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.