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Original Issue

Going to school in a sulky

The classroom young Bryce Fenn prefers is out at the trotting track

Though he is too young to be admitted to the grandstand at most racetracks, Bryce Fenn is a horse trainer. A 15-year-old with a smooth, freckled face, he is the youngest trainer ever licensed by the U.S. Trotting Association.

On one recent afternoon it seemed to him that the bus carrying him home from school would never get there, and when it finally rolled to a stop, Bryce burst out of it on a dead run. It was already six o'clock. He had no time to eat. One of the horses he trains was entered in the eighth race at Hazel Park in Detroit that night.

Bryce sprinted for the old barn behind the family's split-level house set among the corn and oat fields outside Windsor, Ontario. In minutes he emerged leading a pacer named Quick N Steady and walked the horse into a red van parked in the driveway. His father was already behind the wheel. "Hi, Dad," Bryce said, climbing in the passenger side. "Let's hurry."

At Hazel Park, 15 miles away and across the border, the presence of a 4'11" kid hitching a horse to a sulky in the receiving barn behind the clubhouse attracted no attention whatsoever. "Most horsemen here know me, and the fans probably think I'm somebody's son," said Bryce as he knelt to unwrap the protective bandages from Quick N Steady's legs.

After the second race Bryce took his horse onto the track for its first warmup. He drove with a loose hold, asking for little speed from the 4-year-old in circuiting the ‚Öù-mile oval clockwise twice. Afterward he stopped by to see Racing Secretary Bill Connors, read the condition book for the upcoming races and dropped an entry form into the three-day box. He watched the fifth race, a claiming pace, from a walkway between the track and the paddock. "Nothing there worth claiming," Bryce said as the winner crossed the wire. After the seventh race, Bryce walked up to Merritt Dokey in the drivers' lounge. Dokey is a veteran on Midwestern tracks who often drives for Bryce and would be handling Quick N Steady that night. "Want to drive for me again Thursday?" Bryce asked him. He had to look up at Dokey, tucking his hands inside the front pockets of his faded jeans. "Sure," said Dokey, looking down. "You bet."

Dokey drove Quick N Steady to a respectable fourth-place finish, and Bryce was pleased. "I can't expect an owner to give me a great horse until I get more experience," he said in the car on the way home. It was 2 a.m. when he arrived.

There are no great horses in the stable Bryce runs. He trains five maidens—horses that have never won a race—and two inexpensive claimers. In different partnerships, Bryce owns a piece of five of them. A doctor owns one and a neighboring policeman pays Bryce to train the seventh. One of the horses Bryce purchased as a yearling, broke to harness and to sulky himself, then taught it to pace. Another, called Terry the Terror, was practically a gift at $200. It came to him with a broken sesamoid bone in its right hind leg. A vet sealed the fracture and Bryce fed and groomed the horse for five months before he started taking it over the track. He says he will race Terry when nearby Windsor Raceway opens in October. "It's that kind of stable," Bryce says with a shrug. "But you learn."

At six the next morning Bryce was back in the barn, cleaning wet straw out of a stall with a pitchfork. Two stalls away, a yearling colt Bryce was boarding began vigorously kicking the wooden wall. Bryce dropped the pitchfork, went over to the noisy stall and whistled. The colt came to him and began nibbling on his green field jacket. "All horses are dumb and some are dumber than others," Bryce said, giving the colt his sleeve and then taking it away. "A good trainer knows how much each horse can learn at one time." By noon Bryce had fed and brushed down his horses, mucked out their stalls and driven three of them six miles apiece over the homemade half-mile dirt track laid out behind the barn. Some mornings he rides the jog cart as many as 25 miles. "You work horses and take care of them and they pick up speed on their own if they have any," he said. "That is 90% of training."

The day Bryce turned 14 he applied to the Canadian Trotting Association for permission to take the trainer's test, and on an icy February night he appeared before the racing judge for the exam. He was led to a small table in a dingy room under the grandstand at Windsor and handed the 14-page test covering rules of racing, training procedures, horse care and anatomy and uses of equipment. Pencil poised, he was bent over the diagram of a horse when Bill Rowe, the president of the raceway, walked by and looked into the room. "This is no place for kids," Rowe told him. "But I'm writing my trainer's test," Bryce protested. Two weeks later his license arrived by mail.

Ever since, Bryce has found no time for dating, fooling around with classmates or anything much except horses. He made the West Sandwich (Ontario) Bantam All-Star hockey team two years ago but quit because it took away hours he preferred to spend jogging horses. Millicent Fenn is undisturbed by her son's restricted interests. "Some nights I go into his room and find him asleep with the lights on," she says. In his lap, she adds, is a copy of Care and Training of the Trotter and Pacer. Her chief worry is that Bryce will drop out of school. Around noon on the day after Quick N Steady's race at Hazel, she was peeling potatoes when Bryce appeared in the kitchen and asked her if she would wash a pile of horse bandages. She said she would and, noticing the time, told Bryce he should start getting ready for school. He mumbled something inaudible and ghosted away toward the barn. There he found a box containing dozens of bits and began untangling them. "I know 25-year-olds, still in school, who can't find jobs," he said. "After studying that long, they don't want to work." He closed the box. "I have a job I like. There is plenty to learn around here."

In the summer of his sixth year, Bryce had wandered out to the barn, asked his father if he could help and ended up spending the entire day mucking out a stall. Bruce Fenn says his son has returned to the barn practically every day since. The elder Fenn has owned and trained horses around Windsor for almost a quarter of a century and has nine of them now. He was the leading trainer at Windsor Raceway in 1971. At the time he was training for Bert James, a neighbor who owned the legendary Albatross. "The kid really works hard," he says of his son. "I have never seen anybody take to horses so quickly."

For his part, Bryce is aware of how much his father's tutelage has meant. "I know other kids who love horses," he says, "but my dad has given me opportunities they will never get."

Bryce's ambition is to drive eventually because, as he says, it is the driver-trainer who makes the big money in harness racing. In the U.S. a driver must be 18, but in Canada 16 will do, so Bryce plans to apply for a Canadian license on his birthday next January. For a provincial license, which is required for driving in betting races, a candidate must drive five qualifying races under the scrutiny of a racing judge. He must also drive one rated mile, telling the judge beforehand exactly what clocking his horse will register at each quarter pole, plus or minus a fifth of a second. The prospect of qualifiers does not worry Bryce, who figures he has already logged about 20,000 miles in a sulky. And he has been practicing rated miles for months. "He seldom misses," says his father.

The odds on a driver earning $100,000 a year, the sum many regard as the requisite to fame, are not very good. Last year the USTA licensed 10,542 drivers; only 10 won enough in purses to earn $100,000. "If Bryce keeps his head straight, he might make it," says Greg Wright, the leading driver at Hazel Park. Wright drove for Bruce Fenn and has watched Bryce around horses for years. "He has not learned how to do anything the wrong way," Wright says. "Very few horsemen have had the schooling he has." Dokey agrees. "He has learned from the bottom up," Dokey says. "He knows about conditioning and claiming, too. He's a natural."

Bryce is not overconfident. One morning as the mist was lifting, he wedged a visitor in beside him in the jog cart and worked a 3-year-old filly named Cricket Line around the homemade oval. "I watch drivers and take notes," he said, holding the reins lightly, palms up, between his middle and forefingers. He gently closed his right hand, pulling the rein ever so slightly and, in effect, telling Cricket Line to move closer to the rail. "Horses understand only your hands," he said. "Real drivers know a lot more than I do. They all have strategies, and right now I can't imagine guessing correctly what the other seven of them will do at different points throughout a race." He chirped at Cricket Line and thought for a moment. "But I talk with the guys I respect and they say that once you start driving in races you learn to react automatically. I guess driving is a lot like training. It takes a long time to learn."

Having learned as much as he has already, Bryce Fenn is off to a pretty good start.