Leroy Reeves remembers the incident as if it happened a year ago instead of 75.
The West Cape May resident was boarding a school bus with his Stimpson Lane neighbor, Ray York, when they encountered a neighborhood bully that had been picking on little Ray.
“Ray waited until the kid got up to get off the bus and went up behind him,” Reeves recalled with a laugh during a phone interview Thursday. “Ray was an ornery little devil. He didn’t take (stuff) from anybody. He bit the kid right in the butt.”
Years later, Ray York made himself known as a jockey.
Sixty years ago, he rode Determine when it became the first gray horse to ever win the Kentucky Derby in 1954. In 2000, York came out of retirement to become the first jockey to compete in seven decades when he rode Culebra in a seven-furlong claiming race at Santa Anita Park in California.
Now 80, York lives on a farm in Taft, Calif. — located between Bakersfield and Los Angeles — with longtime girlfriend Michael McKay and a few horses, including the one that helped him make history.
“Ray doesn’t ride anymore, but he still has Culebra,” McKay said. “(The horse) was 4 when Ray rode him. Now he’s 19.”
Before moving to California in the late 1930s, York and his siblings — Jay, Fay and Kay — spent their childhoods in a house on Stimpson Lane in West Cape May while their father was stationed in Cape May with the U.S. Coast Guard. Reeves lived just down the street.
Although Reeves is six years older than Ray, the two were good friends for a few years.
Reeves, 86, recalled the two would play croquet and other games in Ray’s backyard, which is now the home of Exit Zero magazine editor Jack Wright.
“I haven’t heard anyone mention Cape May in a long time,” York said with a laugh during a phone interview on Thursday. “I remember there was a big, old strawberry field behind the house.”
When York’s father was transferred to California, the two lost touch for decades.
York dropped out of school in seventh grade, unable to shake his love of racing. The 5-foot-1 bundle of strength and courage rode his first race in 1949 at age 15, winning aboard Dot’s Baby at the Alameda County Fair, and soon became one of the sport’s best jockeys.
“I fudged my age a little bit,” York said. “You were supposed to be 16 to race.”
His victory aboard Determine was among 3,082 career wins and one of his six appearances in the Kentucky Derby. He retired in 1992, but was unable to sit on the sideline. After competing in a few “rocking chair” races — events featuring retired jockeys — he decided to give real racing one more try.
On Jan. 13, 2000, he finished next-to-last on Calebra at age 66.
“He actually thought about riding again in 2010,” McKay said. “But I wouldn’t let him.”
Reeves, who was an avid horse racing fan and even owned a couple of horses, followed York’s career from afar.
One day in the early-1950s, he picked his copy of the Daily Racing Form — he had it delivered to his house every day — and read that York was scheduled to ride at Atlantic City Race Course on Bold Bazooka, a horse owned by Lou Costello of the famed comedy duo of Abbott and Costello.
“My wife was working at the Wildwood Diner, and I told her to take the day off so we could go to the track,” Reeves said. “She didn’t want to ask her boss, so I called him. He said it was OK as long as he was allowed to go, too.
“I went over to where the jockeys were and hollered to him, but he ignored me at first. Then I yelled, ‘Stimpson Lane!’ and he turned right around and smiled. We went out to dinner afterward and caught up on everything. But that was the last time I heard from him for a while.”
The two exchanged Christmas cards for a while, but that fizzled out after a few years. The last time they had spoken was in 2000, right after York set the record for longevity.
Then, one day in 2004, a package arrived at Reeves’ home at Westwood Mobile Estates, a mobile-home park that sits atop the old strawberry fields.
Inside was an autographed photo taken the day York won the Derby.
It read, “To Leroy, from your friend on Stimpson Lane.”
Reeves still displays the photo in his living room.
After getting Reeves’ phone number from a reporter, York called his old friend late last Thursday.
The two hadn’t talked for almost 15 years, but they picked up the conversation without missing a beat.
They talked about Saturday’s Kentucky Derby — York was pulling for California Chrome — and also chatted about the old days on Stimpson Lane.
“I’ll always remember that strawberry field,” York said. “I don’t remember biting anyone in the butt back then, but I could have done it.”
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