Fred Ecoffey: Legendary Lakota Horseman

by Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns
for Tri-State Livestock News
Fred Ecoffey started more than 17,000 races and won nearly 3,000 of those, mostly on Nebraska tracks. Courtesy photo.
Fred Ecoffey

The wide, rich grasslands that merge South Dakota and Nebraska below the rugged Badlands have produced fine horses for more than two centuries. History tells us the Lakota crossed the Missouri River into that region around 1740, soon after acquiring their first horses. Magnificent horsemen all, some were superlative – like the Ecoffey clan, who’ve cut a broad trail across the horse world for well over a century.

Princess Blue Water, whose mother was Chief Red Cloud’s sister, was a young child in 1887 when her entire family and the rest of Buffalo Bill’s entourage shipped off to London as part of the American Exhibition for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Little did she know the equine legacy her future son Frank “Posey” Ecoffey would spawn.

Born near Wounded Knee Creek in 1901 with “horse” in his blood and an eye for the good ones, Posey favored Thoroughbreds, initiating a breeding program that would excel on fast tracks across a wide region for decades. In the 1920s, before motorized horse vans, Posey and his family trailed their fast horses to and from favorite fair circuits in Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota. That was undoubtedly the best conditioning program ever – up and down through rock and sand, across rivers, coulees, brakes and prairies. Some of the winning-est Ecoffey horses were Fire Catcher, Tom Harvey, Replow, and Tiny Ruby. Fans could spot other Ecoffey entries on racing sheets by the appearance of “Posey’s” in the horses’ registered names, like “Posey’s Petal”.

Along with his fast horses Posey raised fine horsemen to train and campaign them to glory. Horses were life and lifestyle for Posey and wife Irene, daughters Catherine and Betty, and sons Robert “Bob” Gilbert and Fred. Gilbert and Bob acquired their father’s training skills while the more lightweight Fred was a natural jockey, and soon the name Ecoffey resounded wherever oval dirt tracks were found.

Posey insisted that Fred, born in 1937, finish high school before becoming a jockey. He was eager for the task and today recalls, “It just came naturally to me. I never had anyone show me or help me. But I remember one rider I admired very much, Boyd Morris.”

Posey excelled in horse racing into his 90s, His son Fred’s competitive spirit is undimmed today at 78; the spry 138-pounder regularly drives 40 miles into Gordon, Nebraska to bowl and play golf. He’s been heard to mutter about “old guys riding around in their golf carts” . . . personally preferring to walk the course, because he can.

The Professional Indian Horse Racing Association honored Fred at the 2016 Oglala Nation Fair for his part in “paving the way for the modern emergence of Indian Relay.” The crowd was probably shocked to learn this modest, humble man started more than 17,522 races and won 2,683 of them. Some 2,400 of those wins were on Nebraska tracks – Fonner Park at Grand Island, Columbus; State Fair Park at Lincoln; Omaha’s AkSarBen – making Fred Ecoffey “the winningest jockey in Nebraska history.”

Fred’s daughter Renee says, “Dad always preferred to ride the Nebraska tracks and stay closer to home. He did ride in Chicago a while, and when someone he’d ridden for called him to ride a good horse in a big race we’d sometimes go. I remember one of those trips to Raton, New Mexico when I was little.”

Fred says he went to other meets, but only in the fall, after the Nebraska meets were over. “I went to Chicago with a trainer a couple times, and stayed with him there. I rode at New Orleans Fairground one winter too; that trainer had a nice string of horses. Over the years I always rode ‘first call’ for one trainer, riding all his horses before I’d ride for anyone else. Then if they wanted me to go to another track with them I might. Some of the trainers I rode for were Elmer Pringle– way back when I first started–then later Everett Persinger, up ‘till I quit. I was with Kenneth Kirby the longest. I was with my agent Jim Beddow for nearly quarter century . . . he may not have been the best agent, but he was always honest.”

There were plenty of thrills and spills in Fred’s long career. A 2015 article on Finish Lynx News reports “only a few triple dead heats have ever been recorded” – but Fred Ecoffey was privileged to be a participant in one such rare event. Asked if that was a thrill he paused, then said, “I don’t know. I was kind’a upset it turned out that way, because I wanted to win! But it made history.”

A horrible pileup at the Lincoln Fairgrounds was Fred’s worst wreck. He remembers, “I’d been riding for one man and then he got a horse that was bad-legged in front, and I wouldn’t ride it. Another jockey had him in this field of eight, and going into the first turn he broke a leg and went down. I went down over him and four more went over me, six out of the eight. It broke the neck of the horse I was riding.”

Fred probably didn’t realize it, but his daughter Renee says, “When the EMTs got out there Dad was the first one they came to, but they stepped over him, thinking he was already dead.” They just didn’t know how tough Fred Ecoffey was. He reports, “I never broke a bone. It messed my back up and I wasn’t able to finish out the meet, but I still made Leading Rider.” The gritty jockey earned that title an amazing 26 times on Nebraska tracks.

In spite of his phenomenal 17,522 starts Fred Ecoffey can point out one unforgettable race. “The race that stands out most was at AkSarBen, real famous for their stakes races. That particular day one trainer had two horses in this stakes race I was in. I was on Tripsville, and knew we could win it. We started right next to each other, and he sent his one entry to the front to set a pace to wear me out. I set right in behind him. Turning to go home, as I passed him I felt my horse lug. He fell in and lugged 3 different times, so I looked back and saw this other jockey had hold of my saddle towel, pulling back. I know I pulled him a sixteenth . . . but still wound up second, and my mount Tripsville still won Horse of the Year. That jockey got suspended for some time and paid one of the biggest fines ever.”

Retirement at age 46 was Fred’s own decision. “I knew I wasn’t riding like I once did. I had pain in my back and legs at times, and I could tell I was getting cautious, sometimes questioning myself. I thought a lot about it, and about halfway through the AkSarBen meet I made up my mind it was best for the horses, me and my trainers for me to retire,” he remembers.

That decision didn’t take Fred away from the track, though, as the Nebraska Racing Commission immediately put him to work. Matter of fact, he’s still working for them. “I’ve done every part of it,” he says, “steward, identifier, paddock judge . . . that’s what I still do,” Fred grins.

He did take a five-year sabbatical to spend time with wife Phyllis before her passing in 2012. “We were married in 1958,” Fred says, “and have daughters Connie and Renee and sons Allen and Lee. After the kids started school she didn’t travel with me . . . I was away from ‘em so much; thank God I was able to do that for her, to be here and care for her when she was sick. About a week after she passed away they called me to come back to work, and I did.”

Even though they didn’t follow Fred to the tracks too much, his kids carry the fast horse bug. “I sowed my wild oats and went to work at Turf Paradise in Phoenix when I was 19,” Renee grins. “I did that a couple years, also worked in Minnesota and at Grand Island, Kansas City and Columbus. And my oldest brother Allen went to Santa Anita and won some pretty big races out there.”

Fred’s favorite horse ever was Maud’s Lad. After a long career he was crippled up and not winning much as “a real cheap claimer. Then an agent who was a real good friend bought him for $500 and gave him to Renee when she was 9 or 10,” Fred says. The thoughtful gesture blessed Fred’s heart, kept two old friends together, and gave Maud’s Lad the loving retirement he so deserved. Renee loved the horse so much Fred soon bought her a pony horse and had Deb Thompson start his barrel training. “I started competing on him when I was 12,” Renee says, “and from then on I was hooked on the sport. As a senior in 1987 we qualified for the National High School Rodeo Finals in Pueblo, Colorado. Later I bought a mare in Kansas City, trained her and qualified for the Indian National Finals Rodeo.”

Fred Ecoffey’s grandmother, Princess Blue Water toured the world Wild Wes-ting, participated by invitation in John Kennedy’s inauguration and took Lakota dancers to perform in Cheyenne Frontier Days for 40 years. Fred, who’s known in many circles as “the Livin’ Legend” lives up to her legacy in spades.

The Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame said, when inducting him in 1981, “Since breaking his maiden on a horse named Baby Sweeper in 1957, Ecoffey has ridden horses to more than ten million dollars in winnings, while competing full time on the Nebraska racing circuit. Six times he was leading rider at Columbus and Atokad, five times at Fonner Park, and four times at Lincoln.” He’s also known for impeccable honesty; witness his nickname “Straight Arrow”. To aspiring young jockeys Fred says, “Work hard and always be honest, and stay away from alcohol and drugs.”