"I had a good career," William Boland said. "I’m very happy here now.”
William Boland doesn’t really remember a time when his life didn’t revolve around horses.
Boland was born July 16, 1933, in Corpus Christi, Texas. His home was next to the local rodeo grounds. He’d wake up well before sunrise every day and would take care of the cowboys’ ponies from 6 in the morning until it was time to trot off to school. He’d be right back at the stables as soon as school let out.
Boland had been breaking horses since he was 7, teaching them to ride, reign, turn, jog, gallop — whatever he wanted, or needed, them to do.
When he was 8, he and his family moved nearly 60 miles from Corpus Christi to Rivera — a small, unincorporated farming town in southeast Texas that, to this day, has a population south of 700 people.
His home was near the King Ranch, the largest ranch in the United States. He went to work for the ranch when he was 13 breaking horses.
It was with the King Ranch where Boland got his first taste of racing — and he was hooked. A newly anointed apprentice, Boland arrived in Long Island, New York, at the age of 14 ready to compete.
For William Boland, there’s nothing better than getting on a good horse.
“When he can really run,” Boland said, “that’s the greatest feeling in the entire world.”
As a contracted rider for the King Ranch, Boland began his racing career in 1948. He competed in nine races that year.
He won his first race, a feature race at Belmont Park, on March 13, 1949, on the horse Safe Arrival.
Boland traveled to California that winter to train and came back to New York the following spring. His riding skills improved greatly.
Riding Bettor Self for Robert J. Kleberg Jr.’s King Ranch and trainer Max Hirsch, Boland earned the first stakes race win of his career on April 29, 1950, in the Gallant Fox Handicap at the Jamaica Race Course in Queens.
Boland’s career rose to stardom on May 6, 1950, on the track at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.
King Ranch’s top rider turned down the opportunity to ride Middleground, a 3-year-old reddish-brown chestnut, in favor of another horse. Boland was contractually obligated to take the reins.
At the age of 16, Boland and Middleground trotted onto the track in front of nearly 95,000 spectators to compete in the Kentucky Derby.
“The atmosphere was unreal,” Boland said. “But that didn’t bother me.”
Middleground eclipsed the 1 1/4-mile track in 2 minutes, 1.6 seconds, beating Hill Prince, who was ridden by Eddie Arcaro, the premier rider in the country at the time and an eventual five-time derby winner.
Two weeks after the derby, Boland saddled up Middleground for the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of the coveted Triple Crown, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Middleground was in control for much of the race, but “got in trouble” on the final stretch and finished second to Arcaro and Hill Prince.
“If I hadn’t gotten bothered, I would have won it,” Boland said. “But that’s racing.”
However, Boland and Middleground won the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, three weeks after the Preakness. (Boland, riding Amberoid, won the Belmont for the second time in 1966.)
Married for 68 years
Sandy Boland vividly remembers the first time she met William.
They were at Argo Bowling Alley in Elmont, New York. She was there with some friends after work. “We used to bowl every once in a while,” she said.
Her parents went to the races, so she was able to recognize him easily.
“He offered to take me home,” Sandy said with a laugh, “and that was that.”
They were married in 1951. She was 19. He had just turned 18. They had two children and have been married for 68 years.
“There were good times and bad times, but most of the time it was very good,” she said. “I loved the life. That was never a problem.”
William Boland road for 21 years, winning 2,049 races, including 39 major races in that time span.
But toward the end of his riding career, he stopped winning.
His last race was in Saratoga on Aug. 1969. He retired at 37.
“I was stupid,” he said. “I wasn’t doing very well at time time. I kind of just lost confidence in myself. I thought I’d try something else. But I could have rode for another 10 years. I should have kept going.”
For the next 20 years, Boland was a thoroughbred trainer in New York. He was a racing official for 10 years after that. He quite officiating in 1989 and moved to Palm Coast with his family. Boland was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2006.
Old trophies and faded pictures and newspaper articles decorate much of the wallspace of his home. His Kentucky Derby and Belmont trophies sit casually on the shelf above his television, below a painting of his younger self.
But despite the reminders, he doesn’t think much about racing anymore. That part of his life is over.
Now, he plays golf most days with his buddies at Palm Harbor Golf Club. Or, he’s at home spending time with his wife.
“There’s a lot of things I could have done different and a lot of things I wouldn’t have done different,” he said. “But I had a good career. I’m very happy here now.”