Conditionin' a hoss is like tunin' a violin," said Pickles the groom as he teetered back in the wooden chair, his long toothpick legs draped over the sides, his hat pushed up on his head till the baldness showed. "You can see those big professionals tunin' their violins and it looks like a very easy thing the way they do it." Pickles paused and emitted the sound that he uses when he is groping for the judicious phrase. "Arraw, arraw," he said, "then you see a high school band tunin' up and it looks like there's such a crankin' and a grindin' goin' on. Now, our man here, he's like the concert violin player: no strain, but plenty goin' on underneath. And he'll never tell you what he's about. He'd like you to think that trainin' hosses is his own deep dark secret. My gawda-mighty, the Gimbels don't tell the—arraw, arraw—the Macys. But I'll tell you the truth—he hasn't got any special secret. He's just got supreme confidence in himself, and he runs things. I say he runs things!"
Pickles the groom (straight name: Francis Hertzfeld) was sitting in the little office of Greentree Stable's winter quarters in Aiken, S.C., and he was talking about John M. Gaver, Greentree's head trainer for 25 years and Pickles' boss for all of them. Pickles began telling how the two of them, the garrulous groom and the taciturn trainer, had got together in the first place. "I was known in the early days as a top hand but erratic as hell," he said, wobbling back and forth on the overmatched chair. "My father was a Jewish immigrant, a professor of ancient dead languages, and my mother was colored and a teacher, too, and you know what they say around the racetrack, that mongrels and crossbreds is the most dangerous animals in the world. I smoked reefers and I drank and everything else till La Guardia said reefers were against the law, and I wasn't gettin' enough kick out of 'em to go to jail. But I came to our man here"—Pickles usually refers to Trainer Gaver as "this man," "our man" or "my man"—"and he gave me work. Now, if you want a challenge, I don't care if you're a man or a racehoss, this man'll challenge you. If it's work you want, he'll give you work. So now I'm—arraw, arraw—obligated to him. He kep' me outa the tall weeds. And I believe in this man and what he is doin'. Tryin' to produce the classic hoss, the big 'cap winners, the hosses that can win those classic races. He's not interested in winnin' cheap claimin' races, and neither is Mr. Jock Whitney the owner. And I'll tell you sumpin' else." Pickles' voice fell to an ominous low. "If they didn't feel that way I'd just have to pick up my pay and walk outa here tomorrer."
Now Pickles had to perform his appointed rounds. He was serving a temporary tour of duty as night watchman at Greentree's winter quarters, though he normally works as a foreman, saddling up, mucking out stalls, rubbing horses and directing the other grooms. He picked up his watchman's clock and slid out the door of the office, a long, cadaverously skinny man of middle years and sallow complexion who lost one lung a year ago to cancer and part of the other lung decades ago to a young horse that caught him when he wasn't paying attention. "I haven't got much wind left," he said, "but I got a wife and two little children up in Delaware, and if I can squeeze five six seven more years out of myself, then they'll be outa the woods, you know? It'd be a rough deal, leavin' em right now."
Outside the warm office, Greentree's winter quarters was an unimposing sight: a huddle of low, grayish sheds, a large unpainted barn, a blacksmith's shop of unpainted cinder blocks with a sheet-metal roof, a walking ring around a centerpiece of stunted oak and weathered-wood fencing. On a clothesline the intimate garments of grooms and exercise boys flapped in the breeze, and some horse bandages dangled almost to the ground. A narrow sandy path led through the scrub pines and magnolias to a red-clay road that the horses have to cross to reach the deep Aiken training track for their morning workouts (or "worksout," as Pickles calls them in his relentless quest for the proper usage). Now the hand-controlled traffic light over the lonely clay road was dark, but in the morning a stablehand would diligently return to duty, snapping the light to red at the first sign of a horse and stopping what little traffic there is. "We don't want no $2,000 automobiles crashin' into no $200,000 horses," an exercise boy explained.
Pickles walked around punching his time clock and stumbling over cats. The names of two of them, Princeton and Tiger, attested to the academic background of Trainer Gaver, who took a B.S. at Princeton in 1924 and once taught at a fashionable boys' school. Three other cats, Susan B. Anthony, Bear and Toes, were snoozing, and Top Cat was plying his trade. For one week Top Cat had been on self-assigned guard duty at the entrance to the habitation of a mole, and he was at his post again, an overweight orange cat with a potbelly and a heart full of malice, at least toward moles. Momentarily missing from the scene was the trainer's 4-year-old basset hound, Yogi, who is sworn to kill every squirrel in the world, but who has not been able to connect yet and is training on a diet of cottage cheese. "Yes, sir," Pickles observed, "we got ourselves a crazy collection of wildlife around here, and the craziest is the hosses."
Greentree is one of the last of the privately owned "society" stables, where racehorses are more or less handcrafted. Trainer Gaver usually has a short string winter-racing in Florida and a shorter string in California and keeps the bulk of his Thoroughbreds in winter quarters at Aiken, where they are trained and retrained for the new racing season in New York and Maryland and, sometimes, points west. Many of the horses at Aiken were barely 2 years old and, since they had not even been named, bore their parents' names on brass tags. Pickles inspected a long shed row of them: Tom Fool/Tudor Princess, Cohoes/Douce France, Turn-to/Old Game, Traffic Judge/Downhill Only, Tom Fool/Red Fleet, Round Table/Rose Coral and others with illustrious forebears and no reputations of their own. Interspersed among the babies were three colts who had been made eligible for the Kentucky Derby and an ornery 4-year-old who would just as soon bite off your ear as look at you. "No, I'm not the least bit afraid of him," Pickles said. "You show 'em you're afraid of 'em and you might as well pick up yo' gear and git out. You're finished." Pickles has had his chest caved in and one leg broken by horses, but he does not aim to be finished for another five six seven years.
Well, I'll tell you how it started with me," said John M. Gaver, a relaxed man in his early 60s with clear-blue eyes and straggly white hair and a soft border-state accent that contrasts with his tweed coat and Brooks Brothers shirt and regimental ties and wide-waled cords. "My father was a country doctor in Maryland, and we had two driving horses. I used to spend all my time studying them, and I'd come in smelling of manure and talking like a stablehand. After Princeton I taught for a while, and then I worked for a bank and then for the Maryland Bloodstock Agency. One day when I was asked if I wanted a job with the Whitney stable I said, hell yes. Goodby Maryland Bloodstock Agency, goodby Baltimore, goodby Maryland!"
Yogi the basset waddled by, and Gaver called to him. "Yogi, c'm here! Now listen, I want to tell you something important. The sun's out and there's thousands of squirrels runnin' all over the front yard. Now I want you to go out and get yourself five squirrels." Gaver opened the door, repeated "Five!" and Yogi went off to the hunt. Gaver confided, "He never gets any, but they drive him crazy."
In a quarter of a century as Greentree's head trainer, John M. Gaver has won nearly every important race, including the Kentucky Derby (Shut Out, 1942), and he has trained the Horse of the Year twice (Capot, 1949, and Tom Fool, 1953). He has never had a Triple Crown winner, but he has brought off a more difficult feat: the Handicap Triple Crown (the Metropolitan, Brooklyn and Suburban), in which top horses go from race to race with varying amounts of lead hanging from their saddlebags. (Tom Fool carried 130, 128 and 136 pounds in winning the Handicap Triple Crown in 1953.) Only two other horses, Whisk Broom II and Kelso, have won the Handicap Triple Crown, while eight horses have won the other Triple Crown: the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Last year Greentree's fortunes took a dip, but that is the game, and Gaver has high hopes for the colts now in his stable. In 1963 Greentree won $947,544, second only to Rex Ellsworth for national high. And even last year, when Gaver's horses took in a mere $371,801, Greentree won 47 out of 160 races for a batting average of .293, highest of any major stable and an interesting contrast to the record of Audley Farm (owner, James Edwards), which won 250 races but entered 1,721. Gaver plays to win, and he does not enter a horse in a race unless he has reached his peak of training fitness. "In the first place," says Gaver, with the independence of a man who works for the Whitneys, "I don't give a damn what they say about me. Greentree Stable and Mr. Widener's stable are the ones that sort of set the tone of American racing, whether their horses are any good or not. Training for Greentree, you're always a kind of sitting duck for others. A lot of 'em say I'm not enough of a good-time Charlie, because I don't talk a whole lot and I don't get around much. And, of course, they're always pointing out that I'm not a racetracker by birth.
"But I don't think I'm hard on horses. I know I have that reputation, and it's true that I'll work a horse when I think he needs to be worked to bring out the best that's in him. Jock Whitney and his sister [Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson, co-owner of Greentree] want their horses to give everything they're capable of giving, without, of course, having some rider sit there and cut the blood out of 'em. Their mother, Mrs. Whitney, she wanted the same thing when I trained for her. I guess my own attitude came from old man Jimmy Rowe. He trained for Mrs. Whitney, and he just loved to pop a horse out of the box the first time and win with 'im. He won the Kentucky Derby with Regret [for Harry Payne Whitney] and that was her first start of the year. That's conditioning! And, of course, he had the reputation of being hard on horses. My own reputation may come from the fact that people know I was a worshiper of old man Rowe and his methods. I work 'em hard, but I give 'em plenty of time. You take Groton, our best 3-year-old. Before he breezes he'll have been galloping for two solid months here at Aiken, to get a good foundation under him. Seven days a week for two months, starting with a quarter-mile gallop and now up to a pair of one-mile gallops every morning. That's a lot of work, but he's been conditioned for it."
Two years ago Gaver brought No Robbery to such a degree of fitness that the colt turned in the fastest mile ever run by a 3-year-old in New York and a few days later had to be worked a fast six furlongs to keep him from breaking down his stall. "Mr. Gaver is a traditionalist," says a Florida racing official, "and when you're a traditionalist and you have a good horse you test him. You don't tiptoe around and play patty-cake with him, and if he can stand his training and show it to you, then you've got a crack at a classic horse. John Gaver won't run a horse unless it's absolutely fit; that's why his batting average is one of the highest in the business. And he won't run a short horse in an important race, which a lot of young trainers will do. He is the classic trainer looking for the classic horse. That's why he takes most of his horses to winter quarters, in the traditional way, while most stables are racing their horses right through the winter, picking up a buck here and there."
It may come as a surprise to those who sneak down to Sam's Candy Store to bet the top horse in the eighth at Shenandoah Downs, but the Thoroughbred is a true athlete, complete with trick muscles, tender ligaments, tendencies to stiffness, bad habits, good habits and enough frangibilities to make a human quarter-miler, by comparison, look like a dull machine. This tall stack of equine question marks comes to John Gaver as a yearling and stays on, hopefully, as a mature athlete capable of finding his way from starting gate to finish line in the shortest possible time without wandering all over the track, bearing out at the turns, tripping other horses, throwing the jockey or committing the thousand other natural infractions that seem instinctive to horseflesh. Some can never learn, and others flatly refuse. "Once in a while you get one that's too cunning," Gaver said. "He finds out quickly that racing is hard work, and he decides not to put out, especially over a distance. Once I suggested a race that would have solved that problem. There was this great to-do about distance racing, and Mr. Whitney had just given a trophy saying 'From a friend of distance racing' on it. I was talking to a racing secretary and I said no horse wants to run a mile and a half or two miles. Would you want to run that far if you were a horse? So I said, 'If you'll put on a race 3/16ths of a mile up the Widener Chute, I'll give a trophy that says 'From a foe of distance racing.' I might have been prejudiced, because I had Devil Diver at that time, and he didn't like distance races. His top distance was a mile and a quarter. He did win the Manhattan Handicap at a mile and a half, but that was only because Mrs. Payne Whitney was dying and we knew she wouldn't live for more than one more day or so and this would probably be the last race she would ever have a horse in. So I put Arcaro on the horse, and I told him before the race, 'Eddie, you're gonna have a tough time getting this horse to go a mile and a half, so try to set the pace slow!' Eddie set the pace so damned slow, he went the first mile in 1:45, or something like that, and any horse can trot that fast. But all these other jockeys were taking back, waiting for Devil Diver to move, and by the time Eddie turned him loose he had as much left as all those other horses that had been strangled for a mile, and so he won it.
"But you have some horses that'll just fiat out refuse to go any distance with any speed. What can you do with a horse like that? You can get rid of him!"
Other horses respond beautifully to training and then end their racing careers on a split-second whimsy. John Hertz, who had to retire Count Fleet after he won the Triple Crown, was moved to observe sadly, "A racehorse is the world's most perishable merchandise. One minute you have the best horse in the world. Then a fly can alight on his leg, and the next minute you have no horse at all because he has kicked a hole in his leg chasing the fly." Sometimes it seems to John Gaver that there is no end to the variety of problems. "You even have to be careful which horse you work a horse with," Gaver said. "One horse will break another's heart in workouts, and that's why you can't work a superior horse with an inferior horse over and over, or else the slower horse won't want to do anything at all. He'll turn out to be a sulker, and you'll have a hell of a time getting him to win any kind of a race.
"Then we have horses that are scared to death of the starting gate. They'll sniff around it and bite on it for days and still be afraid to go in. If they keep on refusing, we just put 'em in anyway, and then some of 'em'll try to tear it down. And then you have other horses that'll walk right in the gate on the very first day like they helped make the damned thing.
"Certain horses become stall walkers from nervousness; they walk around that stall and keep on walking. And others are weavers; they keep going from side to side in the stall. Some trainers put bales of hay in the stall to break up their walk routine, or hang old tires from the roof. Thank God, I don't have any stall walkers or weavers right now. Sometimes you have to get a goat to calm nervous horses down. But the last thing on earth I want is a horse that needs a goat in his stall. Then the goat becomes more trouble than the horse. I'll try anything before I try a goat, even cut a hole in the stall so the horse can see his neighbor. Sometimes if he knows there's something next to him he'll stop that foolishness."
It also falls to Gaver to tell at a glance whether a horse is feeling under the weather, a task that is attempted with much less skill by thousands of punters daily. "I suppose it's mostly a matter of familiarity with the horse," Gaver said. "You have to know what he's supposed to look like. If a horse like Kelso came on the track looking as big as an elephant and as fat as a hog, you'd know he wasn't fit. A horse like Nashua was a great big horse, and if he came out and all his ribs were showing you'd know he wasn't fit. These are the extremes. You look to see how the horse acts, if he has life in him. If he's a horse that usually plays around and he's not showing any life to him, you would say he's not feeling right. Or maybe he's left some of his feed. That might show he's getting too much work or he's getting nervous. Maybe his coat doesn't look right; it's getting kinda dull and spare. Or he's lost the brightness in his eyes. Conditioning horses is no exact science, I'll tell you that.
"Take The Rhymer, a horse we had some years ago. The Rhymer was about the most nervous horse I've ever been around for just pure shaking and trembling and sweating. A horse like that catches on when he goes to the paddock that he's gonna be racing that day, and it makes him all the more nervous. So as part of his training you take him to the paddock on days when he's not racing, to get him used to it. So all year we took The Rhymer back to the stable by way of the paddock and let him fool around there and stop awhile. Then we'd saddle him up and take him home. On the day of the Widener we took him into the paddock for the race, and he was worse than he ever was. He was shaking so hard we could hardly get the saddle on him and water was just pouring off him. I walked away in disgust. I thought, 'Well, all the time we've put in on this son of a gun.' So all he did is go out and win the race." The Rhymer, a field horse, paid $32.80, and Gaver walked off with a $5,000 bonus for saddling the winner.
Pickles the groom wound himself around the wooden chair and addressed himself to the philosophy of training. "In trainin' you have to do things to racehorses that are terrible," he observed, by way of prologue. "You—arraw, arraw—you wouldn't take a child away from its mother, away from the environment where it was born, change its diet, change its whole procedure of life, chung! just like that and start putting him through a whole physical training program. If you did that to a child, why...." Pickles halted, unable to conjure up such a horror. "And all this happens to a hoss when he's only 14, 15 months old. And then he does one thing wrong, and we say what a dumb son of a bitch he is.
"Or you break your heart trainin' a hoss, and then all of a sudden he's being destroyed. I remember Thingumabob, he win the Arlington Futurity as a 2-year-old, and then he came back and broke his leg at Saratoga and we had to destroy him." Pickles rocked back and forth in the chair, his hands on his ears. "Thingumabob was a hell of a hoss," he said reverently. "All them hell of a hosses, they always dies young.
"Well, you got to have a hole in your head to be a hossman, anyway. You go against all the laws of nature. You feed the hoss before you feed yo'self, take care of the hoss before you take care of yo'self, protect the hoss instead of protecting yo'self. And I don't mean just because they're worth a lot of money. No sir! If you start takin' care of hosses dependin' on how much they're worth, you're not treatin' some of 'em fair. Course, you do tend to lean toward the good hosses because they train harder and they give you more problems. You crank up a good hoss and he's gone, and when he gives he gives everything.
"When we get a hoss like that around Greentree we all holds our breath. Our man's better when he loses than when he wins. More people get bawled out when he has a winner. See, when he gets beaten, he still has that image of dignity and good sportsmanship to keep up. That's Greentree. But when he wins he doesn't have to do that. And again, when you win around here, you've just taken another step toward sumpin' else. Let a young hoss win a few times and our man—arraw, arraw—he begins to smell those roses. He begins to see that classic hoss comin' 'round the bend. From then on it's, 'Uh oh, watch it!' 'Don't turn him there!' 'Don't turn him too sharp!' 'Oh, my God, don't get that water in his eyes!' 'Pickles, come here and watch this hoss!'
"Now, this can cause some problems. You take a hoss like Groton. Everybody knows the boss is interested in this hoss, and so is his boss, so when Groton comes back from a work who comes runnin' up to take care of him? The greenest men in the stable! The guys you'd like to take and hide around the corner of the barn so the boss won't see 'em! Those lazy no-'counts, they're out there 'tending to that hoss because they know they'll be seen. So I have to go over and I have to tell 'em, 'Now don't you touch that hoss! You go over there and sit down!' And then I'm a mean, contemptible son of a bitch."
One has to spend only a few hours around Greentree to realize that Groton, a big bay son of Nashua, is the stable's choice at the moment. He was the last horse to beat the Kentucky Derby winter favorite, Bold Lad, running away from the Wheatley colt in a race when both were green and 2. Groton won his only other start of 1964 and was sent on a prolonged vacation to the farm in Kentucky for rest, rehabilitation and the relief of a pair of bucked shins. "He got his name from Mr. Whitney's alma mater, which is near the Nashua River," John Gaver said. "There's a strong family resemblance to Nashua and a good deal of the same color. Groton has that long flowing tail because we don't saw their tails off to give 'em an English look; we figure the good Lord gave 'em those tails to knock flies off and the more tail the better." Gaver strolled to Groton's stall, tapped the horse on the nose and said, "Saint Mark's," whereupon Groton stuck out his tongue. "You can understand why he'd do that," said a pleased Gaver. "Saint Mark's and Groton are big school rivals. We have another horse here named O'Hara, after the miler, and he sticks his tongue out when you say 'Burleson.'
"The trouble with Groton is he runs like a snake," Gaver went on. "He's all over the track, and he kicks himself in the ankles. That's why we turned him out to graze in Kentucky. We've entered him in the Derby, but I doubt if he'll be seasoned enough and educated enough for a race like that. He's got to have an awful lot of training. God knows how fast he is. He won his race against Bold Lad by a length and a half, and he was fooling around the whole race. Once he ducked out and almost threw John Rotz right out of the saddle. Most of the time he looked like he was running sideways."
Gaver has made two other Greentree horses eligible for the Derby, though both are problems and may not be ready. New Act, a son of What's New, suffered last season from skirt craziness, was gelded and now is an unknown quantity. Said John M. (Jack) Gaver Jr., son of the trainer and a Greentree assistant trainer himself, "All New Act had on his mind last year was girls, so to speak. Fillies and mares and ponies. He won the Flash up at Saratoga, and then he started getting to where he wouldn't do anything but moon about the fillies. We hope he's improved now that he's gelded. But he's still an awful fidgety horse on the racetrack. He's O.K. in the stall, but he always kicks and jumps up and down on the track. That comes from his mother. She never walked a day in her life, always moving at top speed."
Greentree's third Derby possible is O'Hara, a slant-eyed half brother of Outing Class and son of Ballymoss and Track Medal. "He did pretty well in three races last year," Gaver Sr. recalled, "but then he bucked his shins, and we stopped him for the season. His problem is he has the lowest I.Q. of any horse. There isn't a horse college in the world you could get him in. He has all the ability in the world—he's a big wild-runnin' animal—but he can't learn a damned thing. After running four times he was the same as before his first race. He weaves. He wheels. If a horse is on the inside of him, he turns to look at him. And if there's a horse on the outside, he's trying to push him out of the way. Instead of getting his head down and leveling off his run, he's got his head up in the air like a catcher going after a foul fly. And he's got a whole lot of extra tricks, like unloading the exercise boy every now and then. The very first time we ran him he got right out in front of the grandstand, put in one flip and threw Rotz right on his butt. Then he trotted off down the track as though he was in his right mind."
The bread-and-butter horse of the Greentree Stable remains, for the moment, the injury-prone 4-year-old Malicious, winner of $100,000 as a 2-year-old and owner of a name that matches his personality perfectly. "He's got to be our best horse," Gaver said, "but I wish he could get over some of his problems. He'll run all over hell and half of Texas, and he won't make the turns. He beat Quadrangle once last year, and he had him beaten another time in the Dwyer, when he started bearing out. And he has a bad knee that keeps swelling up on him every season."
Malicious is a chestnut, blocky but not big, like an average-size man who lifts weights. Young Jack Gaver, a ruddy horseman who is also blocky but not big, described him: "He's out to beat everybody in everything, whether it's the groom or the trainer or another horse. He's a boss horse. He was that way in the Jim Dandy when he beat Quadrangle. He just wouldn't be beaten. He wants to fight all the time. People say isn't he a nice horse underneath it all. And I say, no, he's a mean horse underneath it all. If you don't watch him all the time he'll try to bite you and slap at you. Listen to him now." It was 3:55 in the afternoon, five minutes before feeding time, and a steady din came from Malicious' stall. "He's banging up against the screen because he knows it's feeding time. He does that every day. He never gives that groom any rest till he gets his tub."
"How do you handle a training problem like that?" somebody asked Gaver p√®re.
"How do you handle it?" said the elder Gaver. "Why, you feed him!"
Oh, don't you worry 'bout dat," Pickles the groom was telling a friend. "There'll be another classic hoss comin' along any day now, might be out in one of those stalls right now. Anything else is just markin' time. We're always look-in' for another Tom Fool, a Shut Out, a Devil Diver, a hoss like Capot. Capot was one of our hoss of the years. He was at the same time as Olympia—that's a sprinter that could outrun a quarter hoss at a quarter of a mile, and he did it once, too. Well, Capot used to love to get right on Olympia"—Pickles held his long, bony hands straight out, parallel and almost touching to show how close Capot would stay to Olympia—"and not only Olympia but all those other speed hosses, and Capot he'd stay there till he broke their hearts. He did that twice with Coal-town, beat 'im twice in one year by stay-in' right with 'im, and he did it to another fast hoss named Noble Impulse. He'd lay right on 'im and stay there till sump-in' went bust. Typical Greentree hoss.
"This Greentree, it has its faults like any other place. But after a few years you get used to it. One minute you're important around here and you got to do ever'thing, everything. The next minute you can't even lead a hoss, you're too stupid to lead a hoss without a million dollars' worth of supervision. You're goin' from a drive to a pull all the time. One minute there's nothin' to do, the next minute you ain't got enough hands to do it.
"But I'll tell you one thing 'bout this place. You better not be around here if you don't like hosses. Our man, he talks sweeter to hosses 'n he does to people. He has more patience and understanding toward hosses—and cats and dogs and owls, for that matter—then a old-lady schoolteacher. He believes in Thoroughbreds, in top stock. He'd be the first person to admit that hosses as a class is dumb." A smile shone from the depths of Pickles' eyes. "But dumb or not, hosses are nice and hosses are interestin', and they can surprise you once in a while. They're so finely bred. Mighty few people are bred like a hoss."
"Kings, maybe?" he was asked.
"I doubt if even kings are. What king could you trace both top and bottom lines as close as you can the cheapest racehoss? And comin' out of that long breedin' is instinct, sumpin' deeper than thought, bred right into them. Like you see a hoss break his leg and keep right on runnin', with the leg danglin', still tryin' to win that race. Why? Because that's what he's bred to do.
"Yes, sir, you got to admire them, stupid or not, ornery or not. You got to like 'em. People asks me do I like bein' around hosses all the time. So I tell 'em that the ugliest job here is shakin' out stalls in the mornin'. Men don't like it, shovelin' all the manure out and cleanin' up. Why, I actually like that.' "
In the afternoon it snowed lightly in Aiken, and when the grooms fed the horses at 4, they pulled the stall doors shut to ward off the cold. Just before nightfall the final flake fell and the sun popped out for the last few minutes of the day, enabling Top Cat to resume his vigil at the mole hole. John Gaver and his son and a few others finished their afternoon huddle in the office and wandered off, and Pickles came scuttling around the end of the shed row, looking at the sky and executing a little therapeutic dance step. "This is the place to be," he said in his raspy baritone as he made a beeline for the now empty office and the undersized wooden chair in the corner. "And I believe in this place. I know I'm resented around the racetrack a whole lot because I believe in my owners and I believe in our man. If anybody says anything wrong about him it ought to be me. If anybody else says anything about him I get mad. I don't allow 'em to do it. Our man is the same about us. He don't let anybody talk about us. That's Greentree." Pickles turned the stove up a bit and resumed his attack on the chair. "Success is a funny thing," he intoned. "Now, both my parents were schoolteachers and they made me go through high school, and they wanted me to go to college. But you know where I'd be if I went to college? I'd be sittin' right here. I'd be—arraw, arraw—a hoss rubbah with a B.A." Pickles the groom leaned far back, his long legs spilling over the sides of the chair, and almost fell off with contentment.
RAY WOOLFE JR.
Groton, the stable's best hope for the Kentucky Derby, ambles around the walking ring before moving onto the training track for a morning workout, all part of his regimen.
Trainer John Gaver and son John Jr. discuss the stable's work schedule as Yogi the basset hound keeps an eye out for the squirrels he is sworn to kill but cannot catch.
With their exercise boys up and their grooms in attendance, the line of Greentree horses moves through the mist and chill of a Carolina dawn toward the track, where John Gaver awaits them.