"I rode things that reasonably didn't have a chance to win," he says.
Keene also rode in the "Oklahoma bushes," out-of-the-way tracks that dotted the Sooner State's dusty landscape. "I won a lot of races there that didn't go into the books," he says. "I scrambled to make a buck."
In those days, Keene remembers, the term "jockeying for position" had a different meaning than it does now.
"When I started, there wasn't any film of a race," he says. "There was a hell of a lot more contact among jockeys. We all did it--elbow, whip, scratch, claw. We did it to survive. That's the way the game was played. As far as cheating, what was it that Mark Twain said? `You want a completely honest horse race, you'll need an honest human race first.'"
Like almost every jockey, he struggled to keep his weight down.
"We'd hit the sweat box a lot, and there is this thing called bulimia. It used to be an art form. Now, it's a disease. Around the tracks, it's a normal thing, even if no one brags about it. Weight is everything."
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Keene rode at tracks around the United States--in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, California, New Jersey, Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado and other states. He learned how to feel a horse beneath him, how to keep his balance, how to be in the right spot at the right time, when to let a pony run.
"All horses want to hurry," Keene says. "Trying to use them at the appropriate time is what this is all about."
Keene says he made--and spent--a good buck in the early 1950s. But he was considering changing careers, and attended Colorado A&M College as a preveterinary student.
"I'd go to school a quarter here and a quarter there," Keene says. "I ended up seven quarters short. But those horses pulled me away once and for all."
In 1959, Keene rode at Southern California's Santa Anita, one of the nation's most famous racetracks. His first outing there was memorable:
"I'm on a horse called Roryare. Shoemaker is riding in the race. I'm no kid, but I'm trying to stay cool. You work for so long for cool to be the norm. We beat Shoe by a length. I told everyone it was kind of easy out there, just like at the Oklahoma bushes. It was two weeks before I won again. That shut me up a while."
Keene settled down a bit in the early 1960s. He and his wife, Lois, started raising a family, and Keene made Denver's Centennial racetrack his home base. (Long divorced, he has three sons in their twenties. None is in the racing business.) Centennial is where he rode a majority of his 1,800-or-so winners.
JACK KEENE IS TALKING about the dangers inherent in a sport where 100-pound men ride 1,000-pound horses. He is sitting in the living room of the comfortable northeast Phoenix home he shares with his longtime friend Julie Sodowsky. The couple moved to Phoenix with her young daughter in 1982, after the Denver track shut down for good.
A world-class dressage performer and teacher--dressage is to horses as figure skating is to humans--Sodowsky opened a training barn in north Phoenix. She says she and Keene cannot imagine their lives without horses. Their home's decor bears that out.
There are photos of champion horses, porcelain horses, a wooden hobbyhorse, horse trophies and ribbons, videotapes of horse races, books about horses. Even the phone machine answers with the racetrack's trumpet call.
"It's all Julie's," Keene says of the home and what's in it. "Julie's the successful one in this family. I don't own a thing. Really. Just a bike."
He's overlooking the memorabilia of his years on the racetrack. Photographs of Keene and this season's winners will soon go into a new scrapbook at his home. His other scrapbooks already fill an entire living-room wall cabinet. Videotapes document another aspect of his career.
"Twice, I was in races where a jockey got killed," Jack Keene says. "One time, everybody was in close quarters and it was getting tighter and tighter. I knew one of the guys had went down, trampled.
"The other time, I was in front and I didn't even know there was a wreck."
He puts on a videotape of one of his spills at Centennial racetrack. That time, he jumped off his tumbling mount just in time.
"That was one interesting traffic pattern," he says casually of the close call. He deals with the danger philosophically.
"When the unforeseen happens, you're gonna have a wreck. This is a very tough business we're in."