For an observer on the ground, it’s easy to forget just how much strength jockeys carry in their light frames, because they make their very difficult job look so effortless race after race. Now and then, though, something will happen that reminds us all of the extraordinary risks they take, and the incredible athleticism they possess.
Such was the case in Febuary 1989, when jockey Nate Hubbard, early in his second full year in the saddle, piloted a maiden named Sweetwater Oak in the deep, muddy stretch at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, California. The mare, by then a 4-year-old, was making her 12th start in a $20,000 claimer and taking aim at frontrunner Current Lady on the outside and, for a few seconds, it seemed she might finally notch her first win. She leaned just a little to her left inside the sixteenth pole and stumbled – it’s not clear whether she clipped heels or just tripped – sending Hubbard lurching forward out of the tack.
After a deliberation, Golden Gate stewards determined that Sweetwater Oak had carried the jockey’s entire weight across the finish line (displaced though it was) and therefore was considered to have officially placed second.
Sports Illustrated writer Craig Neff wrote that Hubbard returned to the frontside to dismount properly to thunderous applause.
“Rival jockeys marveled at the strength Hubbard had displayed,” read an SI report. “The next day Hubbard went back to business as usual; despite a large bruise on his left thigh where Sweetwater Oak had kneed him, he rode four winners, equaling the best performance of his career.”
This iconic image of the moment exists because of the quick thinking of photographer Peg Grueneberg, who was dispatched by track publicity to get some photos of the riders in the muddy conditions. Like Hubbard, she got a little more than she’d bargained for, and the photo has made the rounds through local and trade press now and then ever since.
Hubbard continued riding, primarily in Northern California, through 1991 but his starts tapered after that and his 1999 season would be his last. The internet seems to remember him mostly for his tenacious ride on Sweetwater Oak, and it’s not clear what he did after retiring as a jockey.
Sweetwater Oak would run twice more, still failing to break her maiden, before being retired to a breeding career. The daughter of Highland Blade and Crème dela Crème mare Cream of Society would go on to produce six foals, including three starters and one winner – Solid Oak, a gelding by Alnaab who finished third in the Black Tie and Tails Stakes in 1996.