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The Needle and the Damage Done


     Eddie was young and lean, and liked to drink, do dope, party and go with white girls. I first met Eddie when he worked as a groom for trainer Laz Barrera and I was clocking at Santa Anita during those magical years when first Affirmed, then Waya, and finally Spectacular Bid wintered and raced on the west coast. There were gaps between race meetings then, and it was like a tidal wave of people crashing when Santa Anita opened its admission gates the day after Christmas.

     Now as a groom, while one of the horses you are rubbing is out on the track in the morning, either working or galloping, you’re back at the barn cleaning his stall or brushing off another horse in your care, getting him ready for the next set of horses headed to the track for morning activities. Besides Affirmed, Laz Barrera’s barn was stacked with runners. Laz’s trademark was sub 59-second 5/8th workouts. Eddie would always be asking me about workouts of horses he rubbed for Laz or other runners from the barn. "Who did you like going 5/8th for Laz today?” Eddie liked to gamble, too.

     No matter how successful a trainer becomes, everybody has an opinion of that trainer’s methods, and not always a positive one. Eddie maintained that Laz worked his horses too fast. The whole barn was cranked too high.

     As a clocker, when a horse starts a workout with a display of blinding speed and finishes strong along the wood while completing a sub 59-second clocking for 5/8th for Laz Barrera, that’s a good bet. You could make money betting on horses that caught your eye traveling smartly over the preferred workout distance of these trainers: Gosden (7/8th on the turf), Whittingham (a flat mile) and Barrera (5/8th).

     Every trainer on the west coast toiled under the tall shadow of Charlie Whittingham. I never saw a horse trained by Whittingham break down during a workout, and Whittingham worked his horses a mile more often than any other trainer did. When the gate from the stable area to the racetrack was swung open for morning activities at 6 A.M., Whittingham had the first set of horses out on that firmly settled cool dirt surface.

     Early one Friday morning, in Whittingham’s first set of horses working, a half-bay horse, whose sole visible marking was white under its left hind ankle, rolls a half. Now I’m clocking, seated on the steps on the tile apron directly under the finish line. Charlie always clocked from that area on the apron. Sometimes he would yell up to the official clockers in the press box, “What did you get (name of horse that worked) in?” and that was the primary way I could get the name of a horse whose workouts I liked. Cuban born trainer Laz Barrera would yell up to the official clockers in the press box later in the morning from the same spot, "What you get me fie-8?"

     Another means of making a horse is writing down in your notebook the physical markings of that horse. A Charlie Whittingham half-bay with a white marking under his left hind ankle that worked a half in 46-2 would be scribbled into a clocker’s notebook this way: “CW ˝ LHU 46-2.”

     Even without white markings, there are several other ways to identify a horse. For instance, sometimes a clocker could identify which trainer worked a horse by its saddle towel. Whittingham used a white saddle towel. Laz Barrera used a bright orange saddle towel. The time of the morning that a horse worked was also significant. Whittingham was the earliest, while Laz later. Whittingham used pretty young female exercise riders. Laz employed orange-capped Hispanic male exercise riders. The color of an exercise rider’s cap was another sign. The rigging around the thoroughbred’s head was a giveaway. A D. Wayne Lukas worker always flew his trademark white rigging around his head.

     Finally, you used binoculars to scan the field of trainers on the apron or seated on their ponies to see which trainer was looking at the face of his stopwatch. You had roughly 12 to 15 seconds to catch a trainer snapping his stopwatch after a horse from his barn crossed the finish line, since a trainer always clocked the “gallop-out,” that extra 1/8th from the end of a workout at the wire to the 7/8th pole.

     Shit! Charlie didn’t ask the official clockers in the press box for a time on his half-bay with the white marking on his left hind ankle that had just floated by.

     Charlie returned 45 minutes later to observe his second set of horses working. Meanwhile, I hadn’t seen a horse work anywhere near as brilliantly as his half-bay with white under his left hind ankle. It was the type of work that stuck in my craw. “Yo Charlie!” (I could say that because years ago when I first met Whittingham Apples introduced me) “What was the name of the bay with the left hind under that worked a half in your first set?” “What did you get him in?” Charlie asked. "46-2," I replied. He gave me the name. “You liked that one,” he said and bounced away.

     A week passes and Gosden wins by a pole with a first time starter who pays $30.00. All the clockers are catching hell from their betting clients because not one clocker had pushed that Gosden’s maiden winner off of his workouts. Every clocker checks his back notes on the Gosden maiden winner, and concurs that Gosden’s maiden winner has repeatedly worked moderately.

     Early the next morning, right after Whittingham’s first set has worked, Charlie yells up to the official clockers in the press box, "What did you get?" (he shouts the name of the half-bay with the white marking under his left hind ankle whose workout I liked last Friday, (CW ˝ LHU 46- 2). Damn! I remember one bay working for Charlie in his first set, but it had no markings and didn’t float over the cool surface. So when Charlie’s first set passes within twenty feet of me to return to the barn area through the tunnel to the saddling paddock, I double-check the hind legs of the half-bay that had worked, and it has no markings!

     "Yo Charlie!" Now, I have my head down, thumbing back in my notebook to the page with the start of last Friday’s workout session. I point to the scribbling in my notebook. “That bay that you just worked had no left hind under but you gave me that same name for a bay that had a left hind under.” Charlie replies, "The horse you’re looking for was the maiden for Gosden that won yesterday."

     The windup is: Charlie tells me that some owners like to bet and if a trainer wants to keep the betting owners’ horses in his stable he has to set a horse up to not only win for the betting owner but at a price. Gosden, being British, folds his arms and says, “He had a big house payment to meet.”

     Every week at every racetrack, there are a few diamond quality workouts hidden either by trainers for their owner’s betting pleasure or by clockers for their gambling clients. The general public is left barefoot.

     Since Charlie started so early, after all his horses finished their morning activities, he would walk down and stand next to me about once a week, as the morning activity waned. Charlie said he did that to get away from all the people asking him questions. I’d hear him snap the stopwatch inside his trousers pocket on and off. Charlie would then take a peek at his stopwatch. He’d stand beside me about ten more minutes and only say something like “ The track’s getting a little cuppy.” and I would say,"Yep, Charlie the track is cuppy." Looking back, maybe he was clocking one of his horses working under Gosden’s exercise rider and saddle towel.

     Eddie never stayed long with any one outfit, but moved from barn to barn, coast to coast, and job to job. One time Eddie introduced me to Marjorie Everett, the owner of Hollywood Park. Another time, at Kneeland, inside the racing secretary’s office, he introduced me to a steward. That was the first time I met a steward because Apples had told me, “If you see something crooked in horse racing, bet on it, but don’t report it to the stewards because they don’t like to be bothered.”

     One day Eddie introduced me to veterinary medicine at Belmont Racetrack. Eddie was getting a horse ready that was entered in the seventh race. I was sitting on a tack box outside the stall. We were chatting. Then I announced that I was heading to the frontside because it was thirty minutes before first post. Eddie said, "Wait for the vet." I shot back. “What the hell you need the vet for? I thought you told me that your horse in today had four on the floor and wasn’t sore.” Silence from inside the stall.

     The vet and his assistant came strolling down the shed row toward Eddie's stall. Like a Vegas cigarette girl, the vet’s assistant was carrying a porcelain tray, which contained the vet’s small bottles of medicine. "Eddie!" the vet said. Eddie poked his head from the stall and they shook hands. The vet grabbed a needle and began rattling glass as he searched through the bottles on his portable tray. Eddie’s eyes widen as he said, “Make him a winner, doc.”

     The next morning, the ass of Eddie’s horse was the only object one saw when peering over the webbing. His rump was higher than his head. After being raced injected, a horse may stand motionless for hours, its head slumped over toward the darkest corner of his stall, far from the light and activity at the stall’s opening. The horse will not respond to treats or verbal coaxing, nor will it eat.

     The timetable as to when a horse will first return to the track in the morning to resume training with a light gallop, or return to the track in the afternoon for the racing wars, and, finally, when it will be injected again, will depend on its body’s ability to handle drugs, and not at all its breeding.

     The public will be told, when a horse has been lit up on the tote board before turning in a smashing performance in one start, but then, in its next start, is flat on the tote board and turns in a flat performance, that the cause of the form reversal was the track’s surface or an outside post or the hands of the jockey. The truth, though, is that the contrast in performances is related to the hands of the vet.

     Then, one summer, Eddie introduced me to Tanya, the foreman of a barn at Saratoga. Tanya needed a night watchman. In horse racing more times than not, it’s who introduces you that determines if you get a job.

      Tanya was my boss. I was given the duties of night watching a half barn located near the Oklahoma training track. Three trainers who had shipped to Saratoga the top three or four horses in their stables were sharing that barn. Tanya was the boss, because the three trainers had the bulk of their stables in Maryland or California and would just fly into Saratoga as race day neared.

     Our barn was off to a fast start, and from only 12 stalls in that half barn, we won the Whitney Stakes, a two year old maiden race, ran second in the Sanford Stakes, and shipped to Jersey to win the Sorority Stakes.

     Now, because all the horses were running well from my barn, early one night, I notice D. Wayne Lukas stop and lower his tinted car window, taking time to survey my shed row. That was my job. I told Tanya, and she said Lukas was checking in on the two year old filly we had in the Spinaway Stakes. Lukas had a few runners pointed for that stake race, too.

      Lukas’s outfit was the next barn down the road, and late at night I would venture over to his shed row to get some ice for my soda from his ice machine. We didn’t have an ice machine. Lukas didn’t use webbing to front a stall, but instead had a steel grated door that ran from the top to the bottom of the stall. That way a horse could never get loose by slipping under the webbing at night. We used webbing.

      One time in Florida, when I had just started hotwalking for Dimauro, we shared a barn with Leroy Jolley. Jolley’s "big horse" at that time was Honest Pleasure, who slipped under his webbing and was running around the backside of Hialeah one night. Everybody was instructed that if Honest Pleasure came sprinting around to our side of the barn, to just stand in front of him and wave our arms. He would stop, and then we should grab his halter. I didn’t like that idea. You could hear the clop clop of the hooves and the voices yelling when a skittish Honest Pleasure wheeled into our side of the barn. Cowboy, waving his arms, jumped in front of Honest Pleasure, as instructed, and was run over. Muscle sore the next morning, he was given the day off. We gave Cowboy a fifth of liquor. Cowboy used the liquor and half a white tablet of Bute to relax.

     Lukas’s barn kept both the individual horses’ stalls lights on and the shed row lights on all night. I keep all lights off and fluffed a pillow of straw for my horses so they would lie down. Lukas’s horses slept standing up, mostly.

      Tanya would be driven up to the barn, for her ten minute nightly inspection, in a male companion’s black Porsche. She’d asked me if the horses were eating. Then she’d take some of the horses’ temperatures. With all the other horses, she would put her hand under their horse blankets to test their body temperatures. It can get cold some nights in Saratoga, even in August. With the barn resting peacefully, Tanya told me that it looked like the horses relaxed around me and that that was good. Otherwise, she would have told me to hit the road. When a female becomes intertwined in the backside of horseracing, the horses in her stable come first, then you.

      I started to bring treats to the barn from the Farmer’s Market on Spring Street. A horse likes someone who brings treats, and I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of the horses because they could hurt you or signal Tanya to get rid of you. Some horses liked raw corn, apples or carrots. Other favorite treats were sweet hay or that Saratoga special: freshly picked dewed cloverleaf delivered every morning in the back of a pickup.

      So when I first arrived at the barn in the evenings, I’d yell, "Ok, who cleaned up their feed tub?" (A feed tub was a big heavy-duty plastic tub filled with mostly oats that was hung at 4 P.M. in the corner of the stall by the groom. Feeding started three hours before I arrived.) As a way of replying, “I did,” a horse would grab the rim of his feed tub with his teeth and bang his tub against the wall by moving it up and down.

      Then I’d march to the first stall where the banging was coming from, put one hand on the thoroughbred’s warm neck and say, "Let me see that tub." I’d lean over his webbing, peer into his feed tub, and with my other hand search the bottom of his feed tub for one oat. If the horse had cleaned up, I would throw three freshly washed carrots (tops and all) into his tub.

      Every horse in my shed row enjoyed treats, except the two-year-old filly we had entered in the Spinaway Stakes. She was listless. You could put a carrot in her mouth and she would just let it drop to the ground. She never cleaned up her feed tub. I’d lean over her stall’s webbing, peer into her feed tub and say, "You’re not eating." She’d place her head on my shoulder, and I would reach up and scratch her ears. That was her treat. I worried about this two-year-old filly, and noticed that one ankle seemed just a smooch bigger than the other.

      Tanya had that rare Marilyn Monroe combination of beauty in her physical presence and her voice. If you weren’t dazzled by her display of legs as she exited the Porsche at night in her party dress, then I was when she sweetened a bit near the end of the meeting. Tanya told me that the trainer of the two year old filly in the Spinaway wanted to see me the next morning. She had told that trainer I was doing a good job. That statement, coming from Tanya, carried a lot of weight with the bosses.

      A night watchman usually rushes to his tack room cot as soon as the first member of his barn’s crew puts his foot under the shed row in the morning (5 A.M.).

     The trainer was there early (6 A.M.) for our meeting and handed me a big cup of coffee. He told me that we had a chance to make a big score in the Spinaway. A few works had been hidden. I nodded. He then said, “I’m eating at the Italian restaurant on the outskirts of town on Broadway tonight and I’ll know for sure after dinner.” Then I said, "What does dinner at an Italian restaurant have to do with a horse race?" He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t ask so many questions.”

     So here’s the windup: I was told to be at the barn around 11:30 A.M. the next morning, the day of the Spinaway Stakes. So there I was, alone, because all the barn chores were completed and the crew had scrammed. I was walking the row, talking to the horses at 12:00 noon when the veterinarian pulled up. “Where’s the horse in today’s stake?” He asked. I pointed. The veterinarian said, "Get a shank and hold her in the stall." He then lifted the back lid of his veterinarian’s vehicle. He carefully selected a small bottle and a needle, and approached. The veterinarian calmly entered her stall. He found a vein on her neck, loaded the needle from the bottle, and injected. He held his hand on her neck for awhile, and I though this would be a great opportunity to ask a vet about this listless two year old filly’s one ankle looking a smooch bigger than the other. So I did! He never even looked down at her ankles, but said, "I don’t do legs."

     We then left the two-year-old filly’s stall together. I snapped the webbing shut, and the vet walked to the back of his vet vehicle. Then the veterinarian quickly disposed of the needle and the bottle, and closed the back lid of his vehicle.

     He motioned to me, and I moved towards him. "Don’t let anyone go near her stall. Get some coffee, a chair, and sit outside her stall, here, on the edge of the road. Grab some pebbles. She’ll start dancing in about thirty minutes, and throw the pebbles and yell at her so she’ll keep her feet on the floor.”

     "Listen," I said, “you’re not going to the Lukas barn are you?” “No,” he said, “It's your turn today.”
Copyright © 1999 Robert Kachur