The ultimate caretaker

March 1, 2018

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Six decades into her career as a groom, 73-year-old Joanie Uszak will be honored tonight as the Caretaker of the Year by the Florida chapter of the United States Harness Writers Association.

by Tom Pedulla

Trainer Mike Murphy all but pleads with Joanie Uszak not to work so hard, even if it is on his behalf.

Uszak is 73. She is in her sixth decade as a groom. Murphy asks if it really is necessary for her to wake up at 3 a.m. daily so she can arrive at 4 a.m. at Pompano Park in Pompano Beach, FL.

“You don’t understand,” she tells him. “They’re waitin’ on me.”

Uszak’s extreme diligence, her concern for every need of the horses waiting on her, is being saluted by the Florida chapter of the United States Harness Writers Association during its 27th annual awards dinner in Deerfield Beach, FL tonight. She will receive the Caretaker of the Year Award.

It is impossible to imagine a more deserving winner.

“If you’ve got to go somewhere, you don’t have to worry about whether your horses are going to be taken care of,” said Murphy. “She’s a perfect person that way.”

Murphy, who trains eight horses, just wishes Uszak would not push herself so hard. Uszak, born in Elyria, OH, knows no other way. She never forgot the wisdom of her late father, Joseph.

“When you do something,” he told her, “take pride in it and do it well.”

She had those words in mind long ago when she hitched a ride on a horse van bound for Florida. She had $20 in her pocket and the faith that somehow, some way, she would establish herself as a groom.

She immediately encountered resistance. The sight of women getting their hands dirty at the barn was a rarity then, typically limited to the wives of trainers. Uszak nonetheless approached the great Billy Haughton about obtaining a position.

Haughton would not think of it.

“I’m very sorry. I don’t hire women,” Uszak recalls Haughton telling her. “I will let you ask the boys if anybody wants to pay you to wash jog carts and wash harnesses.”

So she started in that humblest of ways before advancing with another outfit to mucking stalls and handling other duties that go with the job of being a groom.

But do not call it a “job.”

“It’s not a job. It’s a way of life,” Uszak said. “You get such satisfaction out of little things, a good training trip for a young horse, seeing that something good is coming along. You also get broken-hearted when it doesn’t come together. They are like your children. That’s the way that goes.”

No matter how meticulously Uszak tends to the feet of her horses, no matter how immaculate she keeps
their stalls, she understands how many things can, and do, go wrong during the course of the season.

When asked how she deals with frequent setbacks, she grew emotional responding.

“That one time in the winner’s circle when everything goes right,” she said, “that makes up for all of it.”

Uszak treats her horses like toddlers. She constantly looks to earn their trust, to connect with them, to understand what they are trying to tell her through their behavior.

“It’s talking softly, doing things that make them happy,” she said. “Do they like carrots? Do they like bananas?”

Uszak never fails to pack their favorite treats when she pulls into the pitch-black barn area. Silence gives way to sounds that, to her, match the greatest symphony ever performed. Horses, aware of her presence, begin to stir.

“It is so quiet,” she said. “But as soon as my car comes in and I shut the lights off, you hear the nickers, you see the little pawing (at the ground). Everybody is waiting for breakfast.”

Uszak feeds not only Murphy’s eight horses in Barn U but those that belong to other appreciative trainers nearby.

She acknowledges her demanding schedule contributed to the end of her only marriage, one that lasted three years. She never felt the need to have children. As she sees it, she has stalls filled with them.

Despite its financial limitations, she never aspired to be more than a groom. She insists there is something new to be learned daily, even in the sixth decade of an itinerant career that brought her to many highly-respected trainers and farms.

Murphy, 72, and his wife, Barbara, who also is hands-on, often find themselves soaking up knowledge from Uszak.

“She’s picked up different things,” Murphy said, “and she is not bashful about telling you about them.”

Uszak allows herself time off once the Pompano Park meet ends. Murphy drives to his home base at Hoosier Park, only to return to Pompano the following winter.

Uszak never intends to fully retire. “This is my pleasure,” she said.

Once the interview ended, she hurried down the shedrow to resume her chores.

“I’m behind the eight ball already,” she said, walking as rapidly as her 73-year-old legs would allow.

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