They ran the Anthony DeSpirito Stakes the other day at Suffolk Downs. Josiah Hampshire, the winning jockey aboard Charlie Assimakopoulos' Shadow Caster, has learned to live each day as a now because of his prior battles with John Barleycorn. How fitting that Hampshire should win Tony's race. DeSpirito's meteoric career and life was the ultimate "today" experience until that day in 1975 when his mother found him, at 39, on the living room couch of his apartment in Riverside, Rhode Island. The coroner said he choked to death.
But still we remember and run his race, even though the flame has long since dimmed. Seven hundred and one wins in those two glorious years, 1952-53, followed by the trail of injuries, hard luck, and the inability to say no to his friends. And everybody wanted to be jockey Anthony DeSpirito's friend, even if only for the night.
He could have been the best. The kid from Lawrence, Ma., son of a Millworker, was born on Christmas Eve, 1936, six miles away from Rockingham Park. Riding a horse at breakneck speed was his destiny. Winning was his just reward. He was that good, a natural. That's why he lied about his age and quit school at the age of 16 in 1952. His time was now.
Who was this kid who swaggered in off the streets and won 390 races that first year, 1952, leading the nation in wins over a a third-year West Coast rider, a kid named Shoemaker, who had 315? Surely one of them would become the next Arcaro, the next superstar rider in a time and a sport that was still huge with the American public. DeSpirito won over $150,000 that first year, comparable with inflationary trends to over $900,000 today. Heady stuff for a young kid with as big an appetite for Cadillacs, the night life, and women as he had for crossing the finish line first. DeSpirito owned 17 Cadillacs that first year and was on the Ed Sullivan show.
But could he ride. The betting was that the East Coast guy, that 5'2" inch perfectly proportioned guy with the dark good looks and boxer-like body many called "Brando", would best Shoemaker because of his athleticism and strength. But they couldn't predict the string of injuries and hard luck that soon beset DeSpirito, nor the tenacity that the racing world came to know as Willie Shoemaker, retiring with 8,833 wins from over 40,000 mounts and $123 million in purses earned, before himself becoming paralyzed in an auto wreck on April 8, 1991. But for a string of injuries and too much living in the now, that success could have been DeSpirito's. In an article written by Frank Deford for Sports Illustrated in 1975, just after DeSpirito's death, even Shoemaker admitted, "Some people go through doors, Tony ran into them."
In 1953, following his breakthrough rookie year, Tony rode 311 winners even though he injured a disc in his back. In 1955 he was trampled in the Beldame Stakes at old Aqueduct. DeSpirito was almost killed the next year when his mount broke a leg at Laurel Racecourse. It was found then that he actually had broken his back in three places in that 1953 spill. Still, the hard luck continued. DeSpirito was almost killed at Rockingham Park in 1958 and fellow rider Henry Wajda saved him for sure on that first turn at Suffolk Downs in 1960 when he held his fallen friend above horses' hooves until the danger had passed. Ironically, Wajda himself was killed on July 29, 1973, at Rockingham Park, when there was no DeSpirito in the race to return the favor.
Injuries and the now life had taken their toll. Over the years, Tony lost a kidney, his spleen, broke ribs, his back, his jaw, and lacerated his brain. He quit at 22, 25, 35, and 37 but got the bug again and was getting fit for another comeback attempt at 39 when he died. The last time DeSpirito rode was in 1973, when he retired in April, accepting a $45-a-day job as placing judge at the Rhode Island tracks. But the urge to don the "whites" never left.
But, how Anthony (Tony) DeSpirito charged a region. The entire North End of Boston, males and females alike, adopted "the kid". DeSpirito was on so many good mounts that even casual bettors used to bet $50 to win and $200 to place or show with the bookies. The bookies were getting hammered so badly that they instituted the DeSpirito Rule late in 1952. You now couldn't bet more to place or show than to win. Some still use the rule today.
Also, bookies had to play the "comeback widow" to stay ahead. Since people were creating an avalanche of money on the young DeSpirito in the parlors, the shades were forced to the track to "lay off" some of the action, betting the odds down on DeSpirito's mounts while winning a little back themselves to help balance the ledgers.
Yet, in his mind, and many others, there was no doubt he was the greatest rider who ever lived. But, how can we judge this comet? Could we call Muhammad Ali the best fighter of all-time after only the second Liston fight? Only a well-documented time line with the perspective of history can define the absolute best. And, even then, such a judgment would be subjective. With DeSpirito, we can only deal with the might-have-beens. But, for those few precious years, the shooting star New Englanders knew as Anthony DeSpirito streaked across the racing sky as brightly as any celestial body known to man.
The late racecaller, Babe Rubenstein, who wagered more than a few shekels on DeSpirito himself, would call, "And here comes Tony DeSpirito, flying on the outside like the wind." Imagine that, when the jockey became more important than the horse. Only Ant hony DeSpirito, the kid from Lawrence, had that kind of star power. We have not seen his like again.