Turning For Home

Mother Nature rained down on many parts of the country and my neck of the woods was good and soggy. The 4th of July was one of those days  when my family would meet under the old oak tree at River Downs and have our family picnic. The big three; Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. Right about now we are at the 1/2 way point of what my family considered the family days at the races. – But this day had me thinking back to the old days for my long drive home. The times we thought would never end as these days in the sun would last eternal.

John Engelhardt did an excellent job writing a nice story about a longtime jockey who passed away. I can remember Steve Neff like it was just a few minutes ago. He always gave his best and it wouldn’t be an oddity to see him ride four or five on the card. – When I read his article and saw the picture, my thoughts drifted back to the good old days. The times we thought would never end.


John C. Engelhardt's photo.


These are the days I remember. – Steve Neff in the winner’s circle was no rarity as he is accepting a leading rider award from River Downs general manager Jack Hannessian. – Here is an excerpt from John’s article: – Retired Jockey Steve Neff, who won several riding titles at River Downs and Latonia (now Turfway Park) in the late 1970’s and ‘80’s passed away earlier this week from complications of emphysema and dementia according to his close friend and former rider Clifton “Skip” Schwing.
Neff is listed in the top 100 riders in North America with a record of 3,678 wins from 27,951 career mounts. Eight times from 1976 to 1987 he won over 200 races in a season. He rode in the Inaugural Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1984 aboard Ohio’s Horse of the Year Smart and Sharp, racing in the colors of Fleming B. Fraser. Neff retired from the saddle in 1995 and went to work for ComAir at the Cincinnati Airport. He did work for a season as the Clerk of Scales at River Downs.  The current Clerk of Scales at Belterra Park (formerly River Downs), jockey-turned-trainer Felix Chavez has nothing but praise for Neff. “We won over a dozen stakes races together,” recalls Chavez. “When you told Steve how you wanted a horse ridden you didn’t have to worry when you gave him a leg up. He would follow instructions perfectly every time.”  – This was Steve receiving the leader rider award in 1986.  – Photo credit / Pat Lang.

Steve Neff accepted a mount aboard an old gelding who was beautiful to the eye, but not much in the ability department. If it were a beauty contest he would have won by ten. – He listened to my instructions as my trainer was a pretty quiet fella, and I have a mouth that likes to take part in the conversation. – We finished 5th that night as Neff did everything he could possibly do. – When he came back he stood and talked to us about his trip. We were there so long the runners were coming onto the track for the next race. – We weren’t in the Derby, it was a $4,000 claiming race. This rider could see my enthusiasm and took all the time in the world. – That was the Steve Neff I remember.

When John asked if I knew Steve Neff had passed away, I thought back to that night along the rail at Turfway Park. Two new horse owners with dreams of greatness were being advised by a rider with the words of a gentleman. He was right, as we headed to Beulah for the next race and sold him shortly after. – I can recall days in the hot sun at River Downs watching Neff reel off winners by the bunches. – When he had a mount in the 1984 Breeders’ Cup, that was the confidence owners had about the rider. – I watched with my grandpa, dad, and countless times on my own as he waltzed into the winner’s circle. – Neff wouldn’t been a fixture on the Santa Anita circuit or had countless trips with the (G-1) races. He rode with integrity and gave every owner a fair shake at getting their picture taken. – I can’t thank you enough for the golden advice you imparted to two horse owners, you made my love for the game grow to even greater heights. Rest in peace, Steve Neff.