For a groom January and February-are the months of promise. The 2-year-olds are sleek, fat and unscarred and, as with children, one can have hopes and dreams for them. Awkwardly the colts find their racing gaits; hopples burn hides, and the grooms put baby powder on ankle boots to ease the chafing. Young trotters balk and buck in the shafts and sometimes sit down in a sulk on the track, literally sit down on their haunches, which is a familiar position for a man, or even a dog, but somehow ridiculous for a horse.
Such antic scenes as this have been going on morning after morning the past few weeks at the training stable of Joe O'Brien, who runs a serene and purposeful operation in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Two Hambietonian winners have been schooled by O'Brien as well as the winners of almost $5 million in the last 10 years, and more failures, too, than one might care to think about. This is a place where horses come for discipline, and men—the grooms—come to find the various but apparently significant pleasures of involvement with racing animals and racing.
The O'Brien farm, a minuscule 40 acres, lies in the reclaimed desert northwest of Bakersfield where irrigation has made an abundant land. Cotton (three bales to an acre), alfalfa (seven cuttings a year), vineyards and orange groves stretch away to the horizon. Oil wells jut from the shoulders of highways or pump fortunes from abandoned parking lots. But, for all its richness, the farming community has simple tastes—a millionaire's home may be a one-story prefab on a patch of ground, and his fare ribs and fatback.
In January wet fog lies about Shafter, Calif., the site of the farm. The vineyards are leafless and cold brown. But O'Brien's 1969 crop is in the barn, and the stable's 29 grooms are busy speculating in racehorse futures. They endlessly analyze the gait and temperament of the 35 new colts and fillies. They know their sale prices and their pedigrees. Their attitude toward the animals they work with (each groom tends two horses) is as prejudiced as that of any sports fan. "I used to hate to get up in the morning to groom her daddy," one remarks of a filly jogging past. "Yeah, I decided to quit if she was that mean," says another.
"Did you see Starmon go this morning?" a young groom asks. "Joe says he might be a real good colt."
"Aw, he tells that to everyone," an oldtimer says. "He likes to keep your self-confidence up so you work harder."
A groom named Ray Dorn is looking at three horses working through the fog along the backstretch. They move into the turn, the drivers sitting still as sculpture. "Now watch my filly come home," Dorn shouts. "She'll go good from there. When I take her out to jog I always brush her round the turn. She's going to be a stretch finisher. See. See. Here she comes." As the filly trots to the front, Dorn whoops. "I won another heat. I won $15 last year from these boys betting in the morning on the horses I rubbed. Of course it didn't add up to much. If I won $3 I'd spend a buck-fifty of it taking the driver to lunch. What you do is get together with the driver the night before and say, 'Hey, Tommy, look, I've got to win tomorrow morning.' "
These men that the race public never sees, working in dark, hushed paddocks distant from the strobe-lit grandstands, have their stake, their enthusiasm and a folklore. Working on O'Brien's shedrow are Lucille Ball's former mailman, a high school music teacher and the owner of a copper mine. A man named Libertus Van Bokkelen, who sold scarves in Saks Fifth Avenue, mucks out stalls. There is a Flying Tiger crewman who says he is a friend of Madame Chiang Kai-shek and a onetime banker who remembers studying Milton's sonnets as a junior at Hotchkiss and writing his own iambic pentameters and heroic couplets. A Sonnet to a Dollar Bill was his best verse—his English master read it in class. Later, as a banker, he commuted to New York from socially swank Greenwich, Conn.
Grooms have past performances as varied as those of the horses they tend, but on the track their days fall into a pattern. They move with the horses from Saratoga to Goshen to Carlisle to Bloomsburg as the seasons change, but the quiet rhythm of the backstretch remains much the same—the beat of hooves in the morning and the lull of tong afternoons in the heavy shade of stable awnings. At the fairs—Springfield, Du Quoin, Delaware—someone will tie a puppy to a stable post knowing it will attact young girls in the crowds that wander through the barns. Or a groom offers to show a pretty girl a horse with a golden tooth. There is laughter and banter and, invariably, the stories that begin, "I knew a horse once...." They prescribe old cures—egg yolks, Listerine and an elastic bandage for an injured knee; opium for colic. There are poker games and a flush of ribald camaraderie. At night the men ball up paper in a bucket, light it and grill chops or chicken. Maybe corn and potatoes.
Most grooms measure achievement in the tick of a stopwatch. "You can get as much satisfaction out of a horse finishing second, third or fourth as winning," one explains. "Perhaps you've stood your mare in a brook every afternoon for a month to cool her legs, and finally she's sound enough just to stay flat in a race. That can give you a lot of happiness." The lids of the grooms' equipment trunks, lined with photographs of horses they have rubbed, bear testimony to triumphs of varying degree. They like to pause and tell a visitor about winning races, and those their horses almost won, excuses being a liniment that takes the soreness out of losing.