Posted in Music and horses

Training Wheels

…Picture a boy.
A skinney, pre adolescent boy with dark hair and eyes, jogging his first horse.

Jubilee Tina was not a great Racehorse by any means. Tina was sired by Tuxedo Hanover, when everyone hoped he would make a successful sire. The game Curly Smart champion Protégé unfortunately would not distinguish himself in the breeding ranks.

Tina had a 2:09 record at the age of ten, finishing last in $2500 claimers.
One thing about Tina, she was a “free-legged” pacer.
-There were getting to be fewer and fewer free-legged pacers around, and Jubilee Tina was one of them.

Most horsemen know the term free-legged describes a pacer who wears no hobbles.

There just happens to be a few pacers who are so steady that hobbles weren’t necessary. Some would actually perform better without them. Frequently, this tendency ran in families. Steady Star frequently begat “Free-leggers”.
For those new to the sport, here’s a nice article from Scarborough Raceway http://www.scarboroughdowns.com/HarnessRacingHistory.php

The Lisi Stables were fortunate enough to have a few free legged racehorses. Starry Night, and one colt Tommy Cugle and I broke ourselves, Passing Zone, … and Tina.

The Lisi Family Stables leased Tina from Paul Ruffino, who had to go into the hospital for a hernia operation. Paul was a holdover from the old days of racing…representing those who trained at the long defunct Pillsbury Driving club, near Elkridge Maryland. The track was active before pari mutuel racing was legal in Maryland. Billy Hubbard was running around in knickers at Pillsbury. George Warthen and many others enjoyed harness racing there as a hobby, caring for their horses, learning about harness racing from the older trainers, and participating in amateur racing. The Pillsbury Drivers sparred against other driving clubs, such as the ones in Parole, Brightwood or Oxon Hill on Sundays, trading locations with them, and sharing potluck meals spread out by the womenfolk.

Paul, like a lot of the old timers, competed because of his love of the sport. He sure wasn’t winning anything. Over 80 years old, He drove his own, still using a conventional sulky. Tina was a tallish plain looking bay mare. She was lazy, not particularly friendly, with a matter of fact, “don’t care” attitude.
…“Sure Paul I’ll take her for you, you can have her back end of the summer”

But that’s just background.

…Picture a boy.
A boy sitting in his mother’s lap, who’s feet can’t reach the stirrups yet, but braces them against the crossbar.

The boy had been sitting on her lap a lot since the springtime at Rosecroft Raceway, starting with a trotter named Carrie Dill. He’d have his hands in the hand holds, she above them on the lines ahead, on the metal buckle where the lines attached to the hand holds, actually holding the horse. Each time they jogged, she was holding the trotter less and less…until she was not really putting any pressure on the lines at all, but only there in case the son’s grip slipped. Sometimes telling him “wow you’re holding her completely now” or some such encouragement. She could tell he had a nice touch for driving.

Next was Freestate Raceway. Frank DeFrancis had revived the old Laurel Raceway (not to be confused with the Thoroughbred track Laurel Racecourse still existing today as Laurel Park) in a big way, with big time advertising, special events, and revamped barns. Meanwhile Rosecroft’s owner Mark Vogel was converting that half mile oval into a five-eighths, so all the Rosecroft folks moved their stables up to Freestate during the summer time construction.

…Picture the boy.
In the the summer sun, just getting over the trees at Freestate Raceway’s back jogging track.
Getting a little lanky fast. Now he’s sitting on the seat in front of his mom, who’s hanging off the edge of the seat. Jubilee Tina swinging along on the pace.

“You got her Art”

…She slips off the back of the seat, running so as not to fall when she hits the soft sand of Freestate’s back track.

She watches him jog away, the image forever, like a slo-mo video, engraved permanently in her mind…in her heart.

His training wheels were off.

————————————-
Two Afterthoughts:
1: Jubilee Tina won for the Lisi’s, a trophy race for the Wigginton Birthday pace in 203.2 lowering her record at the age of 10 years. Paul was able to get around after his surgery and was in the winners circle, his eyes quite wide as he was given a beautiful silver trophy.
Arthur Lisi Sr also cashed a nice across the board ticket on Tina, as she went off at 77 To one.

2: Arthur Lisi Jr after driving a few schooling races, made the decision to become a blacksmith and attended Oklahoma Shoeing School. He has developed ground breaking Horseshoeing techniques and is a top blacksmith of all breeds.

3: Nowadays with many backstretches having discontinued stable areas, trending to Ship in racing, there’s an option for young people to learn about participating in harness racing through the Harness Horse Youth Foundation. (HHYF) Check it out!

http://www.hhyf.org/page/Default.aspx

Jubilee Tina Free Legged Pacer
Jubilee Tina Win photo Freestate Raceway

Pictured left to right: Shirley Warthen, George Warthen, Paul Ruffino, Arthur Lisi in back, Arthur Lisi Junior, Trainer Nancy Lisi holding Jubilee Tina, driver Walter Callahan, and race sponsors the Wiggintons.

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