Racehorse grooms, once judged in a USA Today readers’ poll as holding “The Worst Job in All of Sports,” are emerging from the shadow of obscurity into the sunlight of long-overdue recognition.
This is evidenced by the highly successful “Groom Elite” training program, outlined in The Blood-Horse (Nov. 24, 2007, page 6786), and by backstretch surveys at Santa Anita and Saratoga.
Additionally, the job of these unsung heroes of the turf is being celebrated in song and story as well.
Despite the dirty work, long hours, spartan living conditions, and modest pay, 78% of the 107 grooms interviewed at the two tracks by the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program declared they sought the job for one simple reason:
They loved horses…
Few, I suspect, loved horses more than stud groom Willie Saunders, of whom a framed photograph hangs in my home. Taken back in 1966, the photo shows this correspondent posing with Saunders—then 80 years old—at Darby Dan Farm. Saunders is holding the lead shank of the hottest stallion in America at the time: Swaps, winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby, setter of four world records, and sire, among others, of 1963 Derby victor Chateaugay and champion fillies Affectionately and Primonetta.
The photo was snapped by Mary Jane Gallaher, the late Lexington Turf journalist who was my guide that day 42 years ago when I visited Bluegrass breeding farms on my maiden trip to Kentucky.
Recently, a long-lingering curiosity spurred by advancing age prompted me to learn more about Saunders. Phone calls to septuagenarian Kentucky horseman Tom Gentry, and to Shannon Leva at the Kentucky Horse Park, who dug into the Gallaher archives there, yielded a story with a surprising bit of history.
Gentry, who says he was “bred and raised” at Darby Dan back when it was the Idle Hour Farm of legendary Col. E.R. Bradley, remembered Saunders as a “take-charge guy who was extremely proud of his job.” When important visitors came, recalled Gentry, “Saunders didn’t care who you were; he’d warn you to ‘stand out of the way,’ and say things like, ‘Now, none of you lady folks can come near the breeding shed.’ ”
Gallaher’s archived notes reveal a wry sense of humor as well. Asked by visitors what he fed Swaps, Saunders would recite the menu patiently, then add with a wink, “He eats like a horse!”
Saunders had gone to work at Idle Hour in 1924, and had five important reasons to be proud of his job. In addition to Swaps, his charges had included Bradley’s famous “Four Bs”—Behave Yourself, Bubbling Over, Burgoo King, and Broker’s Tip—Derby winners all.
Five Kentucky Derby winners in one lifetime? Even a groom in the heyday of Calumet Farm would have had difficulty matching that record.
Thus does Willie Saunders get my vote to be enshrined in a mythical Grooms’ Hall of Fame. There, he would join Will Harbut, Eddie Sweat, and untold numbers of other largely unheralded African-American farm and stable help who throughout racing history have devoted their lives to the welfare of the Thoroughbred.
Sweat, groom of Secretariat, is featured in the recent book The Horse God Built: The Untold Story of Secretariat, the World’s Greatest Racehorse by Lawrence Scanlan, which details Sweat’s close bond with “Big Red.” Harbut, groom of the other “Big Red,” Man o’ War, is remembered for his oft-quoted “mostest hoss” appraisal of America’s legendary champion. (The pair were so inseparable that when Man o’ War died in 1947, just one month after Harbut’s death, it was said the horse had succumbed to a broken heart.)
Harbut lives on in a melancholy ballad that, once heard, lingers hauntingly in the mind. In “The Ghost of Will Harbut,” by award-winning Lexington singer-songwriter Kiya Heartwood (www.wishingchair.com), the “ghost” laments:
“They’re selling the Bluegrass…the fences are black…the old days are gone…and they ain’t coming back.”
Gentry, too, remembers the old days. Not only were Idle Hour’s fences white, he said, “they got fresh paint three times a year.”
White fences or black, on farm or on track, the old days may be gone, but racing’s ever-faithful grooms inspire us still. As John Phillips, managing partner at today’s Darby Dan, told me, “They reflect the soul of the horse business far better than most.”
Morton Cathro, a resident of Moraga, Calif., is a retired award-winning newspaperman and lifelong follower of racing.