Albert Adams is, at 55, remarkably free of hang-ups,” Tanton wrote.
“I was pulling for the kid to break it,” Adams said that day. “Hell, I was hoping he’d make it 13 and break that English record.”
So a man of integrity, who is receiving the recognition his family thought long overdue, still holds the United States record 91 years later. Maybe Lady Luck, as Adams believed all those decades ago, actually did give him a break.