"Nobody’s getting thrown in the tank anymore,” said Marion Gross one afternoon in late May 1986. “By the way, who are y’all throwing in?”
“Chris,” someone answered.
“Go get him,” Marion said, “but watch out for visitors.”
So I ended up in the water tank in front of Gainesway’s stallion barn.
To all of us who worked for Marion in the stallion barn, the tank was where we used to show the stallions.
“Listen up, fellas, I need to see Cozzene, Lyphard, Broad Brush, Wolf Power, and Trempolino in front of the tank. Let’s go get ’em!”
Four different colors: gray, bay, brown, and chestnut; three different continents (North America, Europe, and Africa); different distances raced over different surfaces; different sizes; different body types. Marion knew all there was to know about all of them.
Marion’s commanding voice was distinctive and used with authority. He was called “chief” by some and “boss” by others.
Whether Marion was dealing with his staff or with the stallions, Marion commanded respect.
And, he got it.
On one occasion in July 1970, Marion led a yearling colt by Hail to Reason—Cosmah to the sale ring at Keeneland. After one bid—$100,000—the colt was sold, and the ringman handed Marion the lead shank and said, “Here, take this (expletive deleted) back.” That yearling was Halo.
On another occasion I was told the story about how one of the stalls in the main stallion barn would shake while Marion got its occupant to mind him. That occupant was Bold Bidder. Before long, Marion would go to the stall door and say, “Come here, Bid,” and Bold Bidder would put his head into the halter so Marion could lead him to his paddock.
Marion was, after all, a horseman’s horseman. Horsemen and horsewomen from around the world would come to visit and be greeted by Marion, who would always remove his cap as he introduced himself, a gesture appreciated by many but mentioned by few—mainly because they had no time to; they were anticipating the stallion show. Whether the visitors were tourists or breeders, Marion treated everyone who visited like royalty.
“You’d like a shoe from Cozzene? I think I have one.” And sure enough, Marion would go into the tack room and return with the correct shoe.
Marion loved his job, and he loved his horses, too. He knew all their habits, their phobias, and which paddock would be the most suitable for a particular horse.
When the stallions were coming in from their paddocks, Marion would be waiting by the tree in front of Barn 2 to inspect their legs or their bodies for any cuts and to check for loose shoes. As soon as the stallions heard Marion’s voice, they would stop and pick up their feet.
“This horse is a little light, give him another half-scoop of sweet feed,” he would say. Always watching, paying attention, listening.
A great many people who went on to other roles in the industry passed through Gainesway, and they learned. They learned how to treat horses. They learned how to treat other people. They learned how to present themselves properly.
Marion’s methods have been used all over the world—Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, France, England, and Dubai—whether in the breeding shed or in horsemanship in general.
One stallion in particular needed Marion’s attention. Faraway Son would be quiet one minute and dangerous the next. One day Faraway Son picked up his groom and was carrying him off to savage him. On another occasion Faraway Son pulled his groom into his stall to savage him. Both times Marion was nearby and intervened to diffuse a dangerous situation.
Always generous with his time, Marion was called to work on his day off on a number of occasions. One day in particular was Sunday, May 7, 1990, the day after trainer Carl Nafzger’s famous race call for owner Frances Genter as Unbridled won the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Mrs. Genter was at Gainesway Farm to see her stallions—Dr. Carter, Smile, and Superbity. It now seems appropriate that Unbridled spent his first five seasons under Marion’s care.
Marion, who passed away Feb. 23, will be missed at Gainesway and by many others like me who worked for him. To use his famous catch phrase after a mare was bred: “That oughta get her.”
Marion, you got it.
Chris Owens, who worked at Gainesway Farm from 1986-93, is a bloodstock agent in Lexington.