Only way that horses will win is if you sit there and spend time with 'em. Show 'em that you're tryin' to help 'em. Love 'em. Talk to 'em. Get to know 'em. Now that's what you gotta do. You love 'em, and they'll love you, too. People might call me crazy, but that's the way it is. I been on the racetrack 34 years and I aint ever gonna give up. I think they'll take me to my grave with a pitchfork in my hand and a rub rag in my back pocket.
—EDWARD SWEAT, GROOM
Ben Stubbs stretched his neck over the rail by the winner's circle, adjusted the blue wool hat on his head and squinted up the homestretch toward the starting gate. A Hound of the Baskervilles fog had clung all day to Laurel Race Course, obscuring all but the late stretch runs, and now the horses in the 10th race were dancing like shadows in the distance, looking ghostlike in their gallops to the gate.
Stubbs flipped his cigarette into the mud of the racetrack and stomped his duck boots in the cold. It was almost 4:15 p.m. on Dec. 29, and the seven horses were nearing the starting gate for the $100,000 Congressional Handicap, a 1¼-mile charge along the dead rail of winter racing in Maryland. It had snowed the day before, turning the racetrack into mire, but 12,474 horseplayers had shown up and were betting more than $250,000 on the Congressional alone, making Runaway Stream the tepid favorite at $2.40 to $1. Now the seven horses' grooms, who had walked their charges from the barn to the paddock for saddling, were gathering in small crowds near the winner's circle. Stubbs, 47, a groom for 28 years, stood waiting with the chain and leather lead shank in his hand.
He looked up the racetrack. "Can't see much," he said. Stubbs was looking for his horse, Chas' Whim, the bettors' third choice in the Congressional at nearly 4-1. The 3-year-old chestnut gelding had lately emerged as one of the most popular runners on the Maryland circuit. "One of the best horses I ever put my hands on," Stubbs said as the horses loaded into the gate. "He can run, and he can run on anything—grass, dirt, mud like this. No matter. Calm as a lamb, too. A real nice horse."
June 9, 1991
At stake for Stubbs was $600, or 1% of the Congressional winner's share of $60,000—the usual fee that trainers pay their grooms. To be sure, grooms have more than money on the line when their horses run, more to hope for than that extra stake on payday. No one on the racetrack—neither the owners, trainers or jockeys, nor the assorted hustlers, rakes or handicappers—is nearly as close to the animals as their grooms, or "swipes," that bivouacked army of men and women who make and remake the straw beds in the horses' stalls, who wake up at early light to care for the animals, who turn off the lights at night for them, who scold and succor and curry them. Who brush, rub, massage, bathe, hose, sponge, feed, water, stroke, graze and bandage them. Who pick their feet and sing to them. Who mix their mash and fill their racks with hay. Who dose their feed with thick liquid vitamin mix, pouring it on the oats like syrup over pancakes. Who take the horses' temperatures, paint their feet, feel for hot spots in their ankles and knees. Who swab their legs with poultices of medicated mud and stand the horses for hours in tubs of ice. Who lead them to the wars and back.
"The groom is the life of the horse," says Hall of Fame trainer Sylvester Veitch of New York. "A good groom will make your horse; a bad groom will ruin him. In the good ones it's a natural instinct. You gotta love the horse. You gotta love the game."
Along shedrows from Laurel to Gulf-stream Park in Florida to Santa Anita Park in California, the rivalries among grooms are often keen. Most grooms rub three horses apiece, four at times, and each animal becomes an extension of the groom's life. So, in turn, the horses are a source of enormous, chest-thumping pride for those who care for them. Two days before the Congressional, in the stable area, Stubbs passed astern of Jim Spears, the groom of Reputed Testamony, a 6-1 shot in the race, and Spears hollered: "I'm gonna kick your butt on Saturday!"
"You ain't got a chance!" Stubbs yelled back.
The next day, with ice coating the branches of trees and with snow gusting, groom Willie Kee was sitting in a small room in the detention barn on the backstretch, watching the races with other stable hands, including Sauni Jones, a hotwalker from Chas' Whim's barn. "Well, I'm gonna win the Congressional tomorrow," Kee announced loudly. "I'll be laughin' at 'em all in the winner's circle." Kee was the groom of Learned Jake, who had placed in his last two starts at Laurel, both stakes.
"I got the fittest horse, and the race is set up for me," crowed Kee. "If the track don't dry out, they'll all seven start, and there's plenty of speed, and I come from off the pace."
"Y'all will be second tomorrow," Jones said. "Chas will win."
"Chas won't be on the board tomorrow," said Kee. "The speed will finish him."
Jones laughed. "Horse for horse, I bet you," she said.
"Horse against horse," Kee said. "How much?"
"Bet you three cases of soda," she said. "Jake got to learn not to mess with Chas."
They all learned not to mess with Chas. Bounding from the gate, the filly Seattle Dawn hooked up with Chas' Whim on the lead, and the two were head and head as they raced through the stretch the first time. Learned Jake fell back to sixth. As the horses disappeared into the fog on the clubhouse turn, Stubbs gripped the railing.
"Can you see anything?" he asked. "You see my horse?"
They raced unseen into the backstretch, where Chas' Whim's jockey, Allen Stacy, let him roll past the filly to the lead. "How can my horse see?" asked Stubbs. In fact, the jockeys had about 200 yards of visibility. They swept into the far turn and circled the bend for home. All at once, the field came rushing through the fog like fox hunters dashing across an English moor, and Chas was in front by three, with Stacy in red silks setting him down.
"Come on with him, Allen!" yelled Stubbs.
The chestnut raced on the lead through the stretch, finally winning by a length and three-quarters over Jet Stream and 2½ lengths over Reputed Testamony. The timer flashed a final time of 2:01⅘ only a tick off the track's 10-furlong record. Stubbs leapt for the winner's circle. "Hey, I knew they weren't going to beat him today," he said. "I knew it!"
On the racetrack in front of the circle, Stubbs spotted his friendly antagonist, Spears, and pointed to him. "Turn your horse out to pasture," said Stubbs. "I told you. Give him a break. He needs a rest!"
Stubbs waited for Stacy to gallop Chas to the circle. "This is the best horse I ever had my hands on," Stubbs said. He made a thumbs-up gesture as Stacy approached. Then Stubbs led Chas' Whim into the circle to get their picture taken, and finally he walked the gelding down the racetrack toward the barns. The chestnut, his legs and belly speckled with mud, his eyes wide and nostrils flaring, strode off with his groom. Stubbs slapped the horse on his neck and whispered into his ear: "It's all right, you did good.... It's all over now, you win again, it's all right now."
Stubbs smiled and nodded at the grandstand fans who yelled to him. Grooms shouted, "Attaway, Stump!" A pony girl reached out a hand and gave Stubbs a high five. "Wire to wire!" she cried. "Way to go."
The groom angled his horse through a gap in the fence and toward the barn area, keeping up a constant patter in Chas's left ear, which stood up and twirled as he listened. "You don't belong here," Stubbs told him. "You're too good for these horses here! Hear me? You should be in California, or New York. You're a good horse. You gotta go where the money is."
The man and his horse strode triumphantly into the stable area. A handful of stable workers, most of them grooms, applauded as the two swept past, heading for the testing barn. Across the road from the barn, Kee was already giving Learn Jake a bath and wincing at the sound of Jones's voice. Jake had finished next to last.
"You didn't beat but one horse," Jones told him. "I love free sodas. They taste so good when they are free. That's three cases. Remember? I want Coke, orange and Mountain Dew."
"Awright!" said Kee. "But I don't understand it. He just didn't run today."
Spotting Stubbs, Kee saw the chance to escape Jones. He reached out his hand. "Congratulations!" Kee said. "You got a hell of a horse there, a hell of a horse."
For a moment Benjamin Stubbs was a hero in the place where he lives—a man of the hour in the fashion of the back-stretch, a celebrity in the world of muck sacks and hayracks, of sour mash and sweet feed, of cramped rooms with rollout cots and TV sets with rabbit ears. Stubbs was the groom of Chas' Whim, conqueror at Laurel.
Like fight trainers, racetrack swipes often speak of their horses' exploits in the first person, as if they had fought the battles themselves. "I never met Jet Stream before," Stubbs said. "But I dusted him today. I don't know why they ran that filly, Seattle Dawn, against me. I ran with her and broke her heart. A shame. But I like the glory of winning one of these races. To know you're the groom of a horse who won a $100,000 race! To know you done your job well. To give someone a piece of your mind: 'My horse is better than your horse.' That's what I said today. That's what I like. It's the racetrack tradition."
Surely no job on the racetrack has spawned a more colorful, memorable parade of characters than that of the back-stretch groom. Their nicknames reveal them. Liquor Ben and Never Sweat Hays and Silly Willie. Hard Times, who made a living betting easy marks that he could jump over the hood of a car, any car, the broader the better. The old Calumet Farm groom Slow 'n' Easy, for whom the world turned at half speed, and the late Lyin' Lefty Daub, teller of tall tales, and Kitchen Sittin' Smitty, who hung out at racetrack kitchens looking for work. If offered a job, Kitchen, still sittin', would say, "I'm busy right now."
There was Frank 'n' Beans, and there was Radio Joe, who talked all the time, and Easy Money, with his glittering mouthful of gold teeth, and Can't Talk, who never stopped speaking, and Sweet Potato, Gate Mouth and Center Pole. And there was Sloan (Duck Butter) Price, so nicknamed, he once explained, after he successfully ducked a flying stick of butter in a racetrack cafeteria fight.
The names are tamer nowadays. Down at Gulfstream Park, working side by side, are South Carolina Jimmy and his cousin, Willie Green. "Bill for short," says Willie. Times have changed too. In the first half of this century most of the grooms, like Slow 'n' Easy and Duck Butter, were black. Many of them came to the racetrack from horse farms in Kentucky, South Carolina and Virginia, and they traveled like vagabonds from track to farm to track. The most celebrated groom in the first half of the 20th century was Will Harbut, the black handler of the immortal Man o' War, the greatest American racehorse of his day. Thousands of people went to visit the stallion each year at Faraway Farm in Lexington, Ky., where Harbut would stand in front of the horse's stall and regale his rapt audiences with stories of Man o' War's exploits, sometimes ending with a theatrical flourish: "He beat all de hosses, and there was nothin' left for him to do. He was de mostest hoss. Stand still, Red."
Not 20 years after Harbut and Man o' War died, a month apart, in 1947, the era of the predominantly black groom was disappearing as rural Southern blacks migrated to the industrial North and sought higher-paying union jobs in factories. Racetracks began opening jobs in their stable areas to women—female grooms or exercise riders had been virtually unheard of since the dawn of American racing—who were joined by an increasing number of Latin Americans, particularly Mexicans at California racetracks and Cubans and Puerto Ricans at tracks in Florida.
Today there are female grooms, pitchforks in hand, mucking stalls at all the venues of the sport. They come from everywhere, from farms and towns, often with years of experience in riding and grooming pleasure horses. Anita Lichtenberg, 23, of Mankato, Minn., began riding as a child, broke thoroughbred yearlings as a teenager and spent a summer working as a groom at Canterbury Downs outside of Minneapolis. That experience with racehorses changed her life. To the dismay of her father, a retired Mankato policeman—"My father wanted me to go to college," Lichtenberg says—she chose to make a life for herself on the racetrack as a full-time groom. This winter, at Belmont Park in New York, she was up every working day at 4:45 a.m. and off to Billy Mott's barn, coffee in hand, to begin the care and handling of three of his expensive fur coats. She takes home $230 a week.
It is not soft work, lifting muck tubs and carrying them to the manure bin, slinging buckets of water from the spigots to the stalls, hauling bales and forkfuls of hay and straw, getting stepped on and pushed around by 1,000-pound animals in their stalls. "But I enjoy my job," Lichtenberg says. "I like women at the track. I think we're more conscientious about taking care of a horse; we pay more attention to detail. It's kind of like taking care of kids. You gotta know when to spank them and when to school them. The racetrack gets in your blood. People try to leave, but it seems like they always come back. It pulls you, like an addiction."
Nothing pulls like the yanqui dollar in Mexico, and the opportunity to earn more than $1,000 a month—and, with luck, a good deal more than that—has filled the sheds of American racetracks with grooms from south of the Rio Grande. Many of the Mexican grooms were farmers back home, or farmers' sons who were raised around horses. Numerous trainers say the Mexican grooms bring to their jobs a practiced skill with horses, a feel for the animals. So it comes as no surprise that Mexicans are handling several of the most prominent 3-year-old horses this year, including Fly So Free, an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby who ran a disappointing fifth at Churchill Downs, and a striking California colt named Excavate, a son of Mr. Prospector.
Francisco Ramirez, 20, the groom of Fly So Free, grew up the fourth of nine children of a farmer in Zamora, in central Mexico, where horses were a part of his early years. "I think I was born on a horse," Ramirez says. "I was raised with them. I loved them ever since I was a young boy." At 16, he followed his older brothers north to racetracks in the U.S., first to New Jersey and finally to New York trainer Scotty Schulhofer's barn. Last August, seeing enough in Ramirez's horsemanship to justify the ultimate vote of confidence, Schulhofer made him the groom of Fly So Free, the 1990 2-year-old champion. "He is something I love, like a car," Ramirez says of the colt. "I take care of him like he is family."
Early in February, Francisco Solís of Guadalupe, Mexico, stepped into stall 24 of trainer Charles Whittingham's barn at Santa Anita, took Excavate by his halter and turned the big colt in a half circle. "A good-looking horse, no? Strong, very strong," Solís said. "But very kind. And the coat! You ought to see it when the sunshine hits it. His coat is like a mirror."
"You are always hopin' that every horse you rub will be the top one," says Green. "I lay down at night and I think about my horses. How can I make them better? Oh, I'd love to win the Derby. I think about it every time I get a young horse. I never even been to the Derby. Can you imagine walkin' the Kentucky Derby winner back to the barn? It would be like walkin' to heaven and back."
Eddie Sweat has been there and back, not once but twice, and the memories still drive him at age 52. In 1973, Sweat achieved a kind of celebrity unmatched since the days of Will Harbut. He rubbed the 1972 Derby winner, Riva Ridge, and the next year came back to Churchill Downs with Secretariat. That first Saturday in May 1973, Sweat became the first groom in memory to have rubbed back-to-back Kentucky Derby winners, and five weeks later he became the first in 25 years to burnish a Triple Crown champion. He nearly won a third Derby with Chief's Crown, who finished third in 1985. Today, Sweat is like the old fighter who wants one more dance in the lights.
"Just one more Derby," he says, "and I'll be the happiest little ol' black man you ever want to see. Just one more Derby. That's all. Just one."
Solís, 35, has been there too. He was raised riding horses, learning at the knee of his caballero grandfather. But nothing prepared him for the shock he got in 1982, shortly after he had bridled a 21-1 long shot, Gato Del Sol, and walked him to the paddock for the Derby. Solís watched by the outside rail as the field came charging past the stands the first time, with Gato floundering, 19th and last. "It was like a dream," says Solís. "I was at the rail with all the other grooms, and when he came by, all the dirt was flying up in his face, and I remember thinking, as his groom, He hasn't run a quarter of a mile and already he's dirty! I couldn't see him because of the infield crowd, and then I heard him called fifth at the far turn. They came into the stretch, and I could see him. I could see the silks. He was running toward me, on the lead. I had both fingers crossed and I was praying. There are some things you remember forever. For me, the day I graduated from high school. And my first home run in Little League in Mexico—it hit the roof of a two-story house, right center. And the stretch run of the Derby. They are things you remember forever."
Off to the side of Excavate's stall, Solís is paring wedges from a large carrot and adding them to the colt's tub of oats and sweet feed. The horse comes wide-eyed to his door, sniffing, looking for the groom. "After you taste it once," Solís says of his Derby victory, "you want to taste it again."
Of course, tasting from that julep cup has been reserved for only a slim crowd of racetrack swipes who woke up one morning to find themselves, through the whims of chance, leading the racehorse of the moment to the horse race of the year. Most grooms have never made it to the paddock for the Derby and never will, and for many of them nothing will ever taste sweeter than coffee and doughnuts at 6 a.m. As folksy as he made his corner of the world seem with his homespun dialect and charm. Harbut's existence was far from idyllic. Back in the 1920s, says Rodger Gill, trainer of Chas' Whim, "grooms were like slaves. They slept in a stall. The privy was outside, and they sat on a rail to go to the bathroom. They were abused by work. They got up at 3 a.m., and the stalls were mucked out and the horses brushed off before the trainer ever stepped into the barn."
At many racetracks today, the living conditions for grooms and hotwalkers are not much better. In New York, the cradle of American racing and the citadel of the sport's eastern establishment, some of the housing for backstretch workers is a scandal. In May 1989, Charles Clay, the California-based groom of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence, accompanied his colt to Belmont Park to begin training for the Belmont Stakes in his quest to become the 12th Triple Crown winner. The colt was racing's reigning star, so he ended up in a barn with far cleaner quarters than the racetrack gave to Clay. The groom found himself in a room that would have shamed a Bronx slumlord.
"Filthiest place to live I ever saw in my life," Clay said. "First thing I did is, I cleaned the whole place with Clorox cleanser. Scrubbed it down. Then I set off two roach bombs. Then I set out 40 little roach traps along the walls. They expect people to live in that kind of filth? It was a disgrace."
Not far from the hole-in-the-wall where Clay lived for three weeks is a single-story stone building containing room C-61, which is shared by five Mexican nationals. One of the cots in C-61 is rolled up each morning so that the men have room to move around. Like most Mexicans who work backstretches in America, they are willing to endure the cramped quarters because racetrack housing is free, enabling them to send the bulk of their earnings home to their families. Room C-61, entered through a knobless door with one lock, is spare: In it are a 13-inch TV atop a small refrigerator, a hot plate and stove for cooking frijoles and tortillas, and a four-door wooden closet. A tattered maroon blanket hangs across the window. Groom Antonio Amezcua, 30, sends $800 of the $1,000 he makes a month to his wife and son in the state of Michoacàn, west of Mexico City. Amezcua has not been home since last spring. His is a lonely life, a routine bracketed by sleep and hours of tedium.
"We don't go out much," says Amezcua. "We amuse ourselves here in the room, talking and looking at television. Sometimes, when it gets warm, we find an open space and play soccer, kick the ball around. We miss our families. We write a lot. Once a month we may make a call, but mostly we write. My life in Mexico has changed much since I started working here. I live a little bit better than before. I think my life will get even better if I continue to work hard."
There is no running water in the room, no bathroom, no private shower. In the winter the men dress against the cold before heading out to the washroom, 25 feet away. If there is a saving grace for the five amigos living cheek by jowl in C-61—"like cigarettes in a package," one of them says—it is that they do not have to endure the eye-watering odors and discharges that befoul life in C-40W, a two-story redbrick dormitory for grooms and other track employees across from the Frenchman's Kitchen, the cafeteria in the stable area.
One day in February, the dorm's first-floor bathroom was awash in the rank overflow from stopped-up toilets. An aging lump of human excrement lay in a back corner of the shower. The mirrors above the sinks had been shattered, and the room was littered with used bathroom tissues. In the hall outside, sand and mud caked the wet wooden floor. Upstairs and down, throughout the corridors and the stairwell, a monkey-house reek pervaded the air. Down the first-floor hall, in one of the 11-by 14-foot rooms, groom Gary Pratt, who rubbed New York stakes star Champagneforashley last year, before being disabled by a hernia, was lying in his bed, watching television and listening to the hum of the fan blowing out the window. His roommate was out.
Pratt has loved his life on the racetrack, working with the horses. "I've made good money, and I get along with horses," he said. "I like to spend time with mine. Hey, they're in their stalls 22 hours a day, and that's rough, boring duty. But it's worth the extra work. I just like the way they run, the way a good thoroughbred moves, like Champagneforashley. Boy, it's exciting when you have a good one."
For Pratt, 35, one of the prices he has been willing to pay is living in C-40W. "It's embarrassing to live here," he said. "You can't bring anybody here because of the fumes. I use the upstairs bathroom—I have a key to it—because there is no way I'd ever take a shower on this first floor. You'd shower in there and come out stinking worse than when you went in. You get people who don't live here wandering in all the time, and they don't care what they leave behind."
Pratt glanced around the room. "I did all this decorating," he said. "Put up shelves for clothes. Put in the ceiling fan. I painted it all. It was really dirty when I moved in. Dirt on the walls. It took me about 2½ weeks, little by little, to make it livable. I don't much like living in this building. It's not only the fumes. You don't have any privacy. The rooms are noisy. No air-conditioning. The whole building is boiling in the summer. But it's been my home here."
Set against the grandeur of Belmont's clubhouse and grandstand, these back-stretch rooms provide the most vivid example of substandard living conditions at American racetracks, but they are not alone. Hollywood Park in California has been promising for years to tear down its leaky wooden tack rooms (this is the year, the track says), and last summer at Del Mar, just north of San Diego, some grooms were still living in detached cubicles so small that they looked like privies—wooden boxes so confining that one Mexican joked that he had to step outside his room to change his mind. At Gulf-stream, meanwhile, some of the back-stretch living quarters are "a disaster," says trainer P.G. Johnson. "In some rooms you have to run an extension cord in from the tack room to light the place. No outlets. Cement floors." And in Maryland, living quarters at Laurel and Pimlico are from another age.
"It's very primitive, living," says James Rouse, the developer of Columbia, Md., and Baltimore's Inner Harbor, whose Enterprise Foundation raises funds to build low-income housing and is helping to develop plans for three new dormitories at Laurel. "It's surprising, with so much wealth involved in the sport. People in black Cadillacs come to see their horses run, and they don't see how the people live."
For decades the workers in shedrow—except for the rare celebrity, such as Harbut or Sweat—have labored in anonymity, isolated from and largely unseen by the public. At even the highest levels, no one knows the grooms' names. "They are the unsung heroes of the sport," says East Coast trainer Sonny Hine. Four years ago, when Chrysler Corporation began sponsoring the Triple Crown Challenge, company executives decided to give away a new car to the winning jockey of each event. To give a new Lebaron to a rider with a seven-figure income is to throw gold dust at Solomon. After the jockey, trainer, owner and breeder take their bows for the cameras, the one who truly knows the horse best—the one who has put in all the hours on his knees, applying ointment to the animal's legs and wrapping and pinning the bandages, holding the open safety pins between his teeth-drives to a diner in a battered Chevy with expired plates.
"Grooms spend more time with the horses than the trainers do, but what do they have to look forward to?" asks Hine. "Another racetrack, another job. They are like nomads, going from track to track. Inadequate medical programs. No retirement."
Walter Love, one of trainer Woody Stephens's grooms, has just finished digging up the hard dirt floor in front of his three horses' stalls at Gulfstream and is carefully leveling it with a wooden rake. "I love horses, and I like my job," says Love, the 53-year-old son of Arkansas sharecroppers. "Nobody messes with you. But this is no kind of life. When you get sick on some of these tracks, you just die. There's no protection, no security. I've known grooms who worked on the racetrack 50 years and they retired with no place to stay. No home. No family. No place to go."
Love shakes his head, stays low and keeps on raking. "I was makin' $70 a week grooming in 1961," he says. "Clear. No taxes. The man I was workin' for gave us a $50 bill and a $20 bill. Every Saturday. Thirty years later I bring home $170 a week after taxes. You can't live outside the track for that kind of money—and eat, too. And you better not have any bad habits. You barely make it from paycheck to paycheck. The only ones to make money back here are the trainers and jockeys. Owners already are rich. No one back here gives anything away."
James Ryan was one of those rich and remote owners, all caught up in the clubby atmosphere of the Trustees Room at Belmont Park and The Jockey Club in Manhattan, when he first looked into the many faces on shedrow. It was 1986. At the time, he was a multimillionaire Maryland homebuilder and horse breeder who had bred and raced such cracks as 2-year-old champion fillies Smart Angle and Heavenly Cause. "All I saw were the brass nameplates on the halters, the shiny coats of the horses, and the Trustees Room," he says. One afternoon at Belmont Park, Ryan's wife, Linda, forced him to look beyond the long-stemmed glasses of champagne toward a groom who was holding one of their horses.
"He had no socks on his feet, no laces in his shoes, and there was pus on his eyes," Ryan recalls. "And he reeked of alcohol." All those years, Ryan hadn't really noticed. "We learn to block things out," he says. "I was guilty of not knowing the quality of life of the people who took care of the horses."
That afternoon changed Ryan's life. He became active in various backstretch programs and joined the committee overseeing The Jockey Club Foundation, a tax-exempt charitable arm of the club that had been set up to aid backstretch workers. "For example, someone with medical problems," Ryan says. In 1987 the fund had assets valued at nearly $4.8 million, of which $284,000—about 6%—was distributed to needy track employees. Imploring the committee to spend more and to fund programs that would meet other social needs on the backstretch, Ryan became an increasingly contentious presence on the committee and in The Jockey Club. For instance, to address the major problem of drug and alcohol abuse on the backstretch, Ryan strongly urged the committee to set up education and counseling programs for track employees around the country.
Committee chairman James Moseley, who believed it was more important for the fund to grow through long-term capital appreciation, waved Ryan away. "We're saving our money for a rainy day," Moseley said.
Said Ryan: "But it's pouring out there!"
Ryan's role as the gadfly of The Jockey Club ended abruptly in August 1988, after he asked the foundation to boost its donations to 10% of the fund's assets. That, says Ryan, was when the club's chairman, Ogden Mills Phipps, asked him to resign from his committee post. "The meetings have been too acrimonious," Phipps said. During a meeting of The Jockey Club at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga, N.Y., Moseley announced to the membership that Ryan had resigned from the committee, whereupon Ryan rose to his feet and said, "I didn't resign. I was removed.... I don't want to be a member of a club just to go to dinner. There are things that need to be done on the back-stretch." Ryan's final words, to a thumping silence, were: "I do have one vote, and it's with my feet. I'm leaving."
He left the museum and crossed Union Avenue to the parking lot of the Reading Room on the grounds of the Saratoga racecourse. He slipped into his car and broke down crying. "I felt so alone," he says.
Ryan was, he says, the first member of The Jockey Club to resign since the group was founded in 1894. Backstretch workers across the country thus gained their most vocal advocate. In 1989 Ryan donated more than $1 million of his own money to set up drug and alcohol counseling programs at tracks across the nation; each track receives $20,000 if it can match the sum. So far, such programs have been set up at 54 tracks, including the three of the New York Racing Association: Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga. "These backstretch people are the forgotten ones," Ryan says. "This is the sport of kings. Somehow it hasn't reached the people who take care of the horses. We have to provide a better way of life for them. In pensions, education and housing." Lately, Ryan has been working with Rouse and the owner of Laurel, Joe DeFrancis, to find the money to build those three dorms.
Just about anything would be better than the 12-by 12-foot room at Laurel in which Ben Stubbs lives, with its concrete floor and cinder-block walls, no toilet or running water, a rug that he sprinkles with a deodorizer, and a single fold-up bed. Stubbs's wife, Dorothy, lives with their teenage daughter and adult son in a rented house in Hagerstown, Md., 60 miles northwest of Laurel, and she drives down in their 1982 Buick Regal to visit Stubbs every other weekend. "This is like home but not home," he says of Laurel.
Stubbs eats alone at night in the stable kitchen 100 yards from his room, or grabs two Quarter Pounders and a large Coke at a nearby McDonald's, as he did after tending to Chas' Whim for almost two hours the night after the horse won the Congressional. "You search the racetrack over and over to find a groom like him," says Gill. "They don't come any better."
In caring for Chas after his big victory, Stubbs moved about with worker-ant efficiency, first wielding a pitchfork, then the brushes and rags, then moving to the feed bin and back. He forked the wet bedding and droppings from the stall, spread out fresh flakes of straw, then grabbed a handful of straw and wiped it briskly across Chas's back and shoulders. Now on his knees, Stubbs toweled off the horse's legs. Moments later he was back on his feet, a brush in each hand, flicking the bristles down the chestnut's neck, shoulders and back, moving his hands in quick figure eights, one brush following the other along the coat. The horse danced sideways into him, then came to attention when Stubbs scolded, "Come on over here! Don't step on me."
Stubbs tossed the brushes to the side, picked up a can of mud caulk and packed a scoop of it on the bottom of each of the gelding's feet. "This drains out any heat caused by the pounding," he said. He fetched a bottle of rubbing alcohol and, dropping again to his knees, splashed it on the chestnut's front legs. Stubbs massaged the alcohol in, his hands kneading the cannon bones. The legs were now ready for the artwork. From Chas's ankles to his knees, the groom slowly, meticulously applied a gray medicated poultice. He looked like a sculptor at work.
"This drains the soreness out of his leg, if there is any," said Stubbs. "Just a precaution. He was just a tick off the track record today. Must be workin'."
That done, Stubbs wrapped each front leg with sheets of cotton, again with tedious care, and then he rolled cotton bandage over the sheets, fastening it with safety pins. "Racehorses been good to me," he said. "I've had a lot of luck in my life grooming horses. I don't mind putting in the time. Put in the time and you always get something out of it. Hey, don't bite me!"
It was just past 6 p.m., 12 hours after the groom's day had begun. Outside, it grew cold and dark as Stubbs kept on working. Now he pulled the horse's head down, forced open a flickering eyelid and blew a quick jet of air into the eye. "That gets the dirt out," he said. Five minutes later, he filled a rope hayrack in the feed bin, slung it over his shoulder and lugged it to the horse's stall. The groom tied it to the outer door. Chas attacked the hay, swallowing it in gulps. "They need someone to take care of 'em," said Stubbs. "That's what I do. It's a responsibility. I have no regrets. I put my son through three years of college. The horses paid for the oxygen for my mother-in-law before she passed. They have kept me and my wife all these years."
Stubbs was nearly finished now. He began preparing the gourmet meal. Into a large tub he poured six quarts of oats, a quart of sweet feed, a half cup of bran, two ounces of salt and 1½ ounces of flaxseed. "The flax makes their coats shiny," he said. To that concoction he added three squirts of Redglo, a liquid vitamin supplement; three gurgles of molasses; and three quarts of hot water. Stubbs stirred the mixture with a hand. The young horse raised his head as the groom carried the meal to the stall.
"My son asked me if he could work on the racetrack, and I said, 'No way!' " Stubbs said. "I wouldn't recommend it. But if I had it to do over again, I'd be right with the horses. There was always something about them that I loved. I love what I do. I'm still lookin' for the big horse, the Derby horse. Maybe someday. Be a bricklayer? A carpenter? They can have that. Gimme my brushes, my towels, my horses. And here I am."