Surely no job on the racetrack has spawned a more colorful, memorable parade of characters than that of the back-stretch groom. Their nicknames reveal them. Liquor Ben and Never Sweat Hays and Silly Willie. Hard Times, who made a living betting easy marks that he could jump over the hood of a car, any car, the broader the better. The old Calumet Farm groom Slow 'n' Easy, for whom the world turned at half speed, and the late Lyin' Lefty Daub, teller of tall tales, and Kitchen Sittin' Smitty, who hung out at racetrack kitchens looking for work. If offered a job, Kitchen, still sittin', would say, "I'm busy right now."
There was Frank 'n' Beans, and there was Radio Joe, who talked all the time, and Easy Money, with his glittering mouthful of gold teeth, and Can't Talk, who never stopped speaking, and Sweet Potato, Gate Mouth and Center Pole. And there was Sloan (Duck Butter) Price, so nicknamed, he once explained, after he successfully ducked a flying stick of butter in a racetrack cafeteria fight.
The names are tamer nowadays. Down at Gulfstream Park, working side by side, are South Carolina Jimmy and his cousin, Willie Green. "Bill for short," says Willie. Times have changed too. In the first half of this century most of the grooms, like Slow 'n' Easy and Duck Butter, were black. Many of them came to the racetrack from horse farms in Kentucky, South Carolina and Virginia, and they traveled like vagabonds from track to farm to track. The most celebrated groom in the first half of the 20th century was Will Harbut, the black handler of the immortal Man o' War, the greatest American racehorse of his day. Thousands of people went to visit the stallion each year at Faraway Farm in Lexington, Ky., where Harbut would stand in front of the horse's stall and regale his rapt audiences with stories of Man o' War's exploits, sometimes ending with a theatrical flourish: "He beat all de hosses, and there was nothin' left for him to do. He was de mostest hoss. Stand still, Red."
Not 20 years after Harbut and Man o' War died, a month apart, in 1947, the era of the predominantly black groom was disappearing as rural Southern blacks migrated to the industrial North and sought higher-paying union jobs in factories. Racetracks began opening jobs in their stable areas to women—female grooms or exercise riders had been virtually unheard of since the dawn of American racing—who were joined by an increasing number of Latin Americans, particularly Mexicans at California racetracks and Cubans and Puerto Ricans at tracks in Florida.
Today there are female grooms, pitchforks in hand, mucking stalls at all the venues of the sport. They come from everywhere, from farms and towns, often with years of experience in riding and grooming pleasure horses. Anita Lichtenberg, 23, of Mankato, Minn., began riding as a child, broke thoroughbred yearlings as a teenager and spent a summer working as a groom at Canterbury Downs outside of Minneapolis. That experience with racehorses changed her life. To the dismay of her father, a retired Mankato policeman—"My father wanted me to go to college," Lichtenberg says—she chose to make a life for herself on the racetrack as a full-time groom. This winter, at Belmont Park in New York, she was up every working day at 4:45 a.m. and off to Billy Mott's barn, coffee in hand, to begin the care and handling of three of his expensive fur coats. She takes home $230 a week.
It is not soft work, lifting muck tubs and carrying them to the manure bin, slinging buckets of water from the spigots to the stalls, hauling bales and forkfuls of hay and straw, getting stepped on and pushed around by 1,000-pound animals in their stalls. "But I enjoy my job," Lichtenberg says. "I like women at the track. I think we're more conscientious about taking care of a horse; we pay more attention to detail. It's kind of like taking care of kids. You gotta know when to spank them and when to school them. The racetrack gets in your blood. People try to leave, but it seems like they always come back. It pulls you, like an addiction."
Nothing pulls like the yanqui dollar in Mexico, and the opportunity to earn more than $1,000 a month—and, with luck, a good deal more than that—has filled the sheds of American racetracks with grooms from south of the Rio Grande. Many of the Mexican grooms were farmers back home, or farmers' sons who were raised around horses. Numerous trainers say the Mexican grooms bring to their jobs a practiced skill with horses, a feel for the animals. So it comes as no surprise that Mexicans are handling several of the most prominent 3-year-old horses this year, including Fly So Free, an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby who ran a disappointing fifth at Churchill Downs, and a striking California colt named Excavate, a son of Mr. Prospector.
Francisco Ramirez, 20, the groom of Fly So Free, grew up the fourth of nine children of a farmer in Zamora, in central Mexico, where horses were a part of his early years. "I think I was born on a horse," Ramirez says. "I was raised with them. I loved them ever since I was a young boy." At 16, he followed his older brothers north to racetracks in the U.S., first to New Jersey and finally to New York trainer Scotty Schulhofer's barn. Last August, seeing enough in Ramirez's horsemanship to justify the ultimate vote of confidence, Schulhofer made him the groom of Fly So Free, the 1990 2-year-old champion. "He is something I love, like a car," Ramirez says of the colt. "I take care of him like he is family."
Early in February, Francisco Solís of Guadalupe, Mexico, stepped into stall 24 of trainer Charles Whittingham's barn at Santa Anita, took Excavate by his halter and turned the big colt in a half circle. "A good-looking horse, no? Strong, very strong," Solís said. "But very kind. And the coat! You ought to see it when the sunshine hits it. His coat is like a mirror."
"You are always hopin' that every horse you rub will be the top one," says Green. "I lay down at night and I think about my horses. How can I make them better? Oh, I'd love to win the Derby. I think about it every time I get a young horse. I never even been to the Derby. Can you imagine walkin' the Kentucky Derby winner back to the barn? It would be like walkin' to heaven and back."