Doug Davis

The charm of horse racing lies primarily in the animals that do it—their beauty, grace, power and their degree of class. But there is an undeniable attraction to the colorful human beings that make it happen. The purpose of this blog is to share my stories about some of these characters. My requisites in the selection: I had dealings with them, their antics and accomplishments should not be forgotten, and that at least most of them are no longer with us. Cot Campbell      


   The nicest compliment I ever received came from big, blustery Doug Davis, a horseman's horse trainer.

   Perhaps the nature of the compliment will indicate that I have been pitifully desperate for kind words. But I loved it.

   In my early years in the horse business, I found it quite expedient to buy horses on terms. Oversimplified, this means I bought the horse by paying one-third of the purchase price down, took possession of the animal, and deferred the balance over two payments six months apart. This was unheard of in this industry when I first started doing it. I could do it because I had earned a good reputation. Any deviations from the payment schedule would be in favor of the seller. I saw to that.

   One year in a horses-of-all-ages paddock sale at Saratoga, Doug Davis was selling (on behalf of his major patron) a good race filly named Jill the Terrible. She figured to be pricey, but I wanted to buy her. Before the sale I asked the owner, whom I knew only slightly, if he would provide me with terms if I were the successful bidder. He was a little skittish about this, hemmed and hawed, and said he'd have to think it over and get back to me.

   Later that day, this fellow walked up to me and said, "I asked Doug Davis if he thought I would be safe in selling that filly to you on terms. Doug told me, ‘Well, I just wish that son of a bitch owed me a quarter of a million dollars!' "

   From that day on, I've had a warm spot in my heart for Doug Davis.

   Doug had style, presence, and charisma. When he walked into a room, you knew he was there. He made any gathering more interesting. He was a big man with a thunderous voice and a gaudy appetite for life.

   As a child he must have been influenced by Tom Mix or Hopalong Cassidy because he went "western" all his life. When he died, his estate included 75 pairs of cowboy boots and 60 cowboy hats.

Until Wayne Lukas wrested the title away, Doug Davis was the winningest trainer in Keeneland history. This was accomplished when Keeneland certainly offered fine racing, but was not as stylish as it is today. Doug was predominantly a "Midwestern" trainer. He seldom ventured to big-time tracks in New York, Florida, or California. He had mostly Grade B stock, much of which he bred from Hempen, a stallion owned by Davis and known for throwing speed and precocity. 

Doug Davis and Annihilate 'em
Doug Davis with Annihilate 'em

   But Doug trained many stakes winners, one of which went to Saratoga and jerked a knot in the best of the Eastern stock in the prestigious Travers Stakes. This was Annihilate ‘em. He had big speed and was able to carry that speed over a distance.

   When the colt got good, Doug loaded him up in a gooseneck trailer, threw in Charlie, his famous and remarkable stable pony, and a few more runners, and headed up to the Spa.

   This entourage created a bit of a reaction at Saratoga. In the first place, gooseneck trailers were not de rigueur at Saratoga. Doug himself went over with "the Establishment" like a bastard at a family reunion, and on top of that, he had a stable pony that actually functioned without a bridle!

   I must admit, the first time I ever saw Charlie smoothly shepherding a jittery runner to the post, I was flabbergasted. Charlie was equipped with not one bit of leather from his shoulders forward and depended entirely on his own incredible savvy and an occasional bit of knee or heel pressure (or mental telepathy!) from the rider.

   The Saratoga outriders and stewards were aghast when Doug came on the track the first morning. Astride the seemingly nonchalant and bridleless Charlie, the old Kentucky boy was taking Annihilate ‘em out for a gallop several days before the Travers.

   An outrider came loping up to this strange little group and said, "You'll have to get that pony off this racetrack. He hasn't got a bridle on!"

   Doug explained, "Aww, I know, but he's fine. Charlie don't like anything around his head." He thought that would take care of the intrusion.

   "Off! Right now! We're not going to have lead ponies out here with no bridles on them. We've got the safety of the racetrack to consider. Go borrow another lead pony," the outrider firmly ordered.

   Doug was not one to duck a confrontation. He shot back, "Well, this lead pony has forgot more about racetrack procedure than all the damned outriders and stewards in New York State will ever know. If this pony goes, I go, and so does this horse that come here to run in the Travers." Doug turned his caravan and headed back to the barn.

   He was loading the gooseneck a few minutes later when up hustled a steward and said that they had decided to make a dispensation. Charlie (without a bridle, of course) could escort Annihilate ‘em on the racetrack and to the post for the Travers.

   The press had a field day with this brouhaha.

About five o'clock three days later the odd couple, Annihilate ‘em and Charlie, were the featured attraction in the post parade. Every eye was glued on them.

Annihilate 'em 73 Travers
Annihilate 'em winning 1973 Travers Stakes

   Annihilate ‘em easily won the 1973 Travers, but it was almost anticlimactic to the post parade featuring the Kentucky horse's bridleless escort. The colt's victory finished off properly one of the most colorful chapters in the history of that fine race.

   Saratoga lore will always maintain a prominent spot for Annihilate ‘em. And Doug Davis. And for Charlie-just a working guy who "didn't like anything around his head."

   While he was for many years the winningest trainer at Keeneland, one year, despite running two or three horses every day, Davis did not win a single race.

   In racing, a "duck" (yes, a fowl!) is presented to the trainer who finishes the meeting without a single winner to his name. I don't know the reason for this custom. But there is always a lot of chortling around the racing secretary's office about whether so-and-so (ideally a high-profile trainer!) "is going to get the duck."

   This particular year Doug had slightly aroused the ire of his good friend and longtime training competitor, Herb Stevens-a crusty citizen and bona fide character in his own right.

   Early in this Keeneland meet, Herb had entered a first-time starter in a maiden claiming race. Much to Herb's surprise, Doug claimed him. While this action did not enrage Herb, it did get his attention. After the race, when the horse was ensconced in his new barn, Doug came running over to his pal Herb and said, "Herb, I couldn't help it. This damned owner of mine out in Arkansas made me claim that horse. I didn't want to."

   Herb said later, "I didn't care about losing the horse, but it made me mad as hell that Davis would think I was dumb enough to believe that cock-and-bull story."

   On closing day at Keeneland, Doug had three runners. The first two ran in early races and failed to hit the board, and now he had one last chance, in the last race.

   Herb Stevens had, of course, been keeping tabs on the big guy, and he was not pulling for Doug to mar his winless record by knocking off the 10th and last race.

   About mid-afternoon Herb strolled into the secretary's office. The staff had purchased and put on display a life-sized, lawn ornament-type duck, to be presented to Davis, if he kept his dismal record unscathed in the last race.

   Herb said, "Give me that damned duck! I'm gonna make this presentation."

   He then alerted the press box, the track photographer, and anyone else he could think of to be in the Keeneland walking ring for a very meaningful ceremony. He arranged for several other fellow trainers-individuals who would tend to enjoy the nature of the project-to grab Davis after the last race (if indeed, he did not win it) and escort him to the ceremonial site.

   The training fraternity got the exact result it desired: Doug's horse did not even threaten. So Doug was steered, almost forcefully, back to the walking ring.

   There, gleefully assembled were every racing writer in central Kentucky, a variety of photographers, most of the staff of Keeneland, and a sizeable group of curious racing fans now exiting the track past the walking ring. It was a splendid crowd, and in the middle of it was Herb Stevens with the duck-on a leash!

   Accompanied by lusty jeering, Stevens dealt thoroughly with Davis' lack of accomplishment at this Keeneland meeting, made the presentation, and concluded with, "Now, Doug, this makes us even!"

   A resulting photograph of Doug, staring balefully down at the duck he held on a leash and clearly at a very unaccustomed loss for words, is a classic. It still hangs on the walls of several racing secretary offices and press boxes at tracks where Doug Davis plied his trade.

   It may have been the only duck Doug Davis ever received.

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