Culture // 10 min Read

Champion Heart

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Apr 21, 2021

Written by: Patrick Kerrison

When you drive to the famed shorelines of South Carolina, you’ll often see two-, three-, or four-rail fences housing bucolic farmlands. Inside those gates, you will find acre upon acre of lush, bright, green grass roamed by some of the most magnificent creatures ever to take a breath.

This is horse country.

With spring events such as the Aiken Triple Crown and Camden’s Carolina Cup, plus the Lowcountry’s Steeplechase of Charleston in autumn, this region is no stranger to the thrills of thoroughbred horse racing.

Of course, where there are horses, there are horsemen and women like Eddie and Kate Maple, a pair of Northeastern imports who made Bluffton, South Carolina, their home 15 years ago. If, for some reason, you find the surname familiar, it may be because Maple is a Hall of Fame jockey.

Photo courtesy of Keeneland
Photo courtesy of Keeneland

You may also know him as the last jockey ever to pilot the great Secretariat in the champion’s final race of his career: the Canadian International at Woodbine Racetrack.

However, that was just one of thousands of victories in a long, brilliant career as a horse jockey. Fast-forward 25 years from that day to a warm afternoon in May 1998.

Maple was about to receive the Mike Venezia Memorial Award (given to a rider who embodies great sportsmanship and citizenship) when he decided it was time. He announced his retirement from racing.

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame

The news came as a shock to those around him, but his mind was made up. A riding career of 33 years that included 4,398 career wins was coming an end.

“After I retired from riding, my wife, Kate, and I opened up a garden specialty shop in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island.”

Things went well, and after eight years, they decided to sell the shop and find a home closer to their two sons.

It was 2006 and their boys, Iver and Edward, were building their own lives and careers in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Maples were unsure where to shift their tack. They traveled a bit looking at numerous homes and farms in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia before they settled in Bluffton.

“We were looking at a farm in Hazlehurst, Georgia,” Maple said, “and someone else got to it before we did. The guy who was selling it told us about a place he had here in Bluffton. So, we came out here, saw it, and bought it.”

From the time they settled in, in 2006, Maple served as general manager at the Rose Hill Equestrian Center—a 50-acre fenced equestrian center that offered riding lessons and boarding services to the public.

Born and raised in Carrollton, Ohio, Maple started riding at the age of 12 when he took a job on a thoroughbred farm. After a couple of years there, he took summer jobs at the racetrack.

“I love horses. I love being around them,” he said. “If it weren’t a farm or a track that I learned at, and it was an equestrian center instead, I would have worked just for riding lessons.”

But he cut his teeth at the track, and on his 17th birthday, he rode his first race.

“We ran fourth that day. She ran a good race, and right after it was over, I had to run to the barn and walk the horse. She needed to be cooled out.”

Three months later, he won his first race at Ascot Park in Akron, Ohio, and so much has happened since.

Photo courtesy of Bob Coglianese
Photo courtesy of Bob Coglianese

He rode the Midwest circuit for a while then moved east. He rode in Maryland and in New Jersey at Monmouth Park. That’s where he met Kate.

“She lived in Long Branch where Monmouth is at,” he said. “She got a job galloping horses for trainer Jimmy Croll. She wasn’t a regular gallop girl; she had a lot of experience riding equestrian but not racehorses.” Maple started to laugh and said, “She got run away with a lot.”

On December 27, 1970, Maple crossed the wire with his biggest win to date: he got Kate to the altar, and she said, “I do.” Three months later came another confidence boost.

“It wasn’t until [March] 1971 when I rode Eastern Fleet, and we won the Florida Derby. That’s when I opened my eyes and had an idea of what lay ahead for me in this business.”

They headed north to New York, and the competition was brutal. Every day he was up against some of the greats—Manuel Ycaza, Johnny Rotz, and William Hartack—all Hall of Fame riders. There were also his contemporaries—Ángel Cordero Jr., Jorge Velásquez, and Jacinto Vásquez—also all Hall of Fame inductees.

Photo courtesy of Keeneland
Photo courtesy of Keeneland

“I loved it,” Maple said. “I was just so happy to be in my shoes. I was more than delighted with what I was doing for a living and how I was doing.”

“What about becoming Hall of Famer?” I asked him.

“Not even in my sights,” he said. “Never thought of it.”

He began to reminisce on his first days around horses. “When I first started mucking stalls, I loved it. I would do whatever was asked of me just to be near them.”

The Hall of Fame may not have been in Maple’s sights but what a highlight reel he has put together over the years. He has ridden in more than 33,000 races including nine appearances in the Kentucky Derby. The closest he came to victory was in 1982 when his horse Laser Light finished second to Gato Del Sol. He has won 4,398 races including 60 Grade I stake races—the highest level of thoroughbred competition.

Photo courtesy of Keeneland
Photo courtesy of Keeneland

He also rode and won the last race of one of the best horses to ever look through a bridle: Secretariat. He has a pair of Belmont Stakes wins on his résumé too.

But he certainly didn’t do it alone. Kate’s support has served as a contributing factor in the construction of a Hall of Fame career. Part of the exhausting drudgery in the career of a jockey is maintaining a proper weight, which requires sacrifice and dedication every day. It is part of the sport no one sees or knows about when they see the fanfare of the Kentucky Derby on television. But every jockey knows it all too well.

“Kate took great care of me. She cooked for me every night,” he said. “We didn’t ever do takeout. Every meal there was at least one vegetable on the plate and a salad. We ate a lot of fish also. There was a market down the street from us, and Kate would always get us something fresh. Eating healthy was always the norm in our house.”

In Bluffton, those habits didn’t change. A lovely home, a temperate environment, and great seafood doesn’t hurt, either.

“We like it here. The weather is to our liking. Just this morning, it was 30 degrees, and now it’s in the low 60s. It is seasonal here, and the summers can get hot. There are the thunderstorms too. Sometimes they can be tough. Horses don’t like thunderstorms.”

Photo by Maggie Kimmett
Photo by Maggie Kimmett

The maples aren’t just horse folk, though.

“We love the bird life here, both Kate and me. We really enjoy that aspect of living here.”

But on a late afternoon in July 2019, everything changed.

“Kate suffered a stroke,” Maple said from his home. “When I found her, she was on the kitchen floor. I thought she may have fallen, but there was no blood. Her eyes were wide open, no blinking, and I asked her what happened. She couldn’t answer.”

Doctors told them it would take anywhere from 12 to 17 months for the recovery process. Speaking to Maple in January of this year, they are now in month 18, and improvements have been made.

“The wheelchair is collecting cobwebs now,” he said. “Kate is using a cane to help her walk. Her speech is better, but sometimes the connectivity of brain to mouth and getting the right words out is a struggle.”

Eddie Maple is a full-time caregiver now.

“I would say Kate and I have been closer these last six months than we have in a long time,” he shared. “The first year of recovery was really hard for her. It was frustrating and very painful.”

Photo by Maggie Kimmett
Photo by Maggie Kimmett

Maple, however, is grateful to still be in good shape. “There are times I need to lift and carry her, whether it be to a chair, in and out of bed, or to bathe her. Of course, I keep telling her she has to get well in case I fall down one day. I’ll be expecting her to pick me up.” I swear I could hear his smile through the phone when he said that.

Even before this interview, I felt like I knew Eddie. You see, I grew up in racing. Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga. Every weekend I could, I went to the track and bet on every horse Eddie Maple ever rode. He was my idol. Other than my own father, there wasn’t a man on this earth I wanted to be more like. He won big races, rode great horses, and made me more than a few bucks.

Eddie Maple was my hero.

In 2009, 14 years after being declared eligible and 11 years after his retirement, the phone rang. Maple—along with his 4,398 wins, 13,249 times in the money, Classic winners, riding titles, and so much more—was to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. For me, it was long overdue.

Photo courtesy of Keeneland
Photo courtesy of Keeneland

In my eyes, what made him amazing were also the 20,725 times he didn’t hit the board, yet he kept coming back.

It was the number of times he was thrown, had his ribs cracked, and had his kidneys bruised, along with the countless ankle, wrist, back, and knee sprains that he muscled through.

It was the hard work of maintaining a healthy lifestyle for a 33-year career.

It was, is, and will forever be the genuine adoration he has for Kate and their relationship full of love and friendship that has lasted throughout more than 50 years of marriage.

This wasn’t just a Hall of Fame career as a rider. This is a Hall of Fame life that Kate and Eddie Maple built together.

That, in and of itself, makes him more of a hero to me now than he ever was. •

Photo courtesy of Bob Coglianese
Photo courtesy of Bob Coglianese

For the Love of a Horse

“No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.”
– Winston Churchill

Although retired from the world of horse racing, Eddie and Kate Maple will always be horse people. And their beloved pride and joy, Crandall, is a testament to that.

Bred in Lexington, Kentucky, by Kate Maple and fellow jockey Craig Perret, Crandall is the daughter of Clamoring and Bet Twice, an American thoroughbred racehorse with a Belmont Stakes win. With Eddie in the saddle, she began her racing career as a 3-year-old at Belmont in 1993. After two years racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga, Crandall retired in 1995 and became Kate’s pleasure horse. After living with the Maples in Long Island, Crandall made the move to Bluffton, where now, at 30 years old, she is enjoying her days in the pastures at Lawton Stables at The Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head Island.

And while Kate may not be able to ride her beloved horse, Eddie jumps back in the saddle at least once a week, and they both visit Crandall every time they’re on the island for Kate’s rehabilitation appointments.

Time well spent, indeed.

Read the original story in the Spring / Summer edition of the bluff.

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