“The Jockey from Forge Village”
By James VanBever
Many people may have visited the Mall at Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire, and not known that it was once the site of a famous thoroughbred racetrack. The great horse Seabiscuit raced here in 1935 and 1936, and the track was mentioned in the movie “Sting.” It was also a popular destination for people from Westford who would often flock to the “Rock” for an afternoon of racing.
Picture, courtesy of the New Hampshire Historical Society.”
Paul Bohenko is 3rd from the left.
(Back of picture) Rockingham Park Salem N. H. Home of the New England Futurity. Mrs. Lutza Smith, who annually sponsors a party for the benefit of the Cripples Children’s Non-Sectarian Fund, is pictured with her “volunteer sides” – members of the jockey colony of Rockingham park. The party this year will be at the Rock Sunday, Aug 23, with Eminence Richard Cardinal Cushing as principal speaker and Billy Daniels of “Old Black Magic: fame among featured entertainers. Picture, left to right are: Leroy Moyers, Terrance Dunlavy, PAUL BOHENKO, Darrell Madden, Mrs. Smith, Henry Wajda, Jack Kurtz and Roger Boudreau.
One of the star jockeys at Rockingham Park and other tracks in New England was a young man from Westford named Paul Bohenko. Paul, who was born in 1935, grew up in the Forge Village section of Westford. He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Bohenko and attended Westford public schools and later Lowell Trade School.
Bohenko, a natural athlete, stood five feet four inches and weighed between 110 and 112 pounds at the age of 16. At fifteen, he entered the Silver Mittens boxing tournament sponsored by the C.Y.O. and the Forge Village Boys Club. Trained by his uncle John “Jackie” Holmes also from Forge Village, Paul won the sixty-five pound championship held in Lowell. He defeated his brother Fred in the finals.
But riding horses was Paul’s first love. His father Walter had been an ardent race fan and when he had a son as small as Paul, there was no doubt the young Bohenko would become a jockey. The Lowell Sun said in an article that Paul Bohenko had been interested in riding “since he was knee high to a grasshopper.” However, the opportunities and facilities for the kid from Forge Village to learn how to ride horses were extremely limited.
Paul’s only chances for riding were riding ponies at a nearby farm and his only opportunity to ride horses came on Saturday afternoons when he was allowed to ride the larger animals. Yet, Bohenko was determined to learn how to ride horses. Each afternoon after delivering his newspapers, he would mount “a mechanical horse he had rigged up in the cellar. This consisted of an oil drum, some leather padding and a pair of reins rigged on springs to give him the feel of a horse.”
The young Bohenko’s ingenuity and persistence paid off when he started riding at Rockingham Park in 1953. Paul’s first win was on October 3rd of that year, aboard a horse named Shiny Job trained by Ed Foster. Foster, who was from Ft. Worth, Texas said of Paul Bohenko at the time: “He’s one of the best prospects I’ve seen in all my years of racing. He’s got natural ability, which is a big thing in any sport.”
Bohenko’s racing career included approximately 300 wins over the course of 9 years for Serembas Circle Y Stable, But his most important win came on August 17, 1963 in Canada when he rode Northern Dancer to the horse’s first victory in the Vandal Stakes. Northern Dancer would later win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and narrowly missed winning the Triple Crown by finishing third in the Belmont Stakes. The horse would eventually be inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.
But the successful jockey never forgot his Westford and Forge Village roots. In December 1954, Bohenko gave a Christmas party for Forge Village children ages one to ten at the Abbot Hall in Forge. The party included food, a Walt Disney film entitled “Peter Pan,” and presents and a visit from Santa Claus.
On another occasion, Paul donated $500 to the new Westford Academy (Now the Abbot School on Depot Street) built in 1955. Bohenko wrote a letter to Westford School Committee chairman Mr. Edward A. Abbot stating: “I, like many other town boys always looked forward to Saturday afternoons because we could go to the Academy gym (now the Roudenbush Center) to play basketball.” Bohenko went on to say that he wished to donate $500.00 for the purchase of new side court baskets at the (now the Abbot School) new Academy. His only request was that a small plaque be placed on the gym wall that state: “Given by Paul Bohenko of Forge Village.” The plaque is still on the wall.
Sadly, Paul Bohenko died in a motor vehicle accident in September 2001. He had lived in Windham, New Hampshire, for the last 40 years of his life. He was survived by his wife Joyce and his three daughters Lori, Wendy, and Shelly. His daughter Lori would become an equine veterinarian. At the time of Paul’s death, Frank Serermba of the Circle Y Stable said of Paul: “He was a good fellow… I didn’t think anybody didn’t like him. I lost a good friend, and I know the world lost a good person.” Paul is interred in the Groton Cemetery, Groton MA.
Lowell Sun, 18 Oct. 1953 pg. 27
Lowell Sun, “Paul Bohenko of Forge Village Looms as Top Jockey,” by Joe McGarry, October 18, 1953, p. 27.
Ibid. “County News”, December 20, 1954, p. 17.
Ibid, “Local Jockey Donates Funds for New School”, January 4, 1955, p. 4.
Westford Eagle, “Boxing their way to the top, ” by Mike Davidson, March 18, 1993, p. 9.
Nashua Telegraph, “ Area man Paul Bohenko killed when pickup strikes moose.” September 21, 2001.
Ibid. September 22, 2001.
Wikipedia- Northern Dancer