Life's Work - by Sean Clancy

It was his binoculars that got me. The ones hanging from an old wooden brush box in an old wooden barn, cracked down the center of the sight line, leather strap twisted and knotted, edges worn to metal, his name—S. Watters—clicked in the plastic label and pasted along the rim of the lens. He probably called them field glasses, ones in which he watched Quick Call, Love Sign, and champions Amber Diver, Shadow Brook, Hoist the Flag, and Slew o’ Gold.

I started out at 10 bucks and bid in five-dollar increments, taking them home for $40. They’re sitting on the mantel in my office—lost in a pile of magazines, a snow globe, a couple of publishing awards, and a picture from the 1970 Colonial Cup. They should be in the Hall of Fame.

S. Watters is gone.

Sidney Watters Jr., Hall of Famer, died Valentine’s Day, 2008. He was 90 years old—and an icon to anybody who yearned to be a sportsman and a horseman, a rider and a trainer, a farmer and a Renaissance man. Watters rode steeplechase races, trained jumpers and flat horses. He did them all better than most. He was the first and only trainer to campaign a champion on the flat and over jumps (Jonathan Sheppard will be the second when/if Forever Together wins her Eclipse Award this winter). He trained the great Hoist the Flag to a championship season as a 2-year-old. He engineered the Test (gr. II)/Alabama (gr. I) double with Love Sign at Saratoga in 1980.

My brother and I went to his estate auction at his farm in Monkton, Md., Dec. 5. We went because we sold an ad to Steve Dance’s Auction Company, because we felt some odd loyalty, because anybody who trains a champion on the flat and over jumps is our kind of man, and simply for curiosity’s sake.

We haven’t been the same since.

There was his life’s work—in piles on temporary card tables in a rented tent, on the flatbed of a wagon, strewn on the ground. The valuable stuff arranged in trophy cases, the rest in cardboard boxes or just spread out like a clothesline gone awry. A man’s life, selling by the pound.

There were wool coolers with F. Ambrose Clark’s initials embroidered on the edge, broken halters, chain saws, posthole diggers, oil paintings, a wooden bench straight from Belmont Park, prints in broken frames, dusty books, hunting boots, walking sticks, his Army uniform (he served as an aerial gunner in World World II), his straw hat, sterling silver trophies, and a pile of clothes that looked as mismatched as the buyers lined up to take home a piece of history.

There were old horsemen in dirty khakis, bandannas in back pockets, who had just hopped off a set of foxhunters. There were antique dealers and sporting art dealers and a man in a cashmere overcoat, cufflinks, and a tie. He brought his own scale. He bought silver; weighing trophies and mea­suring knives and forks before purchasing them. Watters’ life was literally being melted down.

Watters’ nephew, Dickie Small, tried to buy the big stuff; he knocked everybody for a loop (including himself) when he opened with a $5,000 bid for a painting of Watters on an old timber horse. Always intense, Small wrestled with heart and pocket, bidding thousands of dollars for trophies and paintings and anything that tugged at him. There was plenty that got away.

We bought a couple of wool coolers, salt and pepper shakers, a plaque from Detroit Race Course (it was five bucks), a Maryland Hunt Cup book, and the binoculars.

We drove home quietly, somewhat unnerved by it all. It was a day that made you think about your mortality. Made you think about things you collect and savor and think are important. Your life’s work, your proof, your treasures, and your memories sold off like chattel.

Who’s going to buy my brother Joe’s collection of Sports Illustrateds dating back to the ’50s? What about his Rheingold Beer sign picked up at a yard sale in college? Will our kids save the old copies of Steeplechase Times and Saratoga Specials or do they get dumped in a recycling bin? What about the boxes of newspaper clippings from a jockey career long since past? What about this pair of binoculars that say “S. Watters” along the edge? What happens to those?

Sean Clancy is is editor and publisher of Steeplechase Times and The Saratoga Special.

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