My summers as a swipe – 1967 – Part 2
by Dean A. Hoffman
After my final two years of high school and my first two years of college, I spent the summers working at the bottom rung of the ladder in the horse business. I took care of horses, first on a breeding farm and then on the track.
What I experienced stays with me even today, although these were years in the late 1960s when America was experiencing racial strife and protests over the war in Vietnam.
In harness racing, however, there was nothing but optimism then. There’s no such thing as a sure thing in horse racing, but we knew in the late 1960s that harness racing would get bigger and better every year. It had been that way since the end of World War II in 1945.
In that sense, the late 1960s were a vanished world for harness racing. The scourges of off-track betting, state lotteries, simulcasting, and racinos had yet to give gamblers choices that threatened the basic business model of racetracks.
It was indeed halcyon era.
This is the second in a four-part series in which I relive my education and experiences as a groom (I prefer the old term “swipe” in the deck) over four summers
from the distant past (part 1 is here).
I was anxious to return to Walnut Hall soon after I accepted my high school diploma, which I achieved by my clever tactic of sitting behind the smart kids in each class so that I could copy off their exam papers.
I was anxious to get some mud and manure on my boots down on the farm and also anxious to reconnect with my friends Mark and Ralph Haines.
I had recently acquired my first 35mm camera and I was anxious to use it to capture some farm scenes and portraits of stallions, broodmares and foals. Previously I had borrowed my mother’s Brownie box camera and Kodak Instamatic which produced photos of marginal quality.
Early in the summer of 1967, I took my camera to the twin yearling barns at Walnut Hall and took photos of some of the special yearlings that were in paddocks near the barns. I recall focusing extensively on a pair of colts from the last crop by Adios.
The one yearling that impressed me most, however, was a Florlis colt from the great mare Impish. He simply looked like an athlete. He was fit and fearless and he never stayed in one spot too long. That made photography a challenge, but it left an impression on me.
He was the third foal from Impish and the first two had been by Florican — the colt Pay Dirt and the filly Canny Imp. They were both stakes winners that would later leave a lasting mark in the breeding ranks. So, I dreamed about the potential of this colt called Florish.
But he wasn’t the only yearling with impressive credentials. There was a Florlis filly from Beloved and thus a half-sister to Kerry Way, voted the champion freshman (male or female) trotter of 1965. She had won the Hambletonian in the summer of 1966.
Star’s Pride and Tar Heel each had a colt and filly had a filly romping in those fields.
I was never oblivious to the fact that with all triumphs and glory in racing there was also tragedy. Horses died unexpectedly. Horse inexplicably got sick or went lame. But what I experienced in June, 1967 was a horror that is still vivid in memory.
One night after work, a thunderstorm blew into northern Fayette County and I was worried enough about my beloved 1965 Ford Mustang that I pulled it into the ancient breeding shed at Walnut Hall and closed the doors. Normally I parked it outside under the huge, stately trees that dotted Walnut Hall, but I didn’t want the storm to cause limbs to come crashing down on my car.
My roommates Mark and Ralph rode out the storm with me in our small room. The next morning, we drove up to the boardinghouse for breakfast. One of the farm workers came rushing up to us babbling about what a terrible thing the fire had been. We thought maybe he was hallucinating, but once inside the boardinghouse we saw the headline in the Lexington Herald-Leader about a fire at Walnut Hall Farm that claimed the lives of 21 horses.
We lived on the farm. How did we not know about this?
We were shocked and baffled. Twenty-one horses? All those regally-bred yearlings with the careers still ahead of them? It was simply too awful to assimilate.
True, it had been a dark and stormy night. True, the yearling barns were on the other side of the farm from where we lived. But how did we not know about this?
A friend told me that he drove by the broodmare barn that night to tell us, but since he did not see my car or even think about checking the breeding shed, he assumed we were away from the farm.
We drove up to the yearling barns after breakfast. I saw a sight that I never want to see again. The carcasses of yearlings were in what had been stalls just 12 hours earlier. We were not allowed to go closer, but I noticed the Impish colt in the end stall the colt’s neck was bowed as he was fighting for his life. Which he was. I was sickened, absolutely sickened. That sight is indelibly stamped in my mind more and the passage of a half-century hasn’t diminished the horror of what I saw.
We soldiered on because on a farm there is always work to do: horses to feed, horses to breed, horses to treat. But something was missing in our souls.
There were other yearlings to prep for the Tattersalls Sale, of course, and I drew a string of four yearling pacing fillies. Two were by Good Time. One was out of My Lady Scott by Scotland while the other was Good Dena by Gene Abbe.
Then there was Bye Bye Byrd lass and Sampson Direct filly named Once Upona Time out of Princess Best by The Widower (immediate family of Abercrombie).
I was only there during the initial prep stages, mannering them and taming their wild urges. The filly Triple Time was so small that I immediately nicknamed her “Pipsqueak.” It seemed that I could pick her up and put her in the back pocket of my jeans. When I led her out one day, farm manager Ted Woodley asked, “Which one is that, Dean?” Then he looked at her front end and said, “She must be a Good Time” as he noticed her long, sloping pasterns that Good Time passed along to his get.
In the evenings, my friends Mark and Ralph would ride the farm’s lead ponies to give them some exercise. They’d been fat, happy and unemployed since the previous summer, but soon they would be pressed into daily service leading the yearlings for prospective buyers. So, we’d bridle them up in the evening after dinner at the boardinghouse and ride bareback to get them legged up a bit.
That summer I was dating a girl from Cincinnati who loved horses and I invited her down to Walnut Hall to experience Bluegrass horse culture. I suggested that we go riding and she insisted that we use saddles. I wasn’t sure where the saddles were stored, but we found them and saddled up. In the process, she pointed out that I was not saddling my horses the way she’d been taught and she showed me the error of my ways.
That wounded my fragile teenage male ego, of course, but she was plenty good-looking and I let it ride as we went riding across a field in a canter at the farm. Our horses were abreast most of the way and then I looked to my left and didn’t see her. I reined my horse to a halt and looked over my left shoulder. Nancy was lying in the field with her horse 10 feet away. I whirled my horse and rode back to assist her but it turns out that the only thing she’d injured was her pride.
She was able to get back in the saddle and ride on, but at a more moderate speed. I smugly noted that perhaps I didn’t saddle my horse to her satisfaction, but I wasn’t the one who wound up on my keister in the bluegrass.
The tragedy of the fire cast a lingering pall over the summer, but we soldiered on simply because we had to do so. Walnut Hall, I seem to recall, was about 2,000 acres, which was half the size of the original farm. It had been split in the late 1940s and the other half was operated as Walnut Hall Stud, which bred trotters exclusively. When the stud’s premier stallion Rodney died in 1963, the farm dispersed its resplendent broodmare band. The property sat vacant for almost a decade before the Commonwealth of Kentucky purchased the acreage to convert it into the Kentucky Horse Park.
During the mid-1960s, a small portion of Walnut Hall Stud, however, was leased by Martha and Steve Brown to operate as a breeding farm called Dunroven Stud. Martha was one of four daughters of the Katherine H. E. Nichols who owned Walnut Hall. As I recall, Steve leased a quartet of stallions to stand there. Included among them were the Hambletonian winner The Intruder.
One day we had a mare at Walnut Hall Farm to breed to The Intruder and I was assigned to simply walk her down the road over to the former Walnut Hall Stud. Someone followed me in a truck, but we couldn’t find anyone attending the stallions. So, I held the mare while the other guy got The Intruder out of his stall and The Intruder bred the mare.
At the end of that summer, I took some time off to go back to Cincinnati and prepare for my freshman year in college. I recall riding with my father from Cincinnati to western Pennsylvania in early August for the first edition of the Adios Stake. With us was dad’s close friend Jim Hackett, who lived not far from us in the Cincinnati suburbs. Jim was the trainer and driver of Best Of All, the 1966 juvenile champion. The leggy Good Time colt won the first heat ever contested in the Adios, but Hackett was outdriven in the third-heat raceoff by Billy Haughton behind Romulus Hanover.
The Adios was on a Saturday afternoon and Best Of All raced three heats there, then shipped almost 600 miles west to Springfield, IL. I still had some free time before college classes commenced, so I jumped in my Mustang and headed to the Illinois State Fair.
Jim Hackett was superb at spotting potential in an untested yearling and equally adept in training young horses, but his driving and organizational skills were not the best. He had shipped Best Of All and several others to Springfield without asking in advance for stall reservations. Fair racing officials found stalls for the horses, but they were scattered hither and yon in various barns rather than in a group. I wound up being the Uber driver for Hackett and his assistant trainer Hugh “Bud” Parshall, the son of the legendary horseman Dr. H. M. Parshall, twice winner of the Hambletonian in the 1930s.
In fact, I wound up staying with Hackett and Parshall in a room in the Abe Lincoln Hotel in downtown Springfield. One evening the three of us had dinner with Delvin Miller and Bob Hackett, the editor of The Horseman & Fair World and no relation to Jim. Delvin was fresh off a triumphant inaugural of The Adios, which was presented with all the fanfare befitting a race that became an instant classic. Here I was a kid still shy of my 18th birthday sitting at a dinner table with Hackett and Parshall and two of the most important people in harness racing. (Yes, there were some adult beverages consumed that evening).
Five days after this trio of tough heats at The Meadows, Best Of All cruised to victory in both heats of the Review Stake for sophomore pacers. The colt was under wraps in winning both heats but still managed to equal the track record of 1:57 held by his older brother Coffee Break.
When the racing was over at Springfield, I gave a lift to the Huttenbauer Stable blacksmith, John Haxton, the archetypical strong and silent horseshoer. We drove all night from Illinois to Cincinnati and I dropped him off in the wee hours somewhere on the west side of the city. John Haxton would later write a touching poem on Best Of All with a line that reflected his admiration for this remarkable pacer.
“But to me the thing that is seldom matched/He was never lame, he was never scratched.”
After returning to Cincinnati, it was time for me to shuffle off to my freshman year at the University of Kentucky. I would share a room with John Eades, a native of Jim Hackett’s hometown of London, OH. John would go on to a career as a horse trainer in the USA and Italy and start a couple horses in the Hambletonian. But those days were far in our future as we unloaded our meager belongings into the closets in room 362 of Haggin Hall and officially became Kentucky Wildcats.