For a groom January and February-are the months of promise. The 2-year-olds are sleek, fat and unscarred and, as with children, one can have hopes and dreams for them. Awkwardly the colts find their racing gaits; hopples burn hides, and the grooms put baby powder on ankle boots to ease the chafing. Young trotters balk and buck in the shafts and sometimes sit down in a sulk on the track, literally sit down on their haunches, which is a familiar position for a man, or even a dog, but somehow ridiculous for a horse.
Such antic scenes as this have been going on morning after morning the past few weeks at the training stable of Joe O'Brien, who runs a serene and purposeful operation in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Two Hambietonian winners have been schooled by O'Brien as well as the winners of almost $5 million in the last 10 years, and more failures, too, than one might care to think about. This is a place where horses come for discipline, and men—the grooms—come to find the various but apparently significant pleasures of involvement with racing animals and racing.
The O'Brien farm, a minuscule 40 acres, lies in the reclaimed desert northwest of Bakersfield where irrigation has made an abundant land. Cotton (three bales to an acre), alfalfa (seven cuttings a year), vineyards and orange groves stretch away to the horizon. Oil wells jut from the shoulders of highways or pump fortunes from abandoned parking lots. But, for all its richness, the farming community has simple tastes—a millionaire's home may be a one-story prefab on a patch of ground, and his fare ribs and fatback.
In January wet fog lies about Shafter, Calif., the site of the farm. The vineyards are leafless and cold brown. But O'Brien's 1969 crop is in the barn, and the stable's 29 grooms are busy speculating in racehorse futures. They endlessly analyze the gait and temperament of the 35 new colts and fillies. They know their sale prices and their pedigrees. Their attitude toward the animals they work with (each groom tends two horses) is as prejudiced as that of any sports fan. "I used to hate to get up in the morning to groom her daddy," one remarks of a filly jogging past. "Yeah, I decided to quit if she was that mean," says another.
February 17, 1969
"Did you see Starmon go this morning?" a young groom asks. "Joe says he might be a real good colt."
"Aw, he tells that to everyone," an oldtimer says. "He likes to keep your self-confidence up so you work harder."
A groom named Ray Dorn is looking at three horses working through the fog along the backstretch. They move into the turn, the drivers sitting still as sculpture. "Now watch my filly come home," Dorn shouts. "She'll go good from there. When I take her out to jog I always brush her round the turn. She's going to be a stretch finisher. See. See. Here she comes." As the filly trots to the front, Dorn whoops. "I won another heat. I won $15 last year from these boys betting in the morning on the horses I rubbed. Of course it didn't add up to much. If I won $3 I'd spend a buck-fifty of it taking the driver to lunch. What you do is get together with the driver the night before and say, 'Hey, Tommy, look, I've got to win tomorrow morning.' "
These men that the race public never sees, working in dark, hushed paddocks distant from the strobe-lit grandstands, have their stake, their enthusiasm and a folklore. Working on O'Brien's shedrow are Lucille Ball's former mailman, a high school music teacher and the owner of a copper mine. A man named Libertus Van Bokkelen, who sold scarves in Saks Fifth Avenue, mucks out stalls. There is a Flying Tiger crewman who says he is a friend of Madame Chiang Kai-shek and a onetime banker who remembers studying Milton's sonnets as a junior at Hotchkiss and writing his own iambic pentameters and heroic couplets. A Sonnet to a Dollar Bill was his best verse—his English master read it in class. Later, as a banker, he commuted to New York from socially swank Greenwich, Conn.
Grooms have past performances as varied as those of the horses they tend, but on the track their days fall into a pattern. They move with the horses from Saratoga to Goshen to Carlisle to Bloomsburg as the seasons change, but the quiet rhythm of the backstretch remains much the same—the beat of hooves in the morning and the lull of tong afternoons in the heavy shade of stable awnings. At the fairs—Springfield, Du Quoin, Delaware—someone will tie a puppy to a stable post knowing it will attact young girls in the crowds that wander through the barns. Or a groom offers to show a pretty girl a horse with a golden tooth. There is laughter and banter and, invariably, the stories that begin, "I knew a horse once...." They prescribe old cures—egg yolks, Listerine and an elastic bandage for an injured knee; opium for colic. There are poker games and a flush of ribald camaraderie. At night the men ball up paper in a bucket, light it and grill chops or chicken. Maybe corn and potatoes.
Most grooms measure achievement in the tick of a stopwatch. "You can get as much satisfaction out of a horse finishing second, third or fourth as winning," one explains. "Perhaps you've stood your mare in a brook every afternoon for a month to cool her legs, and finally she's sound enough just to stay flat in a race. That can give you a lot of happiness." The lids of the grooms' equipment trunks, lined with photographs of horses they have rubbed, bear testimony to triumphs of varying degree. They like to pause and tell a visitor about winning races, and those their horses almost won, excuses being a liniment that takes the soreness out of losing.
At Joe O'Brien's stable during these two months of preparation, there is no crowd and no dazzle from the homestretch lights. The life of the groom moves at a measured pace. Radios along the shedrow wail country-rock tunes,
...I want a little of that sweet sensation
Rakes cleaning the shedrow make the noise of a thousand crickets.... The mail brings one groom a lacy Hallmark card and he moves off from the others and reads the message,
...Twee-dle Twee-dle Twee-dle-dum
You're as sweet as bubble gum....
A Canadian boy is describing a telephone call made to his mother the night before. She cried and asked about his suntan. (It's been 45° most of the winter in Shafter.)
Someone bums a cigarette from Don Benson who, as a payday luxury, bought a pack of Benson & Hedges imports for $1.80 in Bakersfield. He explains that Virginia tobacco is sent to London, the cigarettes are made there—"by appointment of Her Majesty the Queen"—and then exported to the U.S.
Vic Aucoin, who has drifted around the world 2½ times since he went AWOL from the CCC, discusses the extrasensory perception of Buddhist monks he has known. He observed it during World War II in the Himalayas while he was ferrying oil for the Flying Tigers ("I was a good friend of Chiang and the Madame"). Aucoin talks of moving on, maybe to South America.
Behind the hay pile, 85-year-old Sam Baker grazes a horse. He used to be a carpenter in a Pennsylvania-Ohio border town. Then his wife died and his barn burned, and Baker, at 79, decided to find a job as a groom. He is well fixed financially. He subdivided his land back in Sharon, Pa., and now it is a flourishing suburb called Baker Heights, with not a house under $35,000. He carries around the blueprint of the subdivision and from time to time telephones his banker to see which lots are left. It doesn't pay Baker to work all year—he'd be faced with too much income tax. So he works a few months and then travels the tracks to occupy himself the rest of the time. Each Derby Day he goes to Churchill Downs. He has had Box 54 since 1937. Generally he takes some pretty girls and bets on sons of Native Dancer.
Ray Dorn is another O'Brien groom who comes and goes. He was a driver and trainer until he went broke. Each winter he shows up in Shafter about the time the horses are shipped back from the tracks, works a while and then disappears in the spring, heading toward Arizona. He takes a gun, sleeping bag and tools and does some work in his copper mine in Kirkland Junction. To keep his claims he must make certain improvements each year: work on the drift in the mine, remove boulders and fix culverts. Then he goes fishing in the Colorado River and contemplates his possible riches. (The claims next to his are being worked by a multimillion-dollar company.) "The mine gives me an excuse for not going East with Joe," Dorn says. "It's a way to save face. Here on the farm it doesn't matter that I was once a driver."
There are grooms who own trotters and pacers themselves and train them in the afternoons. Vince Eufemia is one, and it does not seem to matter that he is working for the horse—a 6-year-old maiden named Reno Bill Tass—rather than the horse for him. Eufemia bought his first trotter when he was working as a postman in Chatsworth, delivering mail to people like Lucille Ball, Roy Rogers, Victor Borge and Veronica Lake. The horse, he says pridefully, had won the Grandview Futurity, although that was some time before he got him for $1,800. The gelding's photograph—winning a race at Santa Anita—is pasted inside the lid of Eufemia's equipment trunk. Joe O'Brien drove him that day, and O'Brien often drives Vince's present horse, Reno Bill, in races. It costs Eufemia $4 a day to keep Reno Bill in the O'Brien stable (as opposed to the standard rate of $15 to $17 a day charged owners who do not groom and train their own stock). This is about one-third of a groom's salary, but Reno Bill has been improving—he had three thirds at Hollywood Park and a second at Bay Meadows, and his time is now down to 2:06 3/5. Soon he may have his photograph in Vince's gallery. (There is a picture there now of a horse that Vince' refers to as Reno Bill, but it is actually the photograph of another horse that Vince saw in a magazine and admired because he looked like Reno Bill.)
A man like Eufemia relishes his few victories for a long time. Vince always carries in his trunk the patrol film of one win, though he has never found anyone with a movie projector to show it to him.
The music teacher who worked for O'Brien until he was drafted into the Army last month won four races at Hollywood Park with a horse he owned. And Bob Smith, the onetime banker who headed one of Irving Trust's commercial credit departments, had a mare in the barn that beat Joe's best free-for-aller, Governor Armbro, in bright daylight before that stallion's millionaire owner.
Smith, whom O'Brien enlists as the stable bookkeeper, had an early interest in horses—as a child he would get up before sunrise to wait for the milkman making the rounds of Greenwich mansions with his horse. Smith's father and grandfather were partners in Wall Street firms and he went to prep school at Hotchkiss, where men like Henry Ford II and Henry Luce studied. At Syracuse he majored in economics and after graduating taught for a year at the university. Then he began his banking career at Irving Trust. He used to play bridge commuting on the 7:50 and 5:13. But eventually, during his afternoon shaves in the executive washroom, he began to look closely at himself. He quit and opened a rental business of his own in Greenwich (everything from scaffolding to soup spoons) and later a fancy food shop. He played golf (seven handicap) and bought a few trotters, which he sent to Sanders Russell to train. Then he settled back to be a suburban, if not a country, squire. But matrons wanted more and more Beluga caviar. Smith found himself ordering lemon drops from Belgium by the ton. There was a run on orange peelers after he had advertised them in Better Homes and Gardens. The fancy food business mushroomed. "My hair was falling out and the stuff that wasn't out was turning gray," he says. "One day I just decided to go to work for Russell as a groom." Now 43, he considers the occupation something of an art, requiring full commitment, sensitive appreciation and innate feeling. "If a man is looking for his next paycheck, he cannot be classed as a good groom," Smith says. This may seem an easy judgment, since Smith remains independently wealthy, though he lives on a groom's paycheck and drives a $250 car, but it expresses the importance of the commitment.
The best grooms appreciate their horses as sensitive animals—timid, angry, resentful or devoted, depending on how they have been treated. The men in O'Brien's stable point to a mare called Sissie Blaze and say, "Poor thing. She's been ruined. Her groom last year in Chicago jogged her one day on a bad track with ill-fitting boots. The boots tore at her and now she sulks." You must think about a horse, Smith explains. "They have their moods. You should fear them a little and respect them a lot. The filly I groomed last summer might pull you into a fence one morning and that afternoon be contrite and happy. You find some horses working for you all the time. Maybe they can only go 2:10, but they do it every trip. It's the most they can do and they are enjoying it."
With ingenuity, a groom can make a contribution—sometimes substantial—to the performance of a horse. Last year Smith was grooming Bret Hanover's full sister, a $52,000 filly named Beautiful Hanover. A delicate animal and a finicky eater, she had to be coaxed to clean up her food. Smith would play games with her. He would hide her feed in the stall. Intrigued, the filly would hunt until she found it. The sport whetted her appetite and she began to pick up weight and condition. Just when she was becoming full of herself and hay and oats, O'Brien sent Smith on the Grand Circuit with his Hambletonian hopeful, Keystone Starlet. Beautiful's new groom did not play the game, and she immediately lost the pounds and the edge she had gained.
Sometimes you can match a man to a horse. "You can take a drunk and give him a kind old mare and he'll be sobered by the responsibility," says Smith. "There is a certain empathy. But give the same man a high-spirited colt and he will prefer instead to take his measure of spirits from a bottle."
One such groom has a mare that shies at telephone poles. "I just talk to her when we pass one," he says. "She gets interested in what I'm saying, and she's got a one-track mind."
"Grooming a horse is a labor of love," Smith insists. "Your obligation is for 24 hours a day. A horse cannot go to a faucet or a hay pile. This is a sport for a person who wants to commit himself. Of course, my family thinks I'm crazy. My mother came up to Goshen last year, looked at Keystone Starlet, remarked, 'She's pretty,' and turned around and went home to Greenwich. But that filly gave me a lot of enjoyment. She had splints and at Pocono Downs I would stand her in a brook each afternoon. I would sit in the water myself. You could have beautiful daydreams. There is a close relationship between a man and his horse. Starlet went off stride in 11 or 12 races last year, but at the end of the season she won a $25,000 race. That gave me lots of pleasure."
Dolf Beitlich, a young East German who was a groom in the O'Brien stable but has been promoted to trainer, expresses his commitment to racehorses in another manner. Beitlich was a steamboat engineer on a river near Leipzig before his escape to the West. Later he" had a job as a fireman in a brewery, and for a while he replaced air-conditioner filters in the Royal York hotel in Toronto. Now 28, he is hoping to make his reputation in harness racing. "If I can make it as a trainer with Joe O'Brien, and I ever want to go on my own, his name will stick with me." Beitlich has the intense concern for the animals in the stable that is necessary. "If I'm going to a movie and I see a storm coming, I'm too uneasy to sit through a show," he says. "A slamming door in the barn or just the wind makes horses uneasy. I always come home."
Ambitious young men like Beitlich are the future Billy Haughtons and Stanley Dancers—and Joe O'Briens. These million-dollar drivers were grooms 25 or 30 years ago. The racing secretary and assistant racing secretary at the Hollywood Park harness meeting worked on O'Brien's shedrow 14 years ago. But even those who do not make it up the ladder, who perhaps never really tried or who had bad luck, are not unproud of their profession. As one of them puts it, "This sport has a culture, and it is a science, too." Bob Smith probably would call it poetry. He may someday write a sonnet about it, especially about how it is at Joe O'Brien's in February when a year of hope is ahead and the crop is right there in the barn.