This was the summer of summers of my youth, when the days chased one another like puppies in a litter, and it seemed at times as if the world were standing still. The insular world of the racetrack has a way of slowing the passage of time. At Arlington, McGinnis and I shared a room above the office of the stable foreman, a quiet, pipe-smoking European immigrant known to us only as Mr. Hack. He kicked on our door every morning at 5:30 and hollered: "Come on, dair, boys, da barn's on fire."
Rolling out of our cots, we wandered sleepily down the wooden staircase to the shed, there to pick up a leather lead shank, attach it to a horse's halter and begin the timeless circuits of the barn. We led horse after horse on half-hour walks around the shed while the grooms, pitchforks in hand, mucked out the manure-laden, urine-stained straw from the empty stalls and filled them with fresh beds.
Alaniz and Round Table had their own private hotwalker, but there were other grooms to walk for in the morning. There was Frenchie, with the withered arm, a Jew who survived a Nazi concentration camp and mumbled to himself all morning; Les, a lanky former sheep-herder who rubbed a big gray stakes horse named Tall Chief II; Rafael, an illegal alien from Mexico, who broke down in tears when immigration officers led him off in handcuffs one morning; and Paul Parker, the groom I worked for, whose mashed nose suggested a retired prizefighter, which he was not.
There were a lot of fast horses in that barn, stakes winners like Milly K. and Demobilize, and some 2-year-olds with promise. Prince Blessed, a beautifully bred son of Princequillo, was a maiden juvenile who occupied the corner stall, next to Round Table, in the early part of that summer. Owner Travis M. Kerr had paid $77,000 for him at a sale, and trainer Molter babied him along. He could be an ornery, savage little rascal, waiting for you to drop your guard around him. McGinnis was walking a horse past his stall one day and the colt lunged out the door and grabbed him on the arm. John took a swing at him.
"Don't hit dat horse!" yelled Mr. Hack. "He's wort more dan you are."
Prince Blessed turned out to be a nice racehorse, a stakes-winner, but that is not how he is remembered now. He was not much as a stallion, but he did beget a decent horse named Ole Bob Bowers. And Ole Bob made history as the sire of John Henry.
The class of the barn was Round Table, who used to stand for hours with his head out of the stall, swaying side to side incessantly, like a fighter warming up. He was already on his way to the Hall of Fame as perhaps the greatest grass runner in history. He would retire at the end of the year with lifetime earnings of $1,749,869, a record at the time, and at stud he would eventually sire 83 stakes winners, seven of them European champions. It was a wonder, with John and me in the barn, that he made it through the season.
One afternoon we were sitting around the tackroom behind Round Table's stall, and I had one of the most harebrained ideas in my life. Even today, 30 years later, I wince when I think about it. We were talking about jockeys and race riding, how they whoop and holler coming out of the gate. There was a sawhorse in there. So I took a saddle, put it over the horse and climbed aboard to demonstrate. I hitched up the stirrups, reached over and took some reins of a bridle in my hands. I told John to take that stirrup off the wall over there and bang the inside of it with that screwdriver, so as to make the sound of a starting-gate bell. Hunching over, I said, 'Go!' "
McGinnis banged on the stirrup as if he were calling the whole racetrack to dinner. I started yelling and slapping the sides of the sawhorse. And all of a sudden, it was if the barn had gone up in flames. There were horses screaming all over the shed, and I looked up and saw Round Table's forelegs reaching over top of the stall. Terrified, I fell motionless. John froze. Mr. Hack bounded into the tack room. He was white. "What in da hell are you boys doin'?" he cried. "You wanna kill every horse in da barn? Now get outta here!"
Slinking away, I never felt a bigger fool. And I never told Paul Parker, fearing what he would think and say. He had become a kind of mentor for me, not only in the care and feeding of horses, but in other things, too. He knew I had been accepted at the University of Illinois for the fall term, and he knew I loved to play the horses, and he warned me against it. "Save your money for school," he said. "You'll get down to school and wish you had the $20 that you lost in the double."