They are beautiful animals — lots of people say that — but actually, they’re no more beautiful than a muscled toro bravo or, to a farmer, a prized Hampshire hog. However, that sentiment reflects our ages-long reliance on the horse and also our ages-longer brutal misuse of the animal. In the charge of the light brigade, lancers were not the only casualties.
Today, thoroughbreds are the workhorses of pleasure. They provide it for their wealthy owners; for the railbirds who stand with their forms and pencils and handicap madly between races, having little time to figure out which next horse to lose money on. And they certainly provide it for those who scoop up the betting receipts after the ninth race.
For others, the pleasure comes in the way of life it gives them. Over at stable “I,” out of sight of the Del Mar grandstand and the paddock, a potpourri of trainers, jockeys, grooms, exercise riders and one kibitzer bustle intently or wander about in the predawn chill, getting ready their sleek and surprisingly fragile meal tickets. There’s a smell of straw and manure in this place that I love, farm boy that I once was. (“Weird,” my wife says.)
Some racehorses, because of their tightly wound genetics, are quick to roll eyes and bare teeth, ready to send a careless handler limping away, rubbing the imprint of a horseshoe in a tender spot.
At the far end of the long row of stalls is Ron McAnally. Under his practiced eye, jockeys on this track have booted home almost 450 winners for him and helped place him in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. He gets respectful nods from those who know that.
McAnally is standing on a stair landing overlooking the horses he is readying for the track. He has known most of them from ungainly colts and fillies that grew into his winners and losers. Even a hall-of-fame trainer can’t have one without the other.
The trainer is a friendly, soft-spoken Kentuckian, a real-deal gentleman of 80 who lives in Rancho Santa Fe. Since he follows the meets, the same as his horses, at Del Mar he can unpack his suitcase and sleep at home, joining Deborah, his wife of almost four decades.
I asked McAnally what makes a winner (maybe the ten-thousandth person to ask him that). “If I knew that, I’d be a multimillionaire. You can get an idea from the looks, conformation, disposition and breeding.”
He was also asked if racehorses are competitive by nature, or simply respond to the jockey’s whip. “Thoroughbreds are bred to run. You see them running head to head and occasionally one will pin his ears back and try to bite another so he doesn’t get ahead. I’ve seen that.”
McAnally wasn’t guaranteed a pole position by birth. He was raised an orphan back in the day when that meant an actual orphanage. At age 16, he went to work for his trainer uncle mucking stalls and walking sweaty horses, then worked his way up to groom, assistant trainer, and then … well, check the record book.
He is not a man of carbonated personality, but the way to get a big smile out of him is to mention John Henry — not the steel-drivin’ man of folklore, but the once-in-a-lifetime horse that captivated the racing world in the ’80s, primarily under McAnally’s training. His was a dramatic story the equal of Seabiscuit’s. All he lacked was a movie script.
McAnally is happy to tell it. John Henry was foaled in 1975, the offspring of mediocre parents, undersized and with a suspicious knee and a nasty disposition (he flunked all of McAnally’s rules for success above). If he couldn’t bite you he would kick you, and if lucky, get you both ways. An early owner gelded him to calm him down, which it did, sort of.
John Henry bounced around the circuit with mixed success. He was sold for a pittance more than once. But eventually, McAnally became his sole trainer, and John Henry turned into Pegasus. He won race after race and was horse of the year twice, the second time when he was an old man of 9. John Henry was like the gawky kid always chosen to play right field, but then grew up to play center field for the Yankees. He died in 2007 at age 32, and McAnally mourned.
If life were fair, every person would have a John Henry.
Over in stable “K” is McAnally’s racetrack colleague, Steve Cribb. He’s built like a jockey but has never been one, never wanted to be one. He’s a walker. When horses finish exercising, he leads them on cool-down walks.
That’s what this 76-year-old man has done for over a half-century, ever since he walked the fabled come-from-behind wonder Silky Sullivan. “I went to the [1958 Kentucky] derby with him. I walked him at the derby.” He analyzes that race as though it were yesterday at Del Mar. “Silky just got too far behind. With derby horses, you can’t lay back; you gotta be on your toes and you gotta be running.”
To racing people, time is not marked on a calendar but by circled memories of great horses they have trained, ridden or even walked.
Cribb lives above the stables with other hands in a room he shares with another man. He earns about $1,200 per month. Though he came from New York City, his permanent home is the track, more specifically the stables. “We’re just different, different from other people. We can be broke and happy. We got friends here.”
He’s worked every track in the country that counts. Unlike many racing people, Cribb plays the ponies, every day. “I hit the horses pretty good one day for a lot of money, $60,000.” Then he answers the next, obvious question. “I guess I’m about even, overall.”
The track feasts on bettors who are “about even, overall.”
Cribb is married but has been separated for a lot of years. His at-home family are the grooms, the walkers, the exercise riders and, by extension, the jockeys and the trainers. “These people are all good people. I hung out with a guy called [legendary jockey] Bill Shoemaker, a really good guy.” He pauses, then adds, “Well, I didn’t exactly hang out with him, but I knew him really well.”
Cribb is a smiling, happy man in love with horses, even though they have ungrateful ways of reciprocating. “I’ve been bitten all over, kicked a dozen times. Kicked in the hip 25 years ago, and it hasn’t been the same since.”
However, this is where Cribb wants to be, walking winners and losers with equal appreciation. “I’ll be here as long as I can,” he says. “I’d do it over and over and over again.”
The two old men, McAnally and Cribb, don’t fraternize, but they nod in passing and are joined by a linkage that goes beyond pari-mutuels, halls of fame, and their wealth disparity. It is a bond of two men who know their business, love it, and would be content, probably, to end someday right here in these stables.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected].
© Copyright 2012 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.