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Only way that horses will win is if you sit there and spend time with 'em. Show 'em that you're tryin' to help 'em. Love 'em. Talk to 'em. Get to know 'em. Now that's what you gotta do. You love 'em, and they'll love you, too. People might call me crazy, but that's the way it is. I been on the racetrack 34 years and I aint ever gonna give up. I think they'll take me to my grave with a pitchfork in my hand and a rub rag in my back pocket.
Ben Stubbs stretched his neck over the rail by the winner's circle, adjusted the blue wool hat on his head and squinted up the homestretch toward the starting gate. A Hound of the Baskervilles fog had clung all day to Laurel Race Course, obscuring all but the late stretch runs, and now the horses in the 10th race were dancing like shadows in the distance, looking ghostlike in their gallops to the gate.
Stubbs flipped his cigarette into the mud of the racetrack and stomped his duck boots in the cold. It was almost 4:15 p.m. on Dec. 29, and the seven horses were nearing the starting gate for the $100,000 Congressional Handicap, a 1¼-mile charge along the dead rail of winter racing in Maryland. It had snowed the day before, turning the racetrack into mire, but 12,474 horseplayers had shown up and were betting more than $250,000 on the Congressional alone, making Runaway Stream the tepid favorite at $2.40 to $1. Now the seven horses' grooms, who had walked their charges from the barn to the paddock for saddling, were gathering in small crowds near the winner's circle. Stubbs, 47, a groom for 28 years, stood waiting with the chain and leather lead shank in his hand.
He looked up the racetrack. "Can't see much," he said. Stubbs was looking for his horse, Chas' Whim, the bettors' third choice in the Congressional at nearly 4-1. The 3-year-old chestnut gelding had lately emerged as one of the most popular runners on the Maryland circuit. "One of the best horses I ever put my hands on," Stubbs said as the horses loaded into the gate. "He can run, and he can run on anything—grass, dirt, mud like this. No matter. Calm as a lamb, too. A real nice horse."
At stake for Stubbs was $600, or 1% of the Congressional winner's share of $60,000—the usual fee that trainers pay their grooms. To be sure, grooms have more than money on the line when their horses run, more to hope for than that extra stake on payday. No one on the racetrack—neither the owners, trainers or jockeys, nor the assorted hustlers, rakes or handicappers—is nearly as close to the animals as their grooms, or "swipes," that bivouacked army of men and women who make and remake the straw beds in the horses' stalls, who wake up at early light to care for the animals, who turn off the lights at night for them, who scold and succor and curry them. Who brush, rub, massage, bathe, hose, sponge, feed, water, stroke, graze and bandage them. Who pick their feet and sing to them. Who mix their mash and fill their racks with hay. Who dose their feed with thick liquid vitamin mix, pouring it on the oats like syrup over pancakes. Who take the horses' temperatures, paint their feet, feel for hot spots in their ankles and knees. Who swab their legs with poultices of medicated mud and stand the horses for hours in tubs of ice. Who lead them to the wars and back.
"The groom is the life of the horse," says Hall of Fame trainer Sylvester Veitch of New York. "A good groom will make your horse; a bad groom will ruin him. In the good ones it's a natural instinct. You gotta love the horse. You gotta love the game."
Along shedrows from Laurel to Gulf-stream Park in Florida to Santa Anita Park in California, the rivalries among grooms are often keen. Most grooms rub three horses apiece, four at times, and each animal becomes an extension of the groom's life. So, in turn, the horses are a source of enormous, chest-thumping pride for those who care for them. Two days before the Congressional, in the stable area, Stubbs passed astern of Jim Spears, the groom of Reputed Testamony, a 6-1 shot in the race, and Spears hollered: "I'm gonna kick your butt on Saturday!"
"You ain't got a chance!" Stubbs yelled back.
The next day, with ice coating the branches of trees and with snow gusting, groom Willie Kee was sitting in a small room in the detention barn on the backstretch, watching the races with other stable hands, including Sauni Jones, a hotwalker from Chas' Whim's barn. "Well, I'm gonna win the Congressional tomorrow," Kee announced loudly. "I'll be laughin' at 'em all in the winner's circle." Kee was the groom of Learned Jake, who had placed in his last two starts at Laurel, both stakes.
"I got the fittest horse, and the race is set up for me," crowed Kee. "If the track don't dry out, they'll all seven start, and there's plenty of speed, and I come from off the pace."