My summers as a swipe – 1968 – Part 3
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 third in a four-part series in which I relive my education and experiences as a groom (I prefer the old term “swipe” in the headline) over four summers from the distant past.
When my first year of college at the University of Kentucky ended, it was off to the racetrack for me.
In my situation, it wasn’t a long journey. I joined the private stable of Sam Huttenbauer which had some horses stable at The Red Mile. So, I simply walked over Virginia Avenue from campus to the track, a trek I’d made many times while a UK student.
Huttenbauer was a Cincinnati meat packaging magnate and almost a surrogate grandfather to me. My father’s father had died when dad was 10 years old, so I obviously never knew him. But my paternal grandfather and Mr. Huttenbauer were both born in the 1880s, so Mr. Huttenbauer always seemed like a grandfather to me.
My first paying job was painting paddock fences on his farm north of Cincinnati. While in high school, I worked after classes at his meat packing plant. Now it was my chance to get some hands-on racetrack experience.
Still, I was the greenhorn, the college kid who knew nothing. I’d worked the two previous summers at Walnut Hall Farm with breeding stock, but the racing world was terra incognito to me. At the farm, the only equipment we used were halters and lead shanks, but suddenly I was confronted with the intricacies of a set of harness with all its complexities.
In the late 1960s, harness came in leather. It was heavy. It needed regular cleaning. Saddle soap, baby! I always was tempted to count the number of buckles on a full set of harness and hobbles. They seemed endless.
Naturally, as the green college kid, I got the stable leftovers. The star of the stable in 1968 was Best Of All, the Jug winner in ‘67. He would win honors as Pacer of the Year in 1968 and retired with more 2:00 race miles than any other horse in history. But he was in a world of his own in the big cities of New York and Chicago and I was rubbing the third-stringers at The Red Mile.
They included a pacing colt named Noble Widower, a son of Widower’s Illmo, a Huttenbauer star in the mid-1950s. My other colt was Sabby Mist, a lunk-headed son of Saboteur. No one ever confused them with superstars, but I didn’t expect to begin by rubbing Grand Circuit stock.
One June 6, the 24th anniversary of D-Day, I walked up to the track kitchen at The Red Mile for breakfast and noted people clustered around a black-and-white TV set. I joined the crowd and learned that Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the California primary.
Was America going mad? This was just a couple months after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been gunned down in Memphis.
One evening, Noble Widower, whose stable nickname was “Peanuts,” was entered in a race for non-winners of a ham sandwich at The Red Mile. I was excited because he would be catch-driven by Art Hult, then a shooting star in the sport. The clean-cut Ohio horseman had driven Speed Model to victory the previous fall in the Kentucky Futurity after finishing 3-2 with her in the Hambletonian. Art Hult was a celebrity to my way of thinking.
Art became even more of a hero to me when he put Peanuts in the hole for 5/8-mile at Lexington, wheeled him out and won in a blistering 2:07.1 mile.
“Can we supplement him to the Triple Crown events?” I joked to friends. Peanuts was just a racehorse, nothing special, but he was the ideal colt for green-as-grass groom to learn the trade.
One laggard colt in the stable was Speed Classic, the highest-priced yearling colt in the Castleton Farm yearling consignment the previous year. He was a three-quarter brother to the brilliant mare Sprite Rodney, but Speed Classic stabbed a hind leg repeatedly, a serious gait defect.
He was such a lost cause that the green-as-grass groom (that being me…) got to rub him.
I was walking on air. I polished the brass nameplate on his halter until it shined like the pants of a cheap suit. He was such a breedy, exquisite colt that I often walked him in the Red Mile stable area just to draw admirers. It was like taking a beautiful girl to the senior prom.
One horseman who stopped to admire Speed Classic was Flave “Flick” Nipe who had won the Hambletonian a decade earlier driving Emily’s Pride. That impressed me.
(Nipe was an assistant to trainer Fred Egan when Emily’s Pride started in the ‘58 Hambletonian. Egan had won the Kentucky Futurity the previous fall driving Cassin Hanover on his 78th birthday, but he said he’d like “the kid” drive Emily’s Pride. After all, Nipe was only 64.)
Dr. D.L. Proctor, a legendary Bluegrass vet, examined Speed Class and put one hand on top of the colt’s hips and rocked him so that he alternated weight on one hind leg and then another. When Speed Classic put his weight on one leg, his joints would emit cracking sounds.
A groom in our stable immediately made a diagnosis. “It’s Arthur-ritis,” he said. From that time on, Speed Classic was simply known as Arthur.
We shipped back to Ohio and were stabled at Delaware when we raced at Scioto Downs, about 35 miles down Rte. 23. Peanuts wasn’t beating anyone and Arthur still couldn’t handle his hind legs, so I was tossed on a truck with Speed Classic and we headed to the Windy City.
Head trainer Jim Hackett was there with the stable, but he’d been replaced as the driver behind Best Of All when he failed the breathalyzer when programmed to drive Ole Hanover in the Dexter Cup.
(That was a quaint era when a driving suspension meant that you were really suspended.)
Best Of All’s new driver Bobby Williams was a natural; he seemed to be born sitting in a sulky. Best Of All was virtually unbeatable with Bobby driving. I saw him whip a field of pacers like True Duane, Song Cycle and Nard’s Byrd right after I got to Chicago. He was suffering from mild moon blindness at the time, but that didn’t stop him from winning.
Hackett tried everything to help Speed Classic overcome his gait defect. He squared his front toes severely, a common practice with his father-in-law Curly Smart.
Jim even put the hobbles on Speed Classic in hopes that a drastic change would result in a better trotting gait when the straps were removed. Speed Classic hated those hobbles and they burned him badly, and they didn’t help him overcome his stabbing habit.
In mid-August we shipped to the Illinois State Fair in Springfield and Speed Classic was stabled in a stall that backed up to Nevele Pride. Speed Classic wasn’t able to race, but I took rubbing the older trotting mare Victor’s Intrigue when she started in the Abe Lincoln for older trotters. (On that same afternoon that Nevele Pride raced in the Review Futurity.)
The great champion made a break and dropped the first heat rival Snow Speed, but won the second trip easily. Victor’s Intrigue finished third, as I recall, in her race.
Afterwards, I cooled my mare out on the tow ring and I walked directly behind Andy Murphy, who rubbed Nevele Pride. Andy was a tall, strapping fellow, and he held Nevele Pride’s halter with his right hand and held a whip in his left hand. He positioned the business end of that whip in front of Nevele Pride’s nose where it was clearly visible. Andy never — ever — relaxed or took his eye off Nevele Pride.
After Springfield, Victor’s Intrigue went back to Chicago and I took a van back to Greenville, OH. I recall that Gene Riegle had a nice pacing colt named Ozzie Hanover on the van and a nasty old Victory Song double-gaited horse named Little Master. Gene’s young son, Bruce Riegle, rode back from Springfield on the van.
We arrived at the Greenville fairgrounds in the middle of the night and somehow I found an empty stall for Speed Classic.
When the sun came up, I walked up to the midway searching for a place to get breakfast. I encountered the stable’s second trainer Bud Parshall, who looked at me and asked, “What are you doing here?”
I told him that Jim Hackett had told me to ride the van to Greenville and that Parshall would take me back to Huttenbauer’s farm.
“No one knows where Jim is,” Parshall said. I told him I last saw Jim when I was loading my colt onto the van in Illinois.
Speed Classic and I got a ride back to the farm north of Cincinnati. Stable owner Sam Huttenbauer quizzed me about Hackett. He had gone AWOL. I knew nothing, but I later heard that Jim had spent considerable time in the Knotty Pine Bar near Sportsman’s Park.
Then I took a flight from Cincinnati back to Chicago to reunite with Victor’s Intrigue, who had been moved to the Dwayne Pletcher Stable when the Huttenbauer horses left Chicago.
I took a bus from the airport to downtown and found myself amid the riots and mayhem of the 1968 Democratic National Convention when mayor Richard Daley gave the proverbial finger to the news media for its coverage of riots in the streets of Chicago. I was not affected, but noticed a lot of barriers and barbed wire in the Loop area.
I somehow got to Washington Park, the long-gone mile track in Hometown with a never-ending homestretch. My hard-headed old mare Victor’s Intrigue had been in the Pletcher Stable and I took over her care.
She was by a pacing stallion out of a trotting-bred mare and Victors Intrigue preferred to trot. (I think she once set a “world” record for an odd distance like maybe two miles on a 5/8-mile track. I always assumed it was a world record because it was the only two-mile race ever contested on a 5/8-mile track).
That mare could pull your arms out. For that reason, the green rookie groom was not allowed to jog her in the Huttenbauer Stable. Trainers jogged her.
But when I got to Washington Park, I asked Dwayne Pletcher who would jog her and he said, “You.” I told him about her reputation and he assured me that I would get along fine with her.
When I took Victor’s Intrigue to the track, she paced awkwardly for maybe 100 yards. She took no hold whatsoever. Two fingers.
Then she bounced off into a trot. instantly we were off to the races. I could not hold her; it was all I could do to keep her between the inside and outside fences. I simply tried not to hit anyone who got in my way.
After five miles of jogging, the handholds on the reins had cut deep red creases in the palms of my hand.
One morning, she pulled so hard that she lifted my butt out of the jog cart seat enough so that my wallet worked its way out of my back pocket. I only realized that when I got back to the stable.
So, I’m 18 years old and basically on my own in Chicago with no wallet. Time to hit the panic button?
Not quite. Instead I went to the racing office to ask if anyone had found a wallet. As I was there, Bob Seabrook, a respected trainer from Urbana, OH, walked in holding my wallet. I damn near kissed him.
Victor’s Intrigue raced a few times at Washington Park before it was time for me to head to Athens, OH, because I had transferred to Ohio University after my freshman year at Kentucky.