It is 6 a.m. and so cold (12°) it almost hurts to breathe. The sun rose at 5:37, but it's overcast and pitch black outside. June Johnson, sensibly dressed in three layers of clothing topped by a goose-down jacket, steps into the tack room at the end of Barn 15 at West Virginia's Charles Town Race Track and switches on the electric heater and teapot, in that order. "This is warm," she says. "A couple of weeks ago it was 3°. We had so much snow we couldn't take the horses out, so we just walked them around the shed row." She sips her tea and hangs the day's training schedule on a length of clothesline: 40 horses to be walked, ponied or galloped. The stable help starts drifting in about 6:30. She has eight people working for her as grooms and exercise riders, but she never knows if they'll all show up. Some work for a week or two and quit. Others are constantly late and in the end are fired. It's a problem getting good help. "Some days," she says, "I come tearing in here, slam the door, sit down and count to 10."
Barn 15 at Charles Town is headquarters for the public stable operated by June Johnson. Under these less than ideal conditions, the 31-year-old Canadian trainer came out a winner last year. Not only did she win most of the training honors at Charles Town, but she also was ranked 10th nationally for races won, the first woman trainer ever to make the top 10. Her horses started 538 times, won 136 races and earned $282,675, which is more than 70% of the average daily handle wagered at this track. Right now she ranks second to old rival Henry Mercer at the winter meeting at nearby Shenandoah Downs but is confident of catching up to and passing him by the time the meet ends on April 1. She and her husband Wade own Cripple Creek, two miles down the road, a 15-acre spread with a handful of horses. She says, "We call it that because there is a creek, and I guess the rest describes the horses we've got."
Wade, who is 65, turned the running of the stable over to her at the end of 1976 because of ill health and considers himself semi-retired. But he's outside the barn every morning, sitting in a red and white pickup truck, the heater going full blast, keeping a sharp eye on things. "A lot of people resent working for a woman." he says. "When I'm around, it kind of takes the heat off of June, and the help pays her some mind. I want to give her all the help I can so she'll be all set when I'm gone." Wade is from Lawton, Okla., and he started out training quarter horses, racing them at places like Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico and Los Alamitos in California. He got so good at it that he was named the world's leading quarter horse trainer in 1956. He also trained a red roan named Go Man Go that was quarter horse of the year three times in a row. Wade switched to thoroughbreds in 1958 and now June has taken over; under his professional eye she has become a first-rate trainer.
The Charles Town and Shenandoah tracks are separated by a two-lane strip of asphalt and are almost identical, except that the former is a three-quarter-mile oval and the latter is five-eighths. There are 27 women trainers and 20 women jockeys at the two tracks, which are obviously equal-opportunity employers. The tracks also are the home of $2,000 claimers that are variously described as muskrats and cripples, not to mention the halt and the lame. Anyone genuinely concerned about animals that are forced to race on sore or crooked legs, might consider the time it takes to travel the short distance to Front Royal, Va., 30 miles away—where one of the major industries is a glue factory. Care is taken to make the horses at Charles Town and Shenandoah Downs as comfortable as possible and bring them up to racing condition. In addition to hay and oats, they are given an almost steady diet of Butazolidin, an anti-inflammatory and analgesic drug, and Lasix, used to prevent bleeding. They also spend a good deal of time hooked up to electric ice machines, which reduce the swelling in their front legs. If they don't win races, their trainers go hungry. And the going rate to train and feed one horse is from $8 to $14 a day. The trainer also gets 10% of purse money. For most, it's a marginal existence. At Charles Town or Shenandoah Downs, a horse has to win five $2,000 races just to maintain itself. That doesn't happen often. Most are lucky to win three or four races a year. The claiming business is like a big game of checkers—I claim one of your horses today, you grab one of mine tomorrow; then let's see which one of us can turn a losing horse into a winner and make some money.
March 13, 1978
June has horses stabled in three different barns, and she makes the rounds several times a day, like an old-time doctor making house calls. She ducks into a stall, runs a hand over a horse's puffed and knobby leg and says, "Now here's a knee for you. One of our owners claimed her in Maryland. Thinks he knows all about horses. We raced her once and just hope she's claimed next time we run her." She moves to another horse, feeling knees and ankles, giving the grooms instructions: "Put this one on the ice machine, fix the bandages on that one and don't forget to give him some Bute." She walks over to Wade's truck to confer with him. "Let's have the vet take a blood sample here. We've got to get the blacksmith to fix the shoes on that one. He cut himself in last night's race."
One of the exercise riders shows up late once too often and June fires her. Another hassle. June saddles up and walks one of the horses over to the Shenandoah strip to gallop him. The track is muddy and deep on the backstretch, and there are treacherous holes along one part, caused by freezing and thawing. This hardly disturbs her. She knows about racetracks like these firsthand. Back in July 1972 she put on jockey silks and rode her first race at Charles Town, finishing second by a short head. A few more rides convinced her this was not what she wanted to do. She says, "I just wanted to know I'd tried it, but I couldn't take having to keep my weight down. It was too hard."
At 8 a.m. weekdays she leaves the barn to go home and get her 6-year-old daughter Kerry (from a previous marriage) up and ready for school. June makes breakfast and packs a lunch for her. The walls of the den are covered with ribbons, and there is a cupboard full of silverware June has won showing horses. It's her first love, and she enters show competitions every chance she gets, taking Kerry, who rides in the six-and-under age classes. Kerry has won some ribbons of her own. June takes her to the bus stop and waits until she is safely aboard the school bus. Then it's back to the barn. There are no spreading chestnut trees or oaks in the stable area. There are no trees at all. There isn't even grass. The barns are cinder block with plastic sheets tacked up to keep the wind out. They are surrounded by asphalt, mud, water and manure. There are no hot walkers, either. The horses are cooled out on motor-driven walking machines, which look like horizontal windmills and can hold six horses apiece. Your fancy Eastern trainer wouldn't be caught dead putting his expensive thoroughbreds on these merry-go-rounds. But at tracks like these they're essential. They cut costs.
The morning routine ends with the feeding of the horses at 11 o'clock. Then everyone gets to go home and collapse. Except June. She goes home all right, but her work continues. There is the bookkeeping to be done and the business of claiming. Her owners trust her completely when it comes to claiming horses for them. It takes a good eye and a lot of research. She studies breeding and past performances to see how a particular horse has been running. "It's all competition and trying to prove your skill as a trainer," she says. "You claim a horse to see if you can improve his performance and make some money with him. There are some people you never claim from. They're the ones who'll buy a horse on its way to the glue factory for $75, put him in a $2,000 claimer and hope you'll claim him so they can make a quick profit. You also never claim from someone with horses in the same barn as yours because it wouldn't be fair. You can see each other's horses, their flaws and leg problems that are covered with bandages at the track."
She tunes the TV to soap operas while doing the books. She recognizes the voices of the characters so well she doesn't have to watch the shows. She says Wade follows them more closely than she does. Everyone is due to return to the barn by 3 p.m., and the battle waged against injuries continues until 4:30, when the horses are fed again. Those entered in that evening's races (post time is 7:15) are given special attention. Their legs are iced, their manes are pulled, they are groomed and curried and given a booster of Butazolidin.
One-third of the horses and most of the bettors are ship-ins from out of state. The bettors come in from Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia, an hour-or-two trip. They are attracted by the exotic wagering the track offers. In addition to the Daily Double, there are the Little Exacta, the Big Exacta and the Trifectas. The average daily attendance is around 4,500. They bet an average daily handle of a little more than $400,000.
But things are not going well for Charles Town and Shenandoah Downs. The trouble started last May when the U.S. Government decided to levy a 20% federal withholding tax on pari-mutuel wagering throughout the nation. It has adversely affected all American racetracks, but is especially burdensome to the smaller ovals that depend heavily on income from exotic wagers and therefore feel the bite proportionately more. Moreover, Virginia recently voted approval of a referendum on pari-mutuel racing. The plan is to build two racetracks in that state, which means a great many bettors could be spending their money at home. Then there's the coal strike. Because of power shortages, Shenandoah had been forced to cut racing to four nights a week, with the number of races reduced from 10 to nine on week-nights and from 13 to 10 on Saturdays. West Virginia horse-racing people are trying to get the state legislature to approve Sunday racing, but so far it's been a losing battle. And as if all this were not enough, Shenandoah has been obliged to cancel 14 programs at the current meeting because of snow. June Johnson continues to hold her own, but she says, "If they do close us down here, I'll move to Virginia or somewhere else where there's racing all year round. I just want to keep on training forever."