Life on the Backstretch

The following is a much condensed version of a four-part feature I wrote 28 years ago during my first year as a feature writer for DRF. I reprinted a shortened version of it six years ago, but several people who never read it have expressed an interest in reading it and I felt others who missed it the first time might enjoy taking a peek into backstretch life at Monmouth Park, which is gearing up for the Haskell Invitational. I am also reprinting it mainly to expose readers to a world they know little about and should. As mentioned, this is a very “short” version of the original at “only” 3,500 words, but I have included additional material from the original series and new retrospective content to hopefully make this updated version a bit fresher.

It was 1991. I had recently been freed from exile after 20 years as librarian for the Daily Racing Form, during which time I had freelanced for numerous racing publications, mainly the Thoroughbred Record and Thoroughbred Times, which was still in its infancy. With the DRF battling stiff competition from a new publication, Racing Times, it was decided to make me a feature/news writer.

That summer, I was given what still is the most ambitious and challenging assignment of my life. I was to infiltrate the world of the backstretch, where I would spend a week working as a stablehand at Monmouth Park, mingling with the help, and partaking in anything I felt noteworthy and newsworthy. All the while, I would record my observations and put together a comprehensive look at every aspect of backstretch life. All I needed was to find a trainer who would allow me this access and let me hotwalk, muck stalls, and do any other work that needed to be done. My day would start between 5 and 5:30 a.m. and some nights not end until 9:30 or 10 p.m.

To me, the choice of trainer was simple. It had to be Sonny Hine, who was personable, would have the patience and personality to put up with my intrusion, and was entertaining. Most of all, I was comfortable with Sonny, who along with his wife, Carolyn, had been fixtures at racetracks from New England to Florida for three decades. They didn’t come across as an owner-trainer team, but more your aunt and uncle. They had never had a honeymoon, and after 30 years of marriage had never taken a vacation. They were still madly in love with each other and with life. They had dedicated their lives to each other and to the racetrack. They had been financially rewarded for their early days in which they struggled, often having to sit against each other in a cold tack room at Charles Town in order to stay warm during the winter, cooking meat on aluminum foil because they didn't own a pot, and transporting their horses to and from small tracks throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.

Sonny, with his cherubic face and whiney cadence, bore absolutely no resemblance to his former self, which was an FBI agent who also went on secret missions for the CIA, spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese, and was friends with J. Edgar Hoover. Carolyn, who also worked for Hoover, still clipped coupons looking for sales at the supermarket and shopped at Fortunoff, and to them a night out at dinner often meant a Chinese buffet. And they loved cats. In short, they were my kind of people.

Who else would take in a Jewish kid from Brooklyn with hay fever and asthma, who had never worked with or been on top of a horse. Frank Whiteley, who became a close friend, once called me a “goddamn city boy,” because I didn’t know how to turn on the water outside his barn.

Well, Sonny accepted me, even though I was probably the most inept person imaginable to work around a barn and with horses. I quickly got to know his help – head assistant Pete, assistant Tony, foreman Potsy, grooms Scotty, Brownie, Quincy, Mary, Ricardo, and Raul, exercise riders Sal, Bobby, and Guy, and hotwalkers Doc and Lee.

Much to my dismay, the temperatures each day ranged from 97 to 99. On my first day, as I drove on interstate 195 toward the Jersey Shore, I kept wondering how this madness would unfold. The fear of getting kicked by a horse or any of the other hazards the job had in store paled in comparison to the thought of having use the toilets I had heard so much about. People didn’t flush; they’d steal the toilet paper. It had actually been suggested by my editors to sleep there in a tack room, but Sonny strongly advised against that for my own good.

As soon as I arrive at Barn 8 that first day, Sonny doesn’t waste any time putting me to work. "What are we gonna do with Steve?" he asks Pete. “Pete, you got a horse for Steve to walk? Remember, Steve, always walk on the left side and remember to keep your hand up on the chain.”

Then comes a comment that jolts me back to the harsh reality of my endeavor. “What worries me is what if you get hurt,” Sonny asks. “You’re not on the badge list; you’re not covered.”

“Uh, er, um, hurt? I ask sheepishly. Why should I get hurt?”

Sonny tells me about a girl in California who was hotwalking. He had told her to take a shorter hold of her horse. The next thing he saw was all these feathers flying out of her jacket. She had too long a rein on the horse, and as Sonny so eloquently explained, “The sonofabitch cow-kicked her.”

Bobby, a former jockey, added, “They know when you’re green.”

If I were any greener, the horses would be more inclined to graze on me than kick me.

I was supposed to walk a horse named Prospectitous, but Pete explains that the horse is running soon and might be a little too wound up. He actually had been scheduled to run the previous week, but had to be withdrawn after getting stung by a bee. Pete promises he’ll get one for me to walk soon. In the meantime, I help out by emptying Scotty’s muck baskets in the manure bin. I look down and I’m covered with urine-soaked wood chips and have wet bandages clinging to my shirt. All I’m thinking is, if only my mother could see me now.”

One by one, the riders return and dismount, always with a comment or a story, whether it’s Sal saying his filly, Miss Legality, is scary quick, or Bobby saying that the boss wasn’t very happy about him working Highest Note too fast. Sonny asked him if he knew what he did wrong, and he admitted his mistake. A short while later, Sal comes back from the next set and announces that “Rachel bit the dust.” Two weeks earlier, this girl had run over top another girl, who wound up breaking her leg, and she had a reputation for being careless, nearly dumping a half-dozen riders. So, although no one likes to see another rider being taken away in an ambulance, this was a payback of sorts.

By 7 o’clock, the temperature is already 97 degrees, according to the radio, and the humidity is unbearable. At 8 o’clock, Carolyn shows up with two boxes of donuts, as usual. Chi Chi, a beautiful, but slightly overweight cat, is the first one on line. But, discovering there are no glazed, her favorite, she dejectedly walks away. Carolyn, who always brightens up the barn, also will bring bagels and cream cheese on weekends, and her arrival always is welcome. She laughs at your jokes and listens sympathetically to your problems.

Ok, it’s time. Pete comes over and asks me, “Steve, you ready to walk a horse?”

I’m walking a 2-year-old filly named Tallahatchee, who mistakenly beat Sonny’s own filly, Skip Star, in a workout the day before when jockey Julio Pezua made an error in judgment. Pete has Tony walk behind me a couple of turns just to keep an eye on me.

The instructions come fast and I had better make sure I remembered them. “Make sure she’s straight when you take her out of her stall…get closer to the shank…don’t get too far behind her head or they can kick you…Watch the shank; tighten up or she can step on your toes…don’t get too close to the horses in the stalls; they can reach out and bite you.”

As I’m walking, trainer Danny Perlsweig, who shares the barn with Sonny, says, “Lower you hands, relax. You’ll get them awful tired.”

At one point, our feet got tangled, but, thankfully, she never broke stride. As I turn the corner each time, I am extremely wary of the horse in the first stall. His name is Last Charge, but he’s known as “Finger Man.” Do I really have to explain how he got that name? OK, he bit the fingers of two grooms clean off. On one occasion, they never found it, and on the other they did manage to find it in the straw and it eventually was stitched back on. Each time I passed Last Charge’s stall and he had his head out, I leaned against the horse, trying to shove her out a bit farther.

Sonny has a horse running in the third race, Legitimize, and Last Charge is in the feature, so I sit around all morning and accompany Ricardo and Pete and Legitimize to the track. She finishes second at 2-1. Pete and Ricardo are not happy with the ride. And Sonny isn’t happy with the ride Last Charge is given in the feature, in which he does little running at 15-1.

Over the next few days, I establish a routine, and learn how to separate the manure from the shavings. I even come to terms with the toilets. On the second day I muck my first stall, as Scotty gives me pointers. The stall belongs to a colt named Coolin It, who has a nasty habit of turning over his water bucket every night, saturating his bedding. In the next stall, a very fast colt named Rich Jamaican had laid in his manure and it was all over his face. I had mucked out a stall at Darby Dan Farm years before and did a pretty good job, but that was straw. This was wood chips, and I could barely tolerate the fumes the wet wood chips gave off. It literally took my breath away.

Later, I walk a colt named Chill Factor and Potsy says to let him have two or three sips of water every other time around if he wants it. Lee, who is behind, reminds me to always yell, “whoa back” every time I stop, so the person behind me doesn’t get too close and risks getting kicked. When Sonny asks me later who I walked and I said Chill Factor, he goes, “Oh my gosh!”

When I ask him what he means by that, he downplays his reaction by saying, “Nothing, he has his good days and bad days.”

One thing about Sonny, he has an open-door policy. People are always coming in to either borrow money or try to get him to buy a horse.

With no racing, the afternoon is interminable. The backstretch is left breathless by the hot, stagnant air. Exhausted grooms lay in their rooms, some using makeshift fans to try to stay somewhat comfortable. Horses stretch their necks over the webbing trying to catch breeze blowing down the shedrow. The heat is exceeded only by the boredom.

Over at the horsemen’s lounge, there are two games of racetrack rummy going on, and Brownie is in one of them and apparently winning. It is 99 degrees at 2:30.

Nearby is the drug and alcohol counseling office, and I notice a sign on the door saying there is an AA meeting at 11:30. Next to the sign are two newspaper clippings about Bill Shoemaker’s automobile accident while he was intoxicated. I stopped in and asked one of the counselors if I can sit in on the meeting. She tells me to return at 11:30 and she will take a poll of the members. When I return, everyone votes and it’s almost unanimous: they don’t want me there.

One of the members explains that one of the main precepts of AA is anonymity and he would feel very uncomfortable having someone there listening to everything and possibly taking it out of the room. He says if I have no interest in getting sober he would object to my presence. The counselor apologizes, but I tell her I certainly understand.

That night, I decide to attend the 7:30 chaplain’s meeting in the rec hall. About 40 people show up – black, white, and Hispanic. Sitting near several grooms, I am able to observe them closely. Their bodies are covered with scars, many of them bite marks. There are bruises and welts, many no doubt from kicks or head butts. A lifetime on the backstretch is written on their faces and bodies.

Being most assuredly the only Jewish person there, I have to admit it is the first time I have ever sung, “I Serve a Risen Savior,” and certainly the first time I was ever entertained by a bible-preaching, trombone-playing magician and his hymn-singing wife. There is a great feeling of peace and harmony here -- a respite from the world outside.

As I begin to drive out I look up and see a three-quarter moon illuminating the roofs of the barns. You can sense the silence; you can feel the presence of the horses in their darkened stalls. With everything, there is a beauty here that keeps drawing you back.

The following morning, Scotty is still grumbling about Coolin It and Rich Jamaican, as well as a big brute named Rocketship to Mars. Scotty’s horses are tough, and Sal tells him to stop feeding his horses gunpowder. Scotty likes to go out and have fun and is fond of the ladies, and the job is starting to get to him.

“I’m sick of horses,” Scotty says. “They’re nuthin’ but work. I’ve been workin’ all my life. I done enough work.” Scotty, who is 63, loves the ladies, but makes it a point never to get involved with women on the racetrack. “I don’t want no girls who work with horses all day. I gotta see new faces and get all my women downtown. I got rid of my wife ‘cause I got tired of lookin’ at her.”

While Scotty is a free spirit and prone to devilment, Brownie is quiet and austere. He complains just because he enjoys it. “I’ve been working here too damn long,” he says. “I should own the Goddamn outfit instead of working for it.”

Scotty and Brownie have been with Sonny for a combined 39 years, unlike Tony, who worked his way up from hotwalker right out of high school and whose father is a jockey at Charles Town, and Quincy, who at 24 is the youngest groom and who hopes to follow in his grandather’s footsteps and become a trainer.

At 6:30, Pete has me walk Darby’s Notice who is running the following day. “Let him have a drink every two or three times around, and when you stop, make sure there’s nobody behind you,” Pete says.

I go outside the barn and hold the colt as he’s being washed down. Pete tells me, “Stand in front of him. If you stand on the side, he can kick at you. If he grabs the chain (in his mouth) don’t tighten it up on him, because sometimes they can flip over. Just flick it at him.”

I feel a noticeable difference walking him compared to the others. Darby is much stronger and walking at a faster speed. Whenever I try to slow him down he leans in on me, forcing me closer to the stalls. I have to keep pushing him out with my shoulder.

“Slower,” says Potsy. “Slow down.” After 25 minutes, I’m dripping wet from sweat and it’s not even 7 o’clock. But at least Darby is cooled out.

After training, Pete calls me to come down the shedrow. “If you’re gonna learn, you might as well learn everything,” he says, leading me into the tack room. He then gives me a crash course on the names and uses of the different bits, and shows me boots and saddles and the medicines they use.

The temperature is nearing 100 degrees. Owner Scott Savin shows up to see his promising 3-year-old Technology, on whom Sonny is very high. The colt would go on to win the Florida Derby the following year. The big horse on the backstretch, stabled directly across the road from Sonny, is the Preakness and Belmont winner Hansel, who is the favorite for the Haskell Invitational. Every morning when Hansel goes out, everyone stops what they're doing to watch him. (He would finish a well-beaten third at 1-2, beaten 13 lengths by head winner Lost Mountain and Corporate Report, trained by Sonny's neighbor D. Wayne Lukas). 

That afternoon, Quincy and about 20 grooms are in the track kitchen watching the races on TV when a horse breaks down and a loud chorus of groans is heard. Each groom knows all too well that it easily could have been their horse.

Sonny has three horses running this afternoon, and Lee, Doc, and Bob arrive to hotwalk them after they return from the races. The anticipation is starting to grow.

Scotty stands up on a bench to watch Rich Jamaican, who is in an allowance sprint. The colt shoots to the lead and sets blazing fractions of :21 2/5 and :44 1/5. By now, Scotty is screaming, “Get down on him, daddy! They ain’t gonna beat that mother.” Rich Jamaican holds on to win by three-quarters of a length, with Sonny’s other horse, Unusual Performer. getting up for second. But things change quickly in racing, and Sonny’s third horse, 2-1 second choice Prospectitious, has a disastrous trip and winds up third.

Back at the barn, Scotty, obviously in better spirits, puts the finishing touches on Rich Jamaican. He swaggers out of the stall and says, “Nuthin’ to it if you know how to do it.” Then he boasts about the record of his horses at the meet: “Three for five, and that ain’t no jive.”

I finally feel as if I’m part of the family; part of the team, and it is apparent that everyone loves Sonny, considering how long Scotty, Browny, Pete, and the gang have worked for him.

On my final day, I am vanning down to Atlantic City for Runaway Raja’s race in the Caesars International (formerly the United Nations).

I arrive at 5:45 and ready to hit the road. “You should have brought some Bermuda shorts to wear,” Sonny says. “You’re gonna be awful hot in those jeans.”

Bob Tufts arrives with his van around 7 and everything is loaded on. Pete will be riding up front and I’ll be in the van with the horse and Quincy. The ride down the Garden State Parkway is back-breaking, but invigorating, as I poke my head out and feel the breezes hitting my face. It’s just me, Quincy, and Runaway Raja, who is a rank outsider and really has little chance. But the owner wanted to run, so here we are. Raja is not exactly a nag, having finished second in the William McKnight at Calder and third in the Pan American at Gulfstream. But he is up against some of the best turf horses in the country.

On the Garden State, four elderly people in a Buick wave to us. Three girls drive by in a black Chevy and smile. After a while, my back is killing me and I can’t wait to get to the track. Once we get settled in, the day drags on. The heat and humidity are stifling. Raja is stabled between Jersey favorite Double Booked and the Bobby Frankel-trained Exbourne. Outside the barn, Dick Lundy, trainer of Opening Verse, is playing cards with some of the stablehands.

Frankel arrives at 1:15 and looks at Raja and asks me, “Who’s that?” I tell him and get no reaction. We talk for a while. When Bobby sees Double Booked and Opening Verse being washed down before leaving for the track, he tells his groom to wash down Exbourne. No one gets an advantage over Bobby Frankel, no matter how small.

Raja goes off at 74-1 and does not beat a single horse, as Bobby wins it with Exbourne. Sonny finds out later that jockey Julio Pezua dropped his whip coming out of the gate, and Raja is a notorious whip horse. Linda Rice decides to ship Double Booked back on our van and back we head for Monmouth.

My four days are over. I return on Tuesday to say goodbye to everyone and thank them for letting me into their world. Their faces are now etched in my mind. This started out as an assignment, but it became much more. It was a week of self discovery and gave me a new appreciation for the people who are the backbone of the sport, yet are rarely acknowledged. Old-time grooms like Scotty and Browny are a dying breed, and that is sad. I entered Sonny's world asking much and offering little.

But that world was a bit different back then. When you see a family of five living in a tack room it can be very disturbing. But times have changed. Many tracks have since improved living conditions by building dorms. Monmouth at the time was sponsoring courses twice a week at Brookdale Community College to improve the English speaking and writing skills of backstretch personnel.

Monmouth is the jewel of the Jersey Shore, seemingly rising out of the ground with its pristine white grandstand and with its country-like atmosphere. But behind all the glitz and beauty is the backstretch, serving like the engine room of a luxurious ocean liner. It couldn't run and provide such luxury without the sweat and toil of those below keeping the engines running. For one week I lived in that world and learned more about the Sport of Kings than I have learned before or since. I learned how victory and defeat and jubilation and heartache can intermingle to become a way of life. But most of all I learned about camaraderie, where everyone, rich and poor, shares the same foxhole.

Yes, the backstretch can be an ugly place if you strip away the exterior and dig deep enough, but it is also one of transcendental beauty. It is a place that invades the senses and creates images not seen anywhere else -- the sound of hooves pounding the track; horses appearing out of a morning fog; the steam rising off a horse’s glistening flanks as he’s being washed; the mane of a chestnut horse set aglow by the sun just as it’s rising on the horizon; horses beginning to stir at the crack of dawn, anxious to go to the track; the chorus of nickers at feeding time.

I have passed Barn 8 many times in the last 28 years and no matter which trainer is in there I always see Sonny in the office, with his large jar of pretzels near his desk. I see Carolyn arriving with boxes of donuts. Roaming in and out of the barn are Morris, Chi Chi, and Pepi, with the ubiquitous Morris usually getting himself involved in some sort of mischief. This is where I learned about the nitty gritty of racing; where I learned to get my hands dirty; where I saw the human side of the sport and its every day struggle.

Sonny passed away in 2000 and Carolyn has had to adjust to life without her soul mate and best friend. But just before Sonny died, they were given their most special gift, a steel gray phenom named Skip Away, who became not only one of the great horses of the modern era, earning $9.6 million and a Horse of the Year title, but a beloved member of the Hine family. It was my great privilege and honor to give a speech about Sonny at his Hall of Fame induction, one year before he was joined by “Skippy.”

Everyone needs a cathartic experience once in a while. I had one then and I’m having now as I look back. Even after nearly three decades I still feel as if I left a part of me back at Barn 8.

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