The thoroughbred race horse, though a noble steed, can be a sore trial to the people around him. Even the shyest little 2-year-old, gazing at the world through his gentle and liquid eyes, weighs around 1,000 pounds, mostly in bone, hoof, muscle and teeth. Some horses are grouchy and some are friendly. The symptoms for both are distressingly similar. Whether in anger or in play, the horse knows only a few ways of expressing himself, and these take such forms as rearing, bucking, jumping, kicking and biting. The average $2 bettor, it can safely be said, would be thrown into utter terror by any close contact with a race horse, affectionate or otherwise.
Being bred for speed and not necessarily for intelligence, furthermore, the comprehension of the modern race horse of his role in society is sometimes rather limited. Some horses hate to run while others are so enamored of running that they would gladly turn every morning gallop into a speed contest. Some horses love to have the rail at their flanks and keep trying to lug in. Others (the great Whirlaway was one of them) hate the very sight of the rail and try to lug out, losing ground on every turn. Some are lazy and like to lean against the starting gate, a habit that makes them come out sideways when it opens. Some have the posture of a consumptive subdeb and stand in the gate at such a slouch that they have to be aroused to the vertical before they can even begin to think about moving in the horizontal. Some refuse to stand in the gate at all and have to be shipped back to the breeding farm or trained for jumping races where no starting gate is used.
Most horses, however, do get to the track if they have the speed for it and, once there, learn how to behave on it. That they do so is a great tribute to the race horse trainer, who has always received a good deal of credit and fame—and to the exercise boy, who has heretofore received practically none.
The exercise boy is racing's unsung hero, practically worth his weight (around 120 pounds) in gold. He is out at the stable at dawn, when these frightening creatures are at their friskiest. He puts the exercise saddle on the horse, rides him at a walk to the track, steadies him with the feel of his confident hands on the reins and withers, calms him, reassures him, hangs on when he bucks or shies, teaches him manners, corrects his bad habits, gets him used to standing up straight in the starting gate, gallops him a slow mile or gives him a fast workout that is a marvel of split-second timing. Then he takes the horse back to the stable.
For some exercise boys this is the major part of the job. For others, the day has just started. The boy walks his mount in a circle for half an hour until his sweat has dried, his hide is cool and he is ready to go back to his stall without danger of pneumonia. After that he repeats the whole process, usually with two more horses. In the afternoon, if one of his horses is racing, the exercise boy leads him to the paddock, helps saddle him, and then turns him over to a jockey who will get all the glory if he wins. Win or lose, the exercise boy reassures the horse while he is unsaddled and led back to the stable, then walks him around again until he cools out.
The exercise boy may be busy at the track until 6 p.m., a little over 12 hours after he first showed up. He works seven days a week all year round, a nomad who follows the horses south in the winter and north in the summer. For this, if he is lucky enough to work for one of the big stables, he gets around $75 a week.
Under the circumstances, nobody sets out deliberately to become an exercise boy. Practically all of them are would-be or has-been jockeys, getting experíence or gettíng fat. Some of the young ones will make the grade as jockeys. Some of the older men will develop into trainers. The others will some day find what little local glory they enjoy slipping through their fingers. Even if an exercise boy can keep his weight within bounds, he is likely to get too cautious in his 40s to be much good. In the last analysis his profession is a battle of will and daring between the 120 pounds of rider and the half ton of horse. A middle-aged man, especially if he has picked up a wife and some children along the way, begins to see the discrepancy in the contest and loses his stomach for the bolts, the falls and the bruises. He can then either become a mere stablehand, which is a comedown, or leave the race track altogether, which is by that time unthinkable.
EXPERT EXERCISE BOY
Most of the really good exercise boys grew up with horses. One such was Freeman McMillan, a long, lean Oklahoman who spent nine years galloping horses for Calumet Farm and included among his protégés Armed and Citation, winners of nearly $2 million between them. McMillan was acknowledged to be just about the best of them all, especially with strong and ambitious horses like these two—who would certainly have busted out from under any ordinary rider and perhaps have ruined their careers by exhausting themselves.
Besídes his talent for making a headstrong horse behave, McMillan was noted for his judgment of pace. Once he exhibited Citation in a workout between races at Hollywood Park in California. The trainer, Calumet's Jimmy Jones, told him to go a mile in around 1:37. An official clocker at the finish line caught the workout in 1:36[3/5].
Citation, being such a great animal, is not conceded by anyone concerned to have had any bad habits. McMillan likes to say: "He had more sense than any horse that ever looked through a bridle."
When pressed, McMillan will admit that this beautifully mannered horse once kicked him in the stomach. Fortunately the blow landed due center of a stopwatch McMillan was wearing in his trousers' watch pocket. The watch was completely flattened but McMillan received only superficial bruises.
Another fine exercise boy, famed among horsemen if not among the public, was Bernie Everson, a tall, dark, serious young man who worked for the Alfred G. Vanderbilt stables. He is chiefly noted as the boy who handled Native Dancer.
Boy met horse in peculiar fashion. The Dancer was one of 11 yearlings freshly broken to saddle who were shipped from the farm to join the Vanderbilt stable at Santa Anita in November 1951. On the day they first went out for a gallop, Everson was riding another of them—he has forgotten which—and another boy was up on the Dancer. They had barely taken the track when the Dancer exhibited some of the playful mannerisms which he was to retain for his entire racing career. He reared up, fell backward, dumped his rider and took off on a solo exploration of the Santa Anita scenery.
The next time out, Trainer Bill Winfrey asked Everson to take over the Dancer. This was a high compliment, but Everson took a fairly dim view of it at the moment. He had just come off a series of misfortunes. Once, while exercising a gelding named Band Concert at the Laurel track, he had run into a loose horse and wound up with a broken back that kept him in the hospital for months. Soon after he returned to action an unruly 2-year-old threw him and broke his back again. All in all, he was tired of hospitals and full of unpleasant memories—and he could not help recalling that Band Concert, who started it all, had been a gray just like the Dancer. "People ask me if I knew the minute I got up on Native Dancer that I had a great horse," he says. "The truth is, all I was thinking at the time was that I was probably in for a rough ride."
The ride was not as rough as expected, although at the end of it the Dancer got up on his hind legs and pranced lightly off the track in a near-vertical posture, as if trying to live up to his name. This was a routine he kept following whenever leaving the track, presumably in sheer joy at having done his work so well. He also developed a trick of suddenly dropping his left shoulder to get rid of his rider. All in all, he threw Everson off his back six times, and on numerous other occasions he tossed Everson around like a sack of wheat when being walked to cool out.
Native Dancer meant a good deal to Everson. For one thing, he got a percentage of the purse money, and, all in all, the Dancer earned Everson close to $4,000 in extra pay. And having a champion means even more than money. Everson, though he dislikes being considered sentimental, will concede that he had tears in his eyes the day he watched the Dancer lose the Kentucky Derby—and again on the day at Belmont Park when the Dancer said farewell to racing and was shipped home to the farm.
HORSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR
At the opposite pole from the Dancer in Everson's affections stands a deceptively pleasant looking bay colt named Cousin, who went to the races a year before the Dancer and for a time seemed equally promising. In August 1951 Cousin won three 2-year-old stakes at Saratoga, including a length-and-a-half victory over the great Tom Fool in the Hopeful. In the process, however, he developed an abiding distaste for race tracks and began refusing to set foot on them in the training hours. "You couldn't coax him or threaten him," says Everson. "You'd say go and he'd stop; you'd say stop and he'd go. Except he wouldn't go on the track no matter what you said."
Cousin's last race that season was the Futurity at Belmont. He reared at the start, almost throwing his jockey, and finished eighth. The stable retired Cousin but persevered with him over the winter and managed to get him on the track the following spring. He ran poorly a few more times and eventually was sent to England where he became a jumper. As Everson puts it, "Cousin just got the best of everybody. He won out."
The best thing in an exercise boy's life is a champion, like the Dancer. The worst is a horse that could have been great but refused.