Although I did not know you, I heard Lonnie speak of your family.
I just wanted to thank you for sending Lonnie the Steeplechase Times, he did
enjoy reading it during his illness. I thought you would like a copy of his obituary.
That short note, and a four-page funeral program, arrived in our mailbox in November 1999. It felt like a punch in the ribs. Lonnie Fuller was a friend, a mentor, a hero. I hadn’t seen him years, but thought of him often then (and still do). He was a racetrack groom, who worked for my father in the 1980s.
Three weeks after he died, his wife found a Steeplechase Times newspaper among his possessions, looked up our address and wrote a letter telling me he’d passed away. Lonnie died. Lonnie died? Aw damn, Lonnie died. We didn’t know he was sick. We didn’t get to say goodbye.
That was more than 14 years ago, but Lonnie’s name surfaced in me again this week when Tom Law said he was doing an article on Nancy Kelly, whose nearly 30-year career at The Jockey Club earned her the Eddie Arcaro Award from The Jockeys’ Guild. The Arcaro award honors someone who has shown exceptional commitment to jockeys and the guild. Kelly oversees all fundraising efforts of The Jockey Club, including the Safety Net Foundation, which has distributed more than $14 million to needy individuals and their families.
As part of her job in 1999, Kelly helped Tina Fuller by paying for Lonnie’s funeral and burial. I don’t remember how, but I had heard about the program run by The Jockey Club and thought of it when I got Tina’s letter. I called Kelly (not sure I was emailing in 1999), got the information, sent a note to Tina, collected some paperwork and sent it all on to Kelly. Once she verified Lonnie’s long career at racetracks in the United States and Canada, she sent a check to his widow. Bing, bang, boom, done.
By Jockey Club standards, it probably wasn’t much. By retired racetracker’s family standards, it made a huge difference. I can’t find the thank you note Tina Fuller sent me, but it was heartfelt. She was surprised, touched, honored and I could tell the contribution meant a great deal. It told her that her husband mattered to this industry, that his life’s work didn’t go unnoticed.
I was impressed then – and now – with Kelly’s work and the quiet, effective, process of doing the right thing. The foundation made a big difference with a small gesture for a man who cared for hundreds of Thoroughbreds – and a couple of Clancy kids too. Lonnie’s family wasn’t counting on that money, but it came and eased a burden. It was a beautiful thing. Still is.
Now, let me tell you about Lonnie.
He was big, black, smart, tough, cool, dashing, proud. He taught me how to bank a stall, how to hang a hay net, how to roll a shank and set it (just so) in a halter on a hook on a stall door. He taught me how to get to the track kitchen and back before the set returned from the track. He taught me not to walk into the security guard’s room in the Lasix barn (well, he was late doing that, but I got the message). Lonnie frequently wore a Gilligan hat, drove a 1963 Chevy, lived in a bunkhouse (sometimes) and had a gold tooth. He called people he liked Cuddy, which in his words meant “friend, pal or buddy.”
I met Lonnie when he worked for trainer Nick Fall at Delaware Park. Summer. 1982. I was in high school. Fall’s horses were on the backside of our group and Lonnie and I crossed paths often. One of us would “make a run” to the kitchen for snacks or sandwiches every morning. I rode, a little, but mainly worked as a groom. An Advocator 2-year-old used to lie down and roll in the shedrow while cooling out. He rolled right out of the barn with a rookie hotwalker one day. Lonnie would bellow from his side, “What’s going on over there, you rookies?” Another horse, Spring In Athens, won three times in 20 days – Aug. 1, 9 and 22 – at Delaware. As if that wasn’t a busy enough schedule, he finished seventh at Keystone Aug. 18.
Holly Robinson came on board that summer and before the year was out Lonnie was working for us too as we moved from Delaware to Maryland (and I went back to school). Then we flew. Lonnie stepped everything up a notch around our barn. He cared, he worked, he fixed things, he got stuff done. He made the horses stand up and look sharp. He rolled a perfect standing bandage, taught me how to lock it in place around the ankle, not too tight and not too loose, then showed me how to do the Vetrap rundowns on raceday.
The next summer, we were at Timonium. The place hummed with Lonnie, Holly and the crew. We entered the shedrow decorating contest and Lonnie spent hours improving things. We had Saratoga straw pillows out front, polished and soaped halters and shanks, stall boards on every door. We washed the webbings every day. On judging day, we outlined those Saratoga straw pillows with lime and even dabbed the perfectly raked shedrow dirt with lime stars from a burlap sack.
We lost. Lonnie and I swore it was fixed.
I went to college, Lonnie kept working. He normally went home for the winter, but spent a couple with us – one at the farm in Oxford, Pa. and another at Fair Hill Training Center. Lonnie frequently and joyfully scared the life out of country-boy farmhands and learned to drive, badly, a tractor and spreader.
The summers blend together, but we were back at Delaware Park in Henry Clark’s old barn shortly. We won good races with Dandy Danny, Fourmatt, Money By Orleans, Tattiebogle and bad races with Family and On The Side. I taught Lonnie about jump racing and he took great pride in a front-running win by Smokum Scout at Delaware Park. Lonnie liked horses like Scout – big, strong, fast, on the edge of running away. Lonnie wanted tough horses. He also wanted to show them how to behave, how to listen. He’d learn about them, figure out what they liked. He commanded respect, and got it. If he didn’t, there was always that little twitch on a snap he kept in his pocket.
I remember an awful colt by King’s Bishop. He was mean, plain and simple. Lonnie rubbed him, tried to make him learn. It didn’t really work. I once got so mad at the horse I broke a pitchfork handle on his hind end. Just a mean, mean horse. He should have been a gelding, but was too well-bred. I’m sure Monty Roberts or somebody could have helped us, but if Lonnie couldn’t make a difference I don’t know who could.
“I don’t know about that one, Joey, nothing we do seems to work,” Lonnie would say. “He’s not happy when you feed him, he’s not happy out of the stall, he’s not happy in the stall. I don’t know.”
We worked, we laughed, we sang (“I got a girl named Bony Maronie, she’s as skinny as a piece of macaroni.”), we ate, we rode in the back of the van (I almost fell out once while on the Bay Bridge), we talked, we bought stereo equipment, we dreamed of fixing up his old car. He told me about working as a welder during a break from the track early in his life. He told me about “Lovie.” That was Tina. She wasn’t his wife then, but they were a couple. They’d reunite every winter. He once told us he was the father of William Fuller the football player. We didn’t believe him.
Then he went to Canada with Robinson to take a job with Roger Attfield. The horses were better. The pay was better. The job was better. Lonnie rubbed stars. By then, I kind of understood. Grooms like Lonnie didn’t stay anywhere forever. They worked, made a living, found a better opportunity, took it. He spent the better part of a decade with us. That was a long time by racetrack standards. He’d still find a way to sneak back to the area, and would show up at various places to say hello – like a relative returning from the service or something.
When Sam and I set our wedding date in 1990, we sent Lonnie an invitation. I have no idea how we found his address. At some point, he said he’d come. We knew he wouldn’t. Then he did. Somebody dropped him off at the end of the driveway and in he walked to the reception – all dressed up in a suit and a stylish hat. Lonnie, the racetrack groom, better dressed than anyone in the place (even the groom). We took photos together, he gave me a massive hug, no doubt told Sam she looked beautiful and then he left. The photos never turned out, the film wrecked in the developing.
Lonnie bounced back into our lives a few years later, helping out in the barn with some hunters and things, then stepped back out again. His obituary said he left the racetrack in 1998, came home to Baltimore and got a job with AmTrak. He and Tina got married, after 32 years together. He joined a church, he got sick. He was 54 when he died.
Read about Nancy Kelly's Eddie Arcaro Award.