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Get To Know Dave Erb, The Oldest-Living Kentucky Derby And Belmont Stakes-Winning Jockey

Erb, who also found success as a trainer, has made his home in Saratoga County since 1988.

Jockey Dave Erb and Needles after their Kentucky Derby win. (Churchill Downs)

How has the oldest-living jockey to win a Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes fared in retirement? When I spoke with 95-year-old Dave Erb this past June, it was clear that he was keeping himself busy: He’d been enjoying maintaining his farm in Greenfield Center (just a few miles from Saratoga Springs), where he’d been living since 1988; and he’d been playing golf as many as four times a week, weather permitting. You’ve got to wonder, though, if the folks with the tee time behind him know how famous the man ahead of them really is.

Growing up in the tiny town of York, NE, Erb dreamed big. Really big. “I wanted to win the Kentucky Derby,” he told me. And, well, Erb went out and did just that. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” he says. “I had a great horse that day.” Erb’s dream came true in 1956, when he piloted Needles, a future Hall of Fame inductee, to victory. (After the Derby win, Erb and Needles appeared together on the cover of Sports Illustrated.) Needles then finished second in the Preakness before winning the Belmont to claim two-thirds of the coveted Triple Crown.

Erb rode other standouts during his career in the irons, too. He piloted Hall of Famer Swoon’s Son in 21 of his 22 career races, including wins in the American Derby, Arlington Handicap and Clark Handicap, among others. Erb was also aboard Hall of Famer Swaps when he set a world record for 1 1/16 miles on dirt at Hollywood Park in 1955. After retiring in 1960, Erb went on to become a successful trainer, conditioning the champion two-year-old colt Hurry to Market.

Erb stepped away from the sport in ’88, when he and his wife, Lenni, moved to Saratoga County. And despite still following racing and making the occasional trip to Saratoga Race Course, it’s all peace, quiet and retirement for him…though I can’t even begin to imagine how someone who won the Derby or Belmont could ever find true quiet after hearing the thunder of hooves—and those crowds.

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