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

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.