Posted in Music and horses

Very Superstitious

Horsemen have their own set of superstitions and jinxes. I’ll list a few, feel free to add more in the comments, we’d love to hear about them!

Before we start, we all know the well known song by Stevie Wonder, here’s a “tongue in cheek” bluegrass parody version of Superstition by a group of superb studio musicians, Run C&W, including Bernie Leadon of Eagles fame on the banjo. Get that whole album for a good laugh, but great music as well! /www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQWF1BWvmYk

Here’s the list

• Everyone has heard of keeping a horseshoe displayed in a doorway for good luck. Be sure it’s facing upwards so the luck won’t “fall out”!

• Don’t ever clip your horse’s foretop on race day, it’s bad juju! Some say don’t clip them anywhere?!

• It’s supposed to be bad luck to change a colt or filly’s name after you buy it from a sale, from what the breeders named the foal.

• If you hang your pitchforks and rakes up at day’s end, leaving even as much as a sprig of hay or straw in the tines can conjure up an ill wind for your stable…

• When you’re training a young horse down, harness legend Ralph N Baldwin says in his chapter on Training the two year old in the Care and Training of the Trotter and Pacer – that he never goes for a young horse’s fastest time in exactly 2:20. Why? Because he was told by Fred Egan that half of them will stop right there and not go any faster if you do. He advised a trainer to “pass 20” – Looks like even the big time champion trainers had their notions~

Some “superstitions” are just good life lessons, don’t speak ill of the dead, [or anyone for that matter] don’t feign illness to get off work [it’ll really happen!] and do unto others as you would want to be done to yourself.

Winding up, here’s wishing everyone many fine Friday 13’s to come. Do something extra nice for someone on that day, it may come back to you in the form of an extra nice feeling. Try it…

Posted in Music and horses

Thumb on The Bug (or, Arriving at Rockingham Park)

I ran across an old friend on the side of the road, growing in the poor soil full of pebbles, like so many of the most powerful medicine plants do. It was a friend to me, because it was there when I needed it.

When in bloom, it has a funny little flower spike that looks somewhat like a ladies thumb, as pictured in this article. (coincidentally that picture is from a New Hampshire writing)

In the early 2000’s, many of us had gone up to Rockingham Park from Rosecroft Raceway to race in Salem, New Hampshire. My stable decided to go there. This would be the first year in a long time that this track had hosted Harness Racing. It was well known to be a thoroughbred track previously.

I got up there in the driving rain at about one in the morning, expecting my tack room and barn to be ready for me, just like the New Hampshire race office had told me it would.

The night guard at the gate knew nothing about it. I managed to unload four horses and get them bedded down in some stalls. Gates up, Feed, hay, water…

By then I was soaking wet, I dropped the trailer and drove back to the guard shack. “Is there any hotel that I can stay in?” … “aaaahh yaaahhh” he says in a very strange accent, “theaaahs tha manaaaahh down the street”

…I’m thinking in the Biblical sense… Manna from Heaven?!?! “What did you say” … The conversation went on from there, around and around. Finally I realized he meant the Manor Hotel. It didn’t take me long to learn and understand “New England – Eze” It was several “sets of lights” down the road, cheap and comfortable.

To explain something I found out awhile ago, is when you first get to a racetrack that has been shut down for a while, and you happen to be one of the first horses to arrive there before the meet, there are some challenges that one must deal with. First is that a lot of the services that make caring for racehorses easier haven’t arrived yet, such as tack supplies, hay and feed delivery etc.

Another challenge is that the flies will all attack your horses (and you) with long pointy teeth, accompanied by mosquitoes, gnats and other types of bugs… for the simple reason that there are no others around for them to bite. They center around your barn.

Fortunately, my son had begun his blacksmithing career by then. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to bring fly spray. Not even my holistic mix of vinegar and essential oils.

I watched my son struggle to shoe King Blue Chip. Having white socks made him even more sensitive to the biting flies. They were both blowing and sweating and he had not even gotten the shoes off yet. The 17.2 hand gelding would snatch his legs away, thrashing his tail, kicking and stomping. King was getting worse by the minute, even though he was generally a mild-mannered trotter. I was trying to brush the flies off using the old towel method, but I wasn’t having any luck trying to keep up with all of their blood-drawing bites.

A little weed caught my eye. I remembered something I had read, …I was having a mental picture of Native Americans, standing behind bushes, mounted and ready to ambush, at war or on a hunt. The book had said they would rub this plant on their horses backs, so that the horses would not swish the flies and give away their position.

We didn’t have smart phones yet, so I could not google to make sure this was indeed the plant, it had bloomed, and the small flower spike had the signature “ladies thumb” shape, but there are other plants that have similar blossom spikes.

Lucky for us, the marker for this plant was the leaf, which has a spot in the center that is a darker shade of green than the rest of the leaf.

I ripped a handful of plants out of the sandy dirt and squashed them in my hands, ran over to the by-now dueling adversaries and rubbed them all over King, especially his legs and pasterns. I really wasn’t sure if I was getting any of the plant juices or oils on him.

Suddenly King sighed once and stood stock still for the rest of his shoeing.

I never cease to wonder at what God gives us. If only we look, learn, and believe.

In about half an hour, I started to itch in between my fingers, where my calloused hands didn’t protect me. Turns out that it can be a slight skin irritant, but the itch disappeared quickly after washing.

We watched the other trailers coming in through the gate, Ingraham, Bruce Ranger from Florida, many others from all over the country. The shops, track kitchen and even a chapel opening up.

It was going to be a fun summer.

Posted in Music and horses

Musical Horseman Mike Pratt: Everyone always wants more

Video: My Advice to you
Video: You Gotta know
——————🌺—————-

Update; Mike is recovering! Go to the bottom of the post for the update!

I first met Kerry Michael Pratt by reading his name in the Rockingham racing program. I may have seen Mike checking up the horse as they walked out of the Paddock for the post parade, but to tell you the truth, I was watching the race on a tv monitor, and probably didn’t even see that. I was only interested in his HORSE -as a business opportunity.

In the early 2000’s for four years or so, Rockingham Park, generally a Thoroughbred track in New Hampshire, hosted a three-month summer harness meet. A lot of us from Rosecroft packed up and went, including the Lisi stables, which by then was pared down to ten horses. What a great time. The Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Jersey and New York horsemen made many lifelong friends with the New Englanders.

While I was stabled there in 2003, an owner of mine decided that he wanted to claim a horse.

My client preferred trotters, but would consider a pacer. He wanted to spend ten or twelve thousand bucks, and I agreed. We both felt it was a perfect time and place to claim one for racing in the autumn at Colonial Downs, and if the horse stepped up, we could go in the winter to race for big money at The Meadowlands…We had come up with several choices.

Enter my sons’ input:

“Ma there’s only one horse here to claim, a four year old pacer. He can’t leave a lick, but he’s been flying home. – a late bloomer”

~By this time, my son had worked as a Paddock blacksmith under Larry Ward at Rosecroft Raceway coming out of Oklahoma Shoeing School. He had done his share of gambling while on the job, and really knew how to watch a horse race. He knew how a race would shake out, and saw things that many people didn’t. Because of this, I put a lot of stock in his opinion.

… He was in for $12,000 “Claim him TONIGHT Ma” … My owner wanted me to watch the horse race first.

The blocky medium sized black gelding got away last, but came home in 26 and a piece to finish in the money, but did not win. We figured he’d go right back in that class. It was the first time he’d ever been in a claimer.

Next week he was in for $15,000… My owner almost decided to do it…he was on the fence. That very week, he bought an unraced seven year old Pine Chip stallion from the Amish cheap, and shipped him to us. He and I preferred trotters anyway. My son threw up his hands in frustration as I turned my attention to our new charge. He had a hitch from a suspensory, continually irritated by the callous of an old broken splint bone. Not a bad horse.

Of course, Hero’s Cavalcade won for 15, and was removed from the claiming ranks. He was learning to leave, and wasn’t losing anything coming home. It was a killer combination which made him very hard to beat. He kept winning his way up to the top classes by the time the Rockingham meet was over. Basically, Junior and I tried not to notice.

We went directly from “The Rock” to stable for the fall Colonial Downs harness meet in New Kent, Va. At that point Colonial was very welcoming to out-of-state Horsemen, and we all urged our new friends in New England to come and race. We could stay in the dorms there, and there were many late closers, and good purses, not far from Richmond.

Arthur Jr. was shoeing on the side, and got to know Mike Pratt. “Ma I’m so glad we didn’t claim that horse. It’s his only horse, and he really loves him.” I started to notice the two of them, jogging on the track, taking long walks together, grazing him by the hour in between the barns. I struck up a conversation with him, not mentioning our desire to claim his horse this past summer.

We didn’t talk about horses.

We talked about music. He had seen me playing guitar at my Rockingham barn with Angus, another bluegrasser horseman, and Mike and I started talking… chatting about guitars, songs we liked, favorite recording artists. Angus had sold me a cheap Alvarez which I had with me at Colonial.

Musicians have a unique bond, very similar to the one that fellow horsemen have. It is different than merely having a “common interest“. It is the sharing of a passion, or even an obsession as some might call it. It is it’s own world, and the people who are inside it know how the others feel, think, and express themselves.

“Hey Nancy, they’re having a fish fry at the back dorms tonight, I don’t have my guitar with me, why don’t you bring yours and play?”

~ Turns out, Mike was a pro.

At some point he had played the club circuit. Like me though, once he got bitten by the Harness bug he did not look back, except to play very occasionally for himself. He knew a boatload of classic rock and pop songs that he had adapted to his solo acoustic style. He was also a songwriter, which I didn’t find out until later.

At sunset, the fish fry was rolling. Some of the guys had been fishing at a nearby lake, and caught a bunch of rockfish. The coals were hot on the grill, and it was a free-for-all, with plenty of beer and wine to go around. We all hung out in the space of about three dorms, on picnic benches and chairs, under a canopy of bright stars, with filet after filet served up endlessly from the grille.

We played.

I’d do one, then hand the Alvarez over to him and he would do one. If one knew the others’ song, we would sing along. Mike was a huge hit. He selected songs that were familiar to most of the folks there, they were singing along, clapping, and generally having just a great time. He was a very complementary and gracious fellow. With an easy smile and likable manner, he did not seem to need the abundant applause and admiration he got from the listeners. Mike was just doing what came naturally and what he enjoyed.

Playing music at this point was only a temporary interlude for Mike, his time was centered on his buddy, Hero.

We met up a few more times at subsequent meets at Colonial. Great singing, playing and jamming times.

He was excited when he bought his Martin guitar, and of course it was nice to be able to not have to share one guitar but to actually play together.

Mike often spoke of his kids and his wife Lisa, whom he first met at a horsemans’ picnic at Foxboro Raceway in 1993. Being a racing official herself, she has supported his endeavors, both musical and equine, all the way, one hundred percent.

I would go up and race the Meadowlands, and I could see Hero in the program, winning the top classes, no easy feat in those days to race at that level at that particular track. He was amassing big earnings, that maybe could have been ours? A question never to be answered. I pride myself on my care and knowledge of horses, but Mike comes from a racing family and had as much as I did or more. Only recently I have heard of his father “Snuffy”” a savvy trainer.

Mike retired Hero, when he still could have raced him at a lower level, and continued to make money.

Typical… Mike has always left us wanting more.

Enter the age of the Internet, cell phones, …social media! It was easier for everyone to keep up with friends and family. I was so pleased to see that they still had Hero’s Cavalcade, and he relaxes in luxury settings with another equine buddy Rastus on their New England farm. I think folks who malign racing would be surprised to know how many trainers and owners provide homes for their horses when the racing days are over.

Mike made a comeback to racing competition. After making sure he could still win a race, he once again retired to the farm. I would see his multiple posts and was amazed at the variety of genres that he likes. From Jazz to Country to rock ‘n’ roll. He never seemed to limit himself.

Mike writes songs. Lots of them. I’ve only heard a couple.

Like it always is with Mike, he leaves us all wanting more.

Mike amazingly has survived multiple health crisis, including liver and kidney failure. While in the hospital, he wrote a super bunch of songs, he videotaped himself doing theee of them, Lisa had me upload these two:

The first is entitled frankly: “My Advice to You

The second we have is a song written to and for his wife Lisa. “You Gotta Know

…As usual, Mike always leaves us wanting more.

As I write this, Michael Pratt is struggling for his life from some strange infection which has spread over his body and into his blood. He is way too young to go, and we are all hoping that the inevitable which comes for all of us will not visit him yet. I hope that I will be able to update this blog by writing and tell you that he has pulled through once again, to sing for us and play his guitars.

I’m so glad we never claimed that little Black horse.

Mike. We want more.

Update: from Wife Lisa:

Good news to share: After 51+Days, Mike is home! Kidney is functional again and blood is normal. The Drs have no explanation as to the cause of this nightmare. In true “Mike” fashion he said, “I should be good to paddock in a few weeks” Let’s hope!! I want to thank everyone for the outpouring of love and support. I truly believe all the positive energy helped him heal.”

———————🌸-————————-

Harness Jargon & terms:

[1] Most harness horses in America wear an overcheck bit which supports the head during the race. Before going out for the post parade, as the driver gets on the seat, that is when the overcheck strap is attached to a hook on top of the harness. Thus “Checking up”
[2] An owner is a person who pays a professional racehorse trainer to train their horse. They may also have training and driving capabilities.
[3] Meaning: to start quickly in a race with the ability to get “on top”, or to lead the race
[4] Meaning: last quarter a few fifths over 26 seconds. In 2000 that was top-flight speed
[6] Hind-end uneven gait: from lameness, a neurological problem or shoeing imbalance.
[7] We patched the Pine Chip trotter up to win a race in a respectable 1:57 at Colonial Downs, then sent him to the owner to fool with up near his home in Jersey. He eventually ended up back with the Amishman who used him to breed. I wonder if any of his offspring are around?

Back To Top

Posted in Music and horses

Bing Crosby look alike, A trotter born at Rosecroft 1970’s, a New Years Message

No, Bing wasn’t at Rosecroft that I’m aware of,,although I know Carol Channing was. As part of a 1960-ish promo, she had dinner with George Warthen, (not understanding Hollywood types, he said she about “talked me to death”)I also know that Bing Crosby did love the track on the Thoroughbred side, you can read more about that here 

This is about Calvin Gitcomb. 
In my previous blog I wrote about the barn where I landed in the mid 70’s. Pete Wathen put me to work rubbing Basil Hough’s horses, at $60 a week. Now Mr. Hough was tight. (Wayne Smullin “do I hear something squeak? Why it’s Mister Hough!” Mr. Hough – “Wayne Smullin!!” ..respect) For a guy approaching his 90’s, he was a sharp, hard working and capable horse trainer. His flame red chestnut JC’s Helen was a top flight local mare, and he had a number of other luminaries in his barn. He’d throw me up on Helen’s back and send me to Henson Creek to soak her for an hour in the cold water up past her knees and hocks. Mr. Hough trail rode JCs Helen himself in the off season. 

To continue, here comes Calvin in the barn on a gray winter day. Dead ringer for Crosby, down to the tipped Fedora hat. ..Except not.. 

He was full of double entendres, dirty remarks and “wink wink”… then a big laugh….I despised him immediately. I avoided him and kept working every day. Everyone else really seemed to like him. 

One night all that changed. Mr Hough decided he wanted 6 coats of Neatsfoot on all the equipment. So after dinner I came back to the tiny heated tack room to do it. It was a long job, the harness was getting pretty funky as the winter wore on. 

In comes Calvin. “Mind if I sit awhile?” Didn’t wait for my answer. He begins talking, talking about what it was like to land in Normandy on D-Day, how scared they were, how he had to save his “boys” that got in trouble, (yes, he had medals) -his adventures in Germany after the war was over. Talking about how he got his Honor Rodney trotting stallion, Drexel Steve, a stunning 17-2hand liver chestnut, with four white stockings past his knees and hocks, a big flashy blaze, plus flaxen mane and tail. He was an imposing and proud animal. The story Calvin told me was that he went up to a private room at Roosevelt Raceway to pay the owners to purchase him, and when he walked in, there was a long table, the doors closed and there appeared two armed guards.

…He paid them and left with Drexel Steve, no negotiating.. Calvin kept him for breeding, and really more as a pet, up on the Miller Farm overlooking the track. Bonnie and Sherwood had a good trotting mare that they bred to him, and she had two tall colts, Stevie Two and Captain Rock, the latter being Drexel Steve’s youthful mirror image, at this point a two year old. 

In any case, Calvin sat there and talked until I was done. It was nearly 10pm when he got up and stretched and says “well I got to go see the Red Headed Widder, she’ll be wondering where I am” -Calvin often spoke of her. 

The next day, Mr. Hough told me that Calvin had fed the barn, and saw I was working late and thought he’d better “keep an eye on me” – back in those days there was no guard for the backstretch during the off season. 

After that Calvin was alright in my book- I often went with him up the hill to help with “big Steve” .. sometimes you can’t judge a person on first acquaintance. He always had a wink, a smile and a great open laugh. 

We used to watch Sherwood train those two trotting brothers. I used to help Bonnie get him ready, he was a good feeler and it was challenging to handle him. Calvin said “I like Captain Rock much better, he’s got fast legs!” ..And so he was right, Stevie Two became just an ordinary Racehorse, while Bonnie was able to sell Captain Rock for $33,000, which was an astounding price for a local Maryland harness racehorse at that time. 

They are gone now, some tragically, some naturally. Rest In Peace Bonnie and Sherwood Haines, Basil Hough, Wayne Smullin. Pete Wathen and Darlene Heber.

For my friend Calvin, I leave you with a video of a horse, a tall beautiful liver chestnut with big white socks and blaze. Every Christmas for years this commercial was played on TV, it is, according to a few, Captain Rock, born at Rosecroft. I was told that after he was sold, he spent some time in New England before he was exported to Italy. In New England is where this commercial was filmed for the Miller Beer company.
I get tears in my eyes when I see this video, I hope they never take it off of YouTube. 

Miller Beer Commercial “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And days of auld lang syne? 

And days of auld lang syne, my dear, And days of auld lang syne. 

We’ll take a cup of kindness dear, for Auld Lang Syne.”

Happy New Year.  

Posted in Harness Racing

Catching the Harness Racing Bug

It was winter in the late 70s. I found myself with two children, and needing a job. Arthur had given up his teaching studio and had begun to work for Van McCoy, doing arranging and lead sheets and delivering the music to New York City. Van liked Arthur’s work and was starting to use him more, but it was not enough just yet to pay the bills. Living in Alexandria Va, Rosecroft Raceway was nearly within sight across the river, accessible by the Woodrow Wilson bridge. Having developed racehorse caretaking skills from working for Mr Sims on Beulah Road, then for Raymond B Archer Jr at Laurel Race Course, I went to Rosecroft in the dead of winter.

There was no racing there during that time of year. (everyone raced at Harrington)  it was gray, bitter cold, and the trees were bare, but somehow it was attractive, going down to an oasis of hillsides which looked rather bucolic, bordered by the Miller Farm  on one side and Henson Creek Park on the other. It is still configured that way to this day.

I saw my first Standardbred at that point at Pete Warthen’s barn. He was standing out  in the cold breeze on cross ties with hair hanging from his belly and a long beard…I was faintly shocked, I was unused to seeing any racehorses tied in such a manner after working with Thorougbreds. “That must be a pony” I thought to myself,  referring to the lead ponies used at running horse tracks. Nope, it was Skip B, one of Pete’s better pacers.  One came off the track, and I immediately began to wash it and scrape it off,… They saw that I knew what I was doing, and I was given a job.

That very first day, to Bonnie Haines consternation… I was allowed to jog a horse. The horse was a raw boned tall black mare name Mandy Crain.  They told me I could go anywhere I wanted with her, so I took her the long way and ended up on the main track. I was the only one there. I looked over at the empty grandstand,  The gray clouds were reflected in the glass windows on the top floor … To my right was the infield,  with brown grass.  Mandy’s hips were swaying to and fro, lazily,. first one hip bumping up, then the other, the lines leading back  from her mouth to me… I swung her around the half mile track one time and looked at that grandstand. I pictured the stands full, and people cheering as I went into the winners circle, clapping for my horse, clapping for me. “Yeah… This is me”

Little did I know  what I was in for,… But that is another story for another day. My point is that racing horses is part of the entertainment business. As Horsemen we would tend to get so wrapped up in the daily chores, the care, the rubbing, catching stall after stall, now miles on the road, that  we would forget, that we are putting on a show. It is a show for the public that they will judge and they will either come and enjoy, or reject.

But that too is for another day.  A lot has happened since I jogged that first horse.  

I hope you enjoy my blog, and journey with me through our travels with horses and music. Cheers, Nancy