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.

50 Comments

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Pat

Wow Sean you've done it again!

Here we are wallowing in the doom and gloom of an industry based on winning and profit when along comes a piece like this to jolt us into reality and what's really important.

Thanks Sean.This one gets printed and pinned on the barn wall.

30 Dec 2008 12:20 PM
Adele Maxon

Wonderful piece!  Unfortunately, trainers like Sid Watters are probably a dying breed: an all around horseman - from a bygone era

30 Dec 2008 1:22 PM
Karen M. Johnson

My FAVORITE racing writer hits the mark again. Well done.

30 Dec 2008 1:27 PM
Stephi S.

This really hits home for me. I worked for Margaret Watters for a few years and knew Sid from when he came down to see the two year olds and layups at Middleburg. I probably used some of those halters and rode in some of that tack.

He was a great horseman. I learned a lot from his wife, Margaret, and from him as well. If the industry today held to the same standards of training and horsemanship that prevailed then, then the industry, and the horses that are its mainstay, would be in much better condition.

"Back in the day" no one in their right mind would breeze a two year old with open knees. Now they breeze them as long yearlings, never mind waiting until their bodies can take the stress. It used to be that you couldn't FIND a race for a two year old until the middle of July, they simply weren't written. Now they are starting to race them at about the same time they used to start galloping them for the first time. Horses back then, even the good ones, raced an average of twice a month, now they are said to be hard worked if they run once a month. Sid always rested his horses two months a year, sent them home to the farm to turn out and jog for a couple of months away from the stress of training and racing. Now they race year round..less often, but year round. And they break down catastrophically more often as well.

We should all remember Sid Watters, and his excellent brand of horsemanship. He put the horse's well-being before anything. The horses we love need it back again. They really do. And so does racing.

30 Dec 2008 1:37 PM
joe

Sean, I always enjoy your writing and again you remind us that history and tradition are major aspects of a sport too often emphasized as a mere industry.  

30 Dec 2008 1:44 PM
bill

You're right, Sean.  All of that memorabilia should be in the Hall of Fame along with the man it belonged to. He was one of the last of the line of great horsemen.  One of the first horses that inspired me to delve into thoroughbred racing was Hoist The Flag.  What might have been....I always felt a profound sadness for Sid after that horse broke down and shattered so many dreams.  To his credit he forged on and trained other really good horses, but none like Hoist The Flag.  A pity.

30 Dec 2008 2:14 PM
chris

Sean, don't feel sad about your material belongings left behind when you pass away, it's just "stuff".  Think about your legacy-all the lives you have touched with your books and your articles.  I, for one have been affected by your fantasy steeplechase stable contest.  I had so much fun with it, I started a real stable and what a hugh amount of fun I've had.  One never knows the trickle down effect of their actions, but that is what you really leave behind to be cherished.

30 Dec 2008 3:49 PM
Michael Thomas

Once again, it's stories such as these that remind me of why I cringe when some hack journalist repeats the time warn phrase, "the dying sport of horse racing."  What will we do with all the land, people and horses if it truly dies?  Thanks again, Sean.

30 Dec 2008 5:28 PM
Katherine

Sean..a suggestion, why not donate those binoculars to the hall of fame now?

30 Dec 2008 7:17 PM
Richie

thanks for bringing back some great memories. Wish I had been able to attend that auction. Having anything from Sid Watters estate would be quite a wonderful thing.

30 Dec 2008 9:55 PM
Bellwether

what can one say???...it's a chilly world...Long Live The King!!!...believe me, it is a NATIONAL TREASURE Amercians need to noe more about...this is the year they find out..."WON Oh! WON" style...

30 Dec 2008 11:40 PM
Jeffrey Carle

Thank you, Sean. I vividly remember holding those binoculars in the Belmont paddock while Mr. Watters saddled a horse. He was the most complete horseman I have ever known.He literally took them from the womb to the tomb.He not only helped me get started as a jockey and a trainer, he taught me how to conduct myself on and off the racetrack.He was my racetrack 'Dad', and he sorely missed by all.

Thanks again.

31 Dec 2008 7:28 AM
Kenneth

Nice story,Great man and trainer,I worked for him for over 15 years,I was his last assistant when he walked away from Belmont.The things I learned from him about horses are priceless. And I can still see him standing in the paddock with those binoculars over his shoulder.

31 Dec 2008 7:37 AM
Jude

I remember driving home with my father, half an hour after my grandfather died. Between us sat a check box with my grandfather's check book, his driver's license and a few savings passbooks - the sum of a man's life contained in this tiny little package.

I told my father, "I don't want a little box when you die. I want you to spend every last dime playing the horses and drinking martinis."

Nothing makes me happier than knowing he took my advice.

31 Dec 2008 8:43 AM
KielyK

What an incredibly poignant piece of work, Sean.   It makes me wish I could go back to that other time when (horse)men were driven by different sets of values.  Through words like yours, we are all able to revisit that time, mourn its loss and take a peek at our own mortality.

31 Dec 2008 10:30 AM
John

Sean Clancy's "Final Turn" tribute to Sid Waters went straight to my heart.  This gifted writer made me feel as if I was there at the auction with him and his brother.  I could just see Sid's pile of memorabilia and wish I could have been there to pick up a trinket to remember that extraordinary Maryland horseman by. This article made me, once again, realize how very lucky I was to have know Sid Watters and so many other "naturals" in the game as we once knew it.

31 Dec 2008 12:52 PM
Bill P

WELL DONE

31 Dec 2008 4:43 PM
Lwsryn@aol.com

God bless the memories, that is what remains when all is said and done...this man loved horses that will always remain. Bless his heart and bless is soul, he will never be forgotten!

31 Dec 2008 7:31 PM
Anne

Very poignant.  Stephi S. needs to read up on thoroughbred history a little bit.  Two year olds have been running early for nearly a century, if not longer.  The Widener chute at Belmont was used for 3 furlong baby races, if Im not mistaken.  Many horses began their careers in January and February of their 2 year old years. Derby winner Black Gold made his first start in January, in an 18 race 2 year old season.  Citation made his first start in April of his 2 year old year.  Horses were raced far more frequently as 2 year olds in decades past then they are now.

31 Dec 2008 8:37 PM
Mike

Kudos! on a wonderful article about a marvelous horseman.

01 Jan 2009 9:14 AM
JudiO

Wonderful - feel as if I am right there.  Makes me wonder if the boxes in the basement are worth saving at all - or more worth it than ever to me.

01 Jan 2009 10:31 AM
Linda Willson

My heart always takes a little leap for joy when I come upon an article written by my All-Time favorite writer of horse-related stories, Sean Clancy, because I know I am in for a treat...and once again you did not disappoint as you took me down a trail of happy memories colored brilliantly with your perfect choice of words...thank you, thank you...

01 Jan 2009 1:17 PM
Carroll

Kudos Sean, brilliantly written article. Sorry I missed the Auction in Monkton.  I remember Margaret Watters when she was in Middleburg-lovely lady.  

01 Jan 2009 7:50 PM
Alli

Beautifully done Sean. While it is tragic that some feel the need to sell off the things we held dear while we are alive after we are gone, it is good to know that this man will live on through others and that his work will be remembered. I guess to some the almighty dollar means more than their own family history. Thankfully, there were some good honest horsemen and women there to pick up the pieces.

02 Jan 2009 10:08 AM
Jay Glass

I grew up in Middleburg and i knew Margret Watters very well.Mr.Watters was always known as a great horseman.My parents trained at Middleburg for years and was given a horse by the Watters'.The horse was named Queens Cochise,big gray horse.I have a picture of him winning at Dover in 1970.I remember Mardret galloping her horses with a straw hat and tree limb with leaves on it to keep the flies off,she had to be 70 yrs. old.Great article sean;you've come along way baby and all your success is will deserved.

02 Jan 2009 12:52 PM
sass merryman

Sidney was my uncle- I could not go to see his life "sold by the pound"- too gut wrenching- he was so near and dear- just wanted to tell you what Sidney said about his "life's work"- he told me he had never worked a day in his life- because " work is doing what you have to do "and he said "I was always doing what I loved to do". He truly loved the horses he trained, racing, and all the people connected. No doubt there will never be one just like my gentleman uncle- one gift unmentioned- he had one of the greatest senses of humor ever!-

02 Jan 2009 1:38 PM
Maggie

Sean, if I live to be 200, I'll never be able to write like this.  But you inspire me to keep trying.....

02 Jan 2009 4:09 PM
TYRONE (Ireland)

Great portrayal Sean. We need to be reminded constantly of what great men in this game are made of and why they were great, they did great things! We should all strive to be, and do, like them, hard as that is. See you again next time you are in Ireland. Happy New Year.

03 Jan 2009 5:07 PM
Ric Waldman

Thank you, Sean, for bringing back warm memories that I have of Sid. We often had dinner while I lived in New York in the 70's.  Sid was watchful of the foods that he ate, so we often ate at a fish restaurant not far from the Belmont Park--this was in the 70's, well before many watched what they ate.  In his own way, Sid was somewhat of a renaissance man.  Had I been aware of the memorabilia auction, I would have made you work harder for the field glasses--I have fond memories of walking 'across the road' from the Clark barn at Saratoga with Sid (he always let me park there), when he would saddle a runner.  My vision of Sid is with him dressed in a suit, trench coat and slinging those binoculars.  Not only did Sid's death make us recollect an ending era in horseracing, it allows me to flashback on an important era in the life of an impressionable young man who was so fortunate to have the friendship of such an important figure in the history of horseracing who was so willing to share it and forever seek information on aspects of the industry about which he knew less.  We often spoke after I moved to Kentucky and he to Monkton, but I sadly let too much time go by before I last called him.

03 Jan 2009 7:41 PM
Bruce Cerone

Sean, Wow flashback to 1975 when I was flying through my parents restaurant in Saratoga. My first job (age 12) was to make sure nobody dehydrated on my watch. There he was, a stately tall gentleman who was clocking me. After a little while he stopped me and said "this is for you kid" I wish I saved that quarter like he told me to. Sid and I became friends from then on. I do have my reminders of Sid, a saddle cloth of Quick Call's from The Tom Fool and a win photo from The Tanthem Handicap in 1990, both proudly displayed at my restaurant.

 The Clark barn, Quick Call, Wild Turkey rocks-splash of water (if my memory doesn't fail me) and S. Watters, Jr's classy way he carried himself are fond memories that were stirred up from reading your article, which was GREAT by the way.  

05 Jan 2009 9:48 AM
Monica

This really moved me. I worked for a time earlier in the year for an estate auction house, and so many times I had an overwhelming feeling of sadness when going through the belongings of those that passed on and whose estates were being purged by their sons, daughters, wives, and so on. I kept thinking, is this what are our lives become distilled to in the end, just junk without meaning to those we leave behind, something burdensome to be cleared away to the highest bidder?  That was quite an eye-opener to me.

05 Jan 2009 2:36 PM
paddy neilson

wonderful article

05 Jan 2009 8:13 PM
Vita

I never got to meet Sid Watters, but I did get to know Margaret very well. I was having some tough times and she let me stay in her master bedroom with it's own bath. She slept in a smaller room, leaving the master for guests. She let me stay free of charge for 6 months and started to cry when I supplied all the wine for a grand birthday party she had for Sid. She had rented the Middleburg town hall for the night. The party was a grand affair and everyone attended.

Margaret and I first met when I was driving past her barn and I stopped to let her cross the road leading a horse. I rolled down the window and told her "horses always go first".  She asked me my name and who I worked for (Paula Parsons/Centennial Farms).  I had her respect that day. She'd already had mine. Her love and respect for Sid was amazing, but after talking to her, I understood why. They both were fantastic horsemen. I learned so much.

Horsemen, something we need to bring back.

06 Jan 2009 2:15 AM
Lucky Lloyd

Fantastic Story! You took us back to when Horse Racing was indeed a "sport." And some of those wonderfull people who established the "Sport." Times have changed, not for the good,sadly. I have often thought of what we lose when the oldtimers pass. It all goes with them, and then the cycle begins anew. I shed a tear reading your Great Story! So very true! Many Thanks.

06 Jan 2009 10:22 PM
Phil

Your piece is a real work of art and class. Thanx for adding to my day.

07 Jan 2009 10:24 AM
J. Panagot

Classic Clancy. That was awesome.

07 Jan 2009 3:24 PM
dick jackson

 GREAT STORY, I live in Tennessee,my youngest son owns a real estate & auction company.I go to many auctions with him and see how relatives dispose of all the various items their loved ones spent years collecting.At the age of 78, i can only hope that when the time comes that they auction off my life-time collection of things that mean so much to me,they have a chance to read this wonderful article by SEAN CLANCY.

07 Jan 2009 8:39 PM
Rob Whiteley

It takes a Renaissance man to recognize and sufficiently value another. You are a special person and a special writer, Sean. This is a sentient and beautifully written piece that would make Sid smile.  It's as it should be that your eyes will be looking through the same lenses.  Thanks for appreciating the past and the present.  You are the future.

07 Jan 2009 9:19 PM
luv the boy

Sean, wish I could have been at that auction.  I have a bunch of horse memorabilia and wonder what will happen to it when I'm gone.  none of my family share my love of the thoroughbred.  great story. kinda depressing.

Nola

10 Jan 2009 1:54 PM
William T Moorefield

Sean, just caught your great article, Mr Watters was a great horsmen, even better person.All class! Keep up the great work. Wild Bill

05 Jan 2010 12:46 PM
Emelle

My father first took me to Saratoga when I was 16(you could'nt get entrance until that age, back then). I remember Sid Watters, even now. Ambrose Clark used to ride by our home with a 6-in-hand occasionlly. His racing stable , and that of his brother Steve, wonderfully handled by Sid, were just "IT" way back then.

What a terrific trip back in memory time . I to, like many of your admirers Sean, appreciate you insight and humanity.

Thank you for a loving tribute to a man and his season. I'm still not so sure that all is forgotten

about the racing business and quality horseman.

Emelle

05 Jan 2010 5:17 PM
the vulture

i just read your eclipse winning final turn story on mr. watters and it left me wondering about some of the people i met while working for him in the clark barn during the 1987 saratoga meet. every summer id go up to work the meet. i happened to walk by the clark barn one morning and saw the assiatant trainer running out towards the track. i said " hey can you use a hotwalker? " he said" yeah, ill be right back, one of my riders just got dumped". quick call had gotten loose, which meant he was getting good. i started walking and horses but one of the grooms was messing up and got canned. i got to rub his horses and one was wendy walker she won twice in 5 days and got claimed. mr.watters tied for leading trainer that year with d.wayne both with 12 wins. i remember them shaking hands in the the paddock after the last race of the meet. i also remember the old metal feed tubs we had and getting bit by quick call and the volvo wagon with the md. plates. a great barn to work in for a trainer who may have well been the last his kind.

05 Jan 2010 7:12 PM
Jimcat

great story;brings back memories from Belmont Park.Sid Watters giving every one a chance.

Thinking of Majory and Chris Clayton that were riding for him and many others.We shall miss him.

He always looked forward to going back to his Farm.

05 Jan 2010 9:49 PM
Christine Clayton

Mr. Watters was like a father to me. I worked for him for over ten years at Belmont and Saratoga. I was there for Love Sign, Native Courier, and I galloped Quick Call for him for his entire career. There is no horsemen that I have met that could compare to him. He was the greatest!

06 Jan 2010 7:22 AM
Drew Mollica

The eclipse award people finally got something right!!!!

Wow what a wonderful and sad tribute to a wonderful man.  Mr Watters played the game we all love when it really was a great game. Today I'm not so sure.  As for Dickie Small what can you say but he wears his heart on his sleeve and he's as big a man as is the heart that ticks inside him.  

Bravo Sean!!

Congratulations on a brilliant piece of work!  

06 Jan 2010 11:17 AM
Paula

Your recounting of the sale brought a flood of wonderful memories of a friendship forged over 15 years of walking the fields...and talking.

07 Jan 2010 1:12 PM
Ken C

Sidney Watters Jr., working with a small string of allowance runners and getting multiple victories out of four different horses, was the meeting's leading trainer with 12 winners. Quick Call and Crivitz each won three times for him, and this was when the meet at Saratoga was only 4 weeks long.

07 Jan 2010 1:23 PM
John Fisher

Sean : You've written so many wonderful articles about flat racing and steeplechasing,I had forgotten how captivating this tribute to Sidney was.  You have a grace in your writing that is a remarkable gift.  Sidney's nephew, Dickie Small, comes as close to this great man as anyone I know.

07 Jan 2010 6:33 PM
Shannon

Sean, You write even better than you rode as a champion jump jockey. Amazing.

07 Jan 2010 10:31 PM
Frank Panucci

Great story Sean, I often think of all the racing photos I've taken and all the collectibles in boxes I've accumulated over the last 35 years and you just confirmed my inner fears of what is going to happen to all of them.

Over the past 35 years at Saratoga I have engaged in conversation with well over 100 trainers. Sidney Watters was one I will never forget. They don't get any better than Sidney Watters. That $40.00 dollars you spent on those binoculars , priceless my friend.

13 Jan 2010 3:15 PM

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