SI Vault
Ernest Havemann
November 16, 1964
George Schilling has watched more horse races than any man alive, and he is credited with having the fastest eyes in the West. When he rules that a foul has occurred, the jockeys just say, 'Yes, sir'
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November 16, 1964

The Judge They Have To Tell It To

George Schilling has watched more horse races than any man alive, and he is credited with having the fastest eyes in the West. When he rules that a foul has occurred, the jockeys just say, 'Yes, sir'

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After he finished grade school he tried his best to get interested in a job in an insurance office, but two years of it was all he could stand. At 16, a skinny kid who weighed only 85 pounds and was known as "Dink," he became an exercise boy. This was at the Emeryville track, a ferry ride across the bay from San Francisco. One day he was exercising a mean old horse named Follow Me, who was uncontrollable on the track in the morning and had to be galloped on the dirt roads nearby. A piece of tumbleweed came blowing by, and Follow Me took off and carried Schilling three miles into the heart of downtown Oakland. Still he stuck to the horse—and the job—and might have become a jockey if his parents had not sent him to sea as chief storekeeper on a ship called the Coptic, which was owned by a company that an uncle worked for.

"They shanghaied me," he says. But every time the Coptic touched port he and the ship's doctor, another devotee, bought back issues of the newspapers, piled them in chronological order and made bets on the Monday entries before looking in Tuesday's paper for the results. He was obviously a hopeless case, and after he had made 10 trips to the Far East without showing any improvement, the family relented and he went back to the track.

Schilling was too heavy by this time to ride and instead began writing racing for the old San Francisco Examiner, covering the meet at Emeryville and enjoying a nice leisurely life, until one night his editor, Jack Boyle, who later wrote the Boston Blackie stories, had one drink too many at the Press Club in the company of his rival editors. The result was a bet on which paper could get its final edition, with the chart of the last race, down to the bay first to meet the returning horseplayers as they arrived on the ferry. Not until next morning, all too late, did Boyle stop to think that his plant was by far the most distant of all from the ferry slip and hopelessly out of the running.

Schilling saved the day. Instead of waiting for the official chartmaker, he called the race himself, into a telephone, and at the other end a printer rushed it into type even while he was speaking. Schilling's chart got to the ferry first; Jack Boyle won his bet, and Schilling was launched on a new career.

Calling a race chart requires the keenest of eyes and instantaneous reactions, and only a few people can do the job at all. Schilling found that he could not only do it with complete accuracy, but also bring to it the dramatic touch of a natural-born Shakespearean actor. This was in the days before the public address system, and most racing spectators had no idea of what was going on until the horses got into the stretch and near the finish line. The Judge began calling out the positions of the horses to an assistant who took them down on a blackboard, and crowds gathered to listen. Glad to oblige his growing public, the attention-loving Judge bellowed out like a hog caller, and occasionally added variety by affecting a Cockney, Japanese or deep-South accent.

When the old Tiajuana track opened in 1917 a few miles from the present Caliente, Schilling was employed as its first official chart caller. His skill proved his undoing. Tiajuana used to have 4�-furlong sprints, with as many as 14 horses whipping and driving right from the start, barreling into the far turn at top speed and often going past the finish under a blanket. One day, standing at the finish line and surrounded by about 300 spellbound fans, Schilling gave his usual split-second call and at the end announced that a horse named Oldsmobile was the winner by a neck. The placing judges put up another horse's number. There was no finish-line camera in those days to prove who was right, but the spectators believed their friend Schilling. It took a crew of policemen to get the judges safely away.

As a result of the near riot, the track banished Schilling to the grandstand roof. He found that he had a much better view there, and his exile doubtless inspired the high-up press boxes at modern tracks. But away from the admiration of the crowd at the finish line he languished, and soon gave up chart calling to become an official. He served as steward and racing secretary, and sometimes both, at long-forgotten tracks in places like Boise and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; Butte, Mont.; and Reno. Among the young jockeys he watched come up was Johnny Longden, who, fresh from riding his first winner at Salt Lake City in 1927, rode under the Judge's supervision at Edmonton and Calgary in Canada. (Schilling admits, incidentally, that he misjudged Longden: "I thought he was going to become one of the greatest riders on the half-mile tracks, because he had a special talent for taking a horse back from an outside position and crossing over to the rail to save ground. I never suspected that he would be even better at going to the front and then rating his horse on the big tracks.")

In his long career the Judge has had several close calls, surviving a racetrack shooting, a racetrack cyclone and a racetrack fire. The shooting took place in Reno, where the Judge, who had temporarily gone back to calling charts, was sitting in an automobile one morning with the presiding steward, Leon Wing. A jockey named Arthur Zeigler, who had been suspended in Canada for using a battery to make a horse run faster, came up and, disgruntled at being refused a license in Reno until he had cleared up his troubles in Canada, began shooting at Wing. The Judge happened to have one leg crossed over the other, and one of the bullets went right through the fork of his knee. Wing was mortally wounded. Undaunted, the Judge took after Zeigler on foot, much to his own surprise after he had time to think it over. ("He had a gun, and I didn't even have a stone to throw at him.") The jockey ran into the barn area, stepped into a tack room and blew his own brains out before the Judge caught up.

The cyclone came in Omaha; the skies grew ominously black, and suddenly bushes and branches were flying through the air. For the only time in his life the Judge found himself unable to make and stick to a quick decision. Acting on his first impulse, he ran down to the bottom of the grandstand and took refuge behind a pillar. To another man there he said, "This is the safest place, don't you think?" The man shrugged and said fatalistically, "Well, that all depends on whether the stand falls in on us." The Judge took off again for the roof. Fortunately, the storm veered and he and the grandstand were spared.

The fire occurred at the old Tiajuana track; it started in the stable area one afternoon during the races, and soon the sun was blacked out by smoke. Horses, turned loose from their stalls, ran crazily down the track and leaped the fences. It was one of the most spectacular fires in racing history, totally destroying five big barns, and perhaps the only one to take place in full view of a large racing-day crowd. Fortunately again—the Judge seems to carry his luck with him wherever he goes—no one was hurt and not a single horse was burned. The only casualty, if it can be called that, was a veteran named Night Raider, who disappeared into the hills of Baja California and was never seen again. The supposition is that Night Raider found a band of wild mares in the hills and established himself as king and that his progeny are still running around out there, doubtless full of spirit and speed if only someone could find and tame them.

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