He’s a hell of a guy, but…

by Alan Leavitt

The other day I watched one of Tony Alagna’s grooms expertly roll a bandage onto the front leg of a lovely, big trotting mare. It recalled my days as a groom, circa age 12, when we always used shipping bandages. In those days the outside end of the bandage had two strings, or cords, that you tied around the leg to keep everything in place.

From that operation came the term, “corded,” meaning what happened when the strings, or cords, were tied too tightly. That meant a filled tendon, or, in the worst case, a bowed tendon. Today the cords are long gone, and I suspect the term “corded” is, too.

There was another term that I learned as I was coming up, and that was “braving up.” I heard it first from a great horseman, Clint Galbraith, who in turn learned it from another great horseman, Clint Hodgins.

For those with short memories, Galbraith made Niatross into a living legend. Niatross was bred and owned by Elsie Berger, whose horse operation was funded by the money she inherited from her husband, who operated several dry cleaning establishments.

In the fall of her colt’s yearling year, Ms. Berger gave 50 per cent of him to Clint Galbraith, in return for no training bills. The horse went on to a virtually unbeaten racing career from 2 to 4, setting all kinds of new records in the process. At 4, Galbraith time trialed him at The Red Mile, and he became the first standardbred ever to break 1:50.

When Galbraith pulled him up and came back in front of the grandstand, the track was suddenly flooded with people. The crowd was so thick that a tractor had to be used to clear a path through the throng so Niatross could finally leave the track.

At that point in time, Lou Guida got involved with Niatross, eventually syndicating him for $6 million dollars. Along the way there was some hanky-panky when Galbraith, as a 50 per cent owner, was asked to simply resign a sales agreement that was supposedly “just a formality.” As it turned out, several important points had been changed in the copy Galbraith unknowingly signed.

But back to the term, “braving up,” that Clint Hodgins passed on to Galbraith, and from there to the man I came up under, Howard Beissinger. What it meant was restoring the inner resources a racehorse can exhaust when he is pushed too hard, too often.

When that happens, although the horse is still physically sound, he loses the will to keep trying at the end of a mile.

“Braving him up” simply means training him in a way that he gets his fight back. I’m not going into all the details that involves, but I watched Howard Beissinger spend an entire winter training Speedy Somolli behind a wall of horses between his 2- and 3-year-old seasons. Speedy would be going bananas, trying to get over his slower road-blockers.

By the time his 3-year-old season started, Speedy Somolli had all his fight back and would keep trying every step of the mile. He was “braved up,” as only a master horseman could do it.

For those who came along too late to know what a great horseman Beissinger was, he both trained and drove three Hambletonian winners.

As an added fillip, two of Beissinger’s Hambletonian winners, Speedy Crown and Speedy Somolli, went on to be foundation sires. Beissinger was an integral part of my life for 40 years. I miss you every day, Boss, but I remember everything you taught me.

But back to Alagna’s mare with the bandages. I read her halter plate as she headed for the trailer to be shipped off to Oak Grove to race: Beltassima.

With my usual compulsion; I ran her five generation pedigree. Thank you again, USTA.

It turns out Beltassima is highly inbred. In her third generation she not only has two crosses to Garland Lobell, she also is 3 by 3 to the foundation mare, Amour Angus. This kid has played a role in both their breeding careers, I’m immodestly here to say.

Further back, really too far to have any affect, is Speedy Crown once in her fourth generation and then three more times in her fifth. Also, interesting at least to me, was a stallion called Honor Rodney, who was by Rodney, and out of Honor Bright. Honor Rodney was no hell, as we horsemen say, but his full sister, Elaine Rodney, was a top stakes filly here, for Clint Hodgins, as it happens, and then was exported and became a major force in the big money, European trots.

Rodney, by the by, was the greatest trotting sire of all time who never sired a Hambletonian winner. He stood at Walnut Hall Stud, now the Kentucky Horse Park, owned by Sherman and Polly Jennings, managed by Francis McKinzie.

McKinzie, who was a close friend of mine, would never say a bad word about whoever signed his pay checks, and that included Sherman Jennings, whose usual description in the horse biz started with “d and ended with “k,” and rhymed with click.

One day, shortly after McKinzie had taken over at Walnut Hall Stud, he was at lunch at a local horseman’s joint down town. A local wit shouted across the room, “Hey, Francis, what’s Sherman Jennings like?”

Never at a loss for words, McKinzie shouted back, “He’s a hell of a guy, but he just ain’t much in demand.”

Which could apply to more than a few people I can think of.