In Hoboken, back in the 1930s and 1940s, the most popular mode of transportation was ironically the horse.
Sure, there were the trolleys and there were buses. Some people were even fortunate to own cars. But most of everything else was done by horses.
“Everything was horse drawn back then,” said Pat Bencivegna, who grew up in Hoboken at that time. “There were horse stables all over Hoboken, on Jackson Street, on Madison Street. Everyone had a horse. There was a mounted police in Hoboken. Your neighborhood salesmen, selling milk and vegetables, had horse-drawn carriages. The garbage men had horse-drawn carriages. Most of my friends grew up riding horses.”
Little did he know at the time that four of those natives of the Mile Square City would later go on to be involved with horses that captured the granddaddy of all thoroughbred races, the Kentucky Derby.
Soon after World War II, it was only natural for a teenager like Bencivegna to grow up around horses.
“We were all riding horses through the streets of Hoboken back then,” Bencivegna said.
It didn’t take long for Bencivegna to turn his love of horses into a career. At the age of 16, Bencivegna and his older brother of two years, Anthony, met a man by the name of John McFeeley.
“He was the nephew of the mayor of Hoboken at the time,” Bencivegna recalled. “He had a stable of horses that trained on a half-mile track in Ho-Ho-Kus. My brother and I used to go up there to work with McFeeley’s horses. He would buy horses at Belmont Park and bring them back to Ho-Ho-Kus. We would groom them, ride them and get them ready to be shipped out.”
After Bencivegna and his brother would get the horses ready, they would then race in Canada.
When he turned 17, Bencivegna was offered a job to be a groom for famed trainer Frank Kearns.
“I had three horses to groom,” Bencivegna said. “I was earning $275 a month, which was pretty good money at the time. Frank Kearns made sure that I was doing a good job, so after a few months, the stable was split and I moved to Chicago and Arlington Park.”
The year was 1948. Bencivegna was 18 years old. He thought he was a rising star in the horse racing industry, but he had to face adversity when Kearns died suddenly.
“There were new trainers to take over his horses,” Bencivegna said. “I was out of a job.”
Bencivegna hitched a ride back east on the back of a train – “Much like Seabiscuit,” he said.
“I remember we made one stop and my face was covered with soot,” Bencivegna said. “I got to Saratoga and then hitched another ride in a van to Monmouth Park.”
At Monmouth, Bencivegna was hired by another trainer named J.W. Camac.
“I did the Jersey circuit with his horses,” Bencivegna said. “I also went to Florida.”
Anthony Bencivegna, aspiring to be a jockey, went to become an exercise rider in Aiken, S.C.
The brothers were separated for about a year and a half – then were separated even more by a course of historic action called the Korean War.
“Anthony went to Korea,” Bencivegna said. “I went to Germany. They wouldn’t allow brothers to be together.”
After serving in the military for a little more than two years, Pat Bencivegna wanted to pick up where his career had left off.
“I came back to Monmouth Park and heard that Hugh Fontaine needed a groom,” Bencivegna said. “All three horses I groomed for him won at Monmouth. He then made me a foreman and an assistant trainer for 12 horses that raced in Detroit and Pimlico [in Maryland].”
Pat Bencivegna was just 21 years old, when he made a trip to Florida to purchase a horse for Fontaine.
“I had a check for $20,000 to buy a good looking 2-year-old bay colt,” Bencivegna said.
The horse was named Needles.
“He got the name at birth, because he got so many needles just to keep him alive,” Bencivegna said. “He was a feisty one, bucking, frisky, a handful, but he had the look of a champion. I was the only one who groomed him. No one else touched him.”
On March 28, 1955, Needles made his debut in a maiden race at Gulfstream Park in Florida.
“Our jockey, Jimmy Nichols, was one of the best jockeys to ride 2-year-olds,” Bencivegna said. “He said, ‘He is ready. You can run this horse against anyone.’”
Bencivegna remembers the day well.
“Needles was 20-1 in the program,” Bencivegna said. “I called everyone in Hoboken and told them to bet on the horse. He dropped from 20-1 to even money.”
Needles won his first race by five lengths and paid only $4.20 to win, but a star was born.
“We knew it was long road to the Kentucky Derby,” Bencivegna said. “He won four 2-year-old stakes races, including the Hopeful and the Sanford at Saratoga.”
However, Bencivegna had to make a tough decision at the time.
“I was living a gypsy life, from racetrack to racetrack,” Bencivegna said. “It was so up and down. I was living out of a trunk. It wasn’t easy.”
So Bencivegna decided to walk away from horse racing and become a dock worker in Hoboken.
“I changed my career to work on the docks,” he said. “Who knew that Needles would win the Kentucky Derby?”
Sure enough, in 1956, Needles captured the Kentucky Derby championship.
“I had no regrets at all,” Bencivegna said. “I was comfortable with what I was doing. I became a longshoreman.”
As it would turn out, Bencivegna spent more than 40 years on the Hoboken docks, eventually retiring in 1991.
“I wound up with a nice comfortable pension,” said Bencivegna, now 82 years old and living in North Bergen with wife Helen. “I had a good five or six years, but I never left the sport.”
As it turned out, the Hoboken contingent had their hands in four different Kentucky Derby winners. Anthony Bencivegna was an exercise jockey for 1957 Derby winner Tim Tam and 1958 champ Iron Liege. And Charles Secatello was an exercise jockey for 1973 Derby winner Secretariat and worked for Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Lauren for many years. Victor Mauro was another professional jockey from that era who was born and raised in Hoboken.
“Who would have ever thought that four kids from Hoboken would have so much to do with four Derby winners?” Pat Bencivegna said.
Later in life, Bencivegna wound up training horses as a hobby and ended up owning a handful, including Foolish Tracy, which won a handful of claiming races at the Meadowlands in 1979 and ridden by Monmouth favorite Chuck C. Lopez, and Sister Pia. He also would travel from time to time to work with horses at Charlestown Race Track in West Virginia, where his brother’s horses would run.
“When the Meadowlands opened, I wanted to be on the ground floor,” Bencivegna said. “So that’s what I did.”
Incredibly, the elder Bencivegna is 84 years old, living in Middlebury, Virginia and still training horses at Charlestown.
Pat Bencivegna is happy to talk about the memories he collected in the Sport of Kings, going from the streets of Hoboken to grooming an eventual Kentucky Derby champ. He still has tons of memorabilia from his horse racing career and has a little tale about each faded photo. Nothing will change that, not even time, not even more than six decades.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.