Warren Mehrtens turned out to be some athlete, exceling at several sports, including ping pong. (Photo courtesy of the Wingert family)
By Michael Lewis
When he once was asked what he told a horse when he was hunched close to the animal’s ear during the home stretch of race, Warren Mehrtens replied:
“I just recite a little poetry:
‘Roses are red, violets are blue,
Horses that lose races
Are made into glue.’
Of course, Mehrtens was only kidding, but it told a lot about the man who went down in history in 1946 as one of 11 jockeys who have won the Triple Crown in horse racing. Mehrtens had a sense of humor, certainly someone who was not a braggart.
Mehrtens, who is the grandfather of Cosmos B defender Chris Wingert, rode Assault to victory in the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. He is the father-in-law of former Philadelphia Atoms goalkeeper Norm Wingert.
“He was just my dad,” said Noreen Wingert, one of his daughters said three years ago. “What can I say? He didn’t like big crowds and giving speeches and everything like, unlike my husband and my son. They enjoy that. He was just my dad. He was into sports. After Norm and I got married, we got into tennis. Oh my God, he was so good right away.”
Indeed, he was. Norm remembered how good. Since he was a jockey, Mehrtens wasn’t physically imposing at 5-2 and 102 lbs. But as they say, good things come in small packages.
“He was a fascinating guy,” Norm said. “Jockeys — I didn’t think these guys were real athletes. They sit on top of a horse. The first time I met Noreen’s father he said, ‘Do you play ping pong?’ and I said yeah, I played a lot of ping pong with my buddies. Come on let’s go to the basement and play. I said ‘Doggone it, this guy’s a good athlete.’ He could play. He had good hand, eye coordination.
“Whatever he did athletically he was good at.”
Norm remembered when Mehrtens took up tennis when he was around 60-years-old.
“Noreen and I were playing pretty good competitive tennis,” he said. “He said, ‘I want to play.’ I said, ‘I think you’re too old. I don’t think you’re in shape. How are you going to play competitive tennis?’ Within an hour, he looked he had been playing tennis for 10 years. I played for a USTA tennis team.”
Norm also has coached in high school.
“The best athlete in the family wasn’t me, it was Noreen’s father,” he said. “He was the guy who had the juice. Chris was blessed from his grandfather.”
Chris said he was blessed just knowing the man.
The Wingert family visited Mehrtens and his wife Noreen twice a year after the latter moved down to Sarasota, Fla.
“He was a fun guy to be around. He was small in stature physically,” Chris said. “He was still pretty fit until when he passed away. He was kind of a jokester. I don’t know if jokester was the right word, but he was always fun to be around. He was just a cool guy.
“We used to come down there a couple of times for spring break. It was always so much to go down there in Florida and kind of hang out with him. He was not like a grumpy old man. He was super fun to be around. ”
It was in Sarasota that Mehrtens made a new group of friends.
About a week after Mehrtens passed away at the age of 77 on Dec. 30, 1997, one of Mehrtens friends, J. Boyd Henson, who also penned that “Roses are red” story cited earlier this article, wrote in a letter to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:
“Even though he stood only 5-foot-2 and weighted only 102 pounds, Warren Mehrtens was a big and highly respected man among his friends and family.”
Henson added that Mehrtens was known also for his “ability as a raconteur.”
He had a stock of stories and jokes that would rival any public speaker,” he wrote. “He loved to spin his yarns with his friends.
Henson remembered Mehrtens as a generous man. At one Christmas party at his home, he gave his guests china autographed in gold by all of the living Triple Crown winners. Artist Fred Stone pictured each of the jockeys, which included Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longen and Mehrtens.
“Needless to say, each is a collector’s item,” Henson wrote.
Then again, you could have said the same thing about Warren Mehrtens.