And this is closing day at Saratoga.

THE OUTSIDE RAIL | by Joe Clancy

My sons want to go to a funeral

Posted by on in The Outside Rail

My sons want to go to a funeral. If there’s a sure sign you’re getting old, this is it. Jack, 17, and Ryan, 20, both asked about attending Monday’s service for trainer Tom Voss, who died this week.

We’re not related to Voss. We didn’t grow up in his neighborhood. But, like plenty of people in those categories and beyond, we’re impacted by his death. Deeply.

Voss was there, part of the fabric, part of a life in and around racing. Voss was straight out of central casting, a character who would have fit in racing’s history no matter the era. He was half-grumpy, half-cheerful, half-aloof, half-rich, half-poor and all horseman. Voss, 63, had a heart attack at home and died quickly. He wouldn’t have been the type to wither, to stick around. Given a choice, he probably would have planned to go in the saddle, aboard one of the many horses he rode, the way John Wayne would have died in a movie. He's so mad about missing out on that ending that he'll hit Monkton with lows in the single digits next week.

Voss trained racehorses for more than 40 years. He grew up riding, tried his hand as a jockey over timber, rode in the Maryland Hunt Cup, then went off and established a flat stable. He was a Mid-Atlantic stalwart in his 20s, racing and winning in Maryland, Delaware, New York, wherever he hung the yellow THV webbings and parked that three-horse Imperatore van. 

In the 1990s, he expanded the steeplechase base – he used to say it just happened – and leaped to the top. He finished fifth in 1995. Two years later, he won a title. Then, he made it look easy with three consecutive championships and a three-year winning percentage of .312 from 2000-02. In the midst of that, he rode 9-year-old flat horse John’s Call to the top of the game. They won two Grade 1 stakes, finished third in the Breeders’ Cup, went to Japan, traded opinions and jabs with Bobby Frankel.

My boys don’t really care much about that. Ryan remembers the man he met for real at Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point (held on the Voss family farm) years ago. Voss handed the kid a starter’s flag and a job.

“I’m the starter, you’re the recall man,” Voss grumbled. “When I drop my flag, you drop your flag. Got it? That’s all you have to remember.”

Ryan nodded, I think, and off they went. They spent the day together. Later, we went to the house for an end-of-the-races party. Like its chief occupant, the home was a study in contrasts with barn clothes and works of art sharing spaces. Ryan was struck by the paintings (of women) and the dozens of pairs of riding boots. “Mr. Boss” told my son to look around. He went upstairs, downstairs, found a photo of Chuck Norris on the piano, met some dogs, said hello to people from one end of that house to the other.

Years later, Ryan spent part of a Saratoga summer hotwalking for Voss. Ryan was green and sleepy (Cathy Sheppard bought him Vitamin Water to help the latter). Voss was tolerant. They went to lunch together after work, at a place nobody else went. Eventually, Voss paid Ryan – handing him $120 straight out of his pocket. Ryan is still trying to figure out the hourly wage, but he made an ally. Voss asked about Ryan when he hadn’t seen him for a while, told him to stay in school when he did see him. They talked about sushi, college, girls, I don’t know.

Younger brother Jack followed along. He never worked for Voss, though the trainer treated him like he did. Somehow, Voss got Jack’s phone number and would call – at any hour, on any day – to ask about leaving the fans on in the stalls, putting blankets on the horses at night and any other question trainers worry about.

“You going back to water off?” Voss would grumble.

“Sure, Mr. Voss, sure. I’ll be there,” Jack would reply. “Should I turn off the fans or leave them on?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. Might get cool. Might stay hot, too.”

And so it went.

Son No. 3 Nolan knew Voss, bantered with him, got lots of “what’s your brother doing?” comments. He’ll miss the rest.

Voss once bought an ad in Steeplechase Times with the simple text, “The game is afoot” and it’s – thus far – the only ad we’ve ever sold quoting Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare.

Voss was afoot. He could be infuriating. I’ve said over and over that I could more easily get Todd Pletcher on the phone for a story than I could Voss. Other reporters would badger me, “How do you get him to talk to you?” You don’t, but it works better if you don’t really try. Just have a conversation, you never know where it might go but it just might turn into something amazing.

When I heard he died, the 2002 article I wrote on him came to mind immediately. It was awful (the process, not the article). We barely talked beforehand, though we did spend a day riding around and watching horses train at the farm. He called me on his way home from the gym one night. The gym? Another time, he left me a message from Bethany Beach. The beach? He talked about studying the Civil War and the Titanic. Really? Tom Voss?

Other conversations have come and gone, and have flowed back and forth since Wednesday morning:

• An interview about Maryland Hunt Cup winner Florida Law; Tom swore the horse spoke to him the night before the race.

• A conversation about John’s Call (in retirement) on the Oklahoma rail at Saratoga; Nolan asked how fast John’s Call could still run, and Voss answered; Now if I had asked that question, forget it.

• This gem about horses racing off the farm, from 2000, “The secret to the farm is a horse recovers from a race much faster here – mentally. He relaxes faster here. At the racetrack, he does the same old thing. I don’t think we make a horse run any faster, but the proof is in the pudding. There’s a lot more notoriety and attention when you’re at the racetrack. We’re hidden back here. We pop out for the races, run the horses and we’re gone.”

• Or this one, an introspective moment, from 1997, “I would have loved to have been alive in the 1920s or 30s when it was all sporting and you just wanted to see whose horse was better. They didn’t have all the pressures we have. I’m two or three generations too late.”

He was 47 when he said that, and he was right. But we would have missed him.

 

• • •

PHOTO: Tom Voss strolls the Springdale Training Center in South Carolina. Tod Marks photo.


Joe Clancy started his journalism career at the University of Delaware in 1986 or so, with a first byline about the presidential bid of Pete du Pont (the campaign obviously did not go well). Since then, he's covered high school sports, college sports, semi-pro baseball, the lifeguard Olympics, a pumpkin chunking competition, the odd Phillies and Orioles games and any number of topics involving Thoroughbred racing – for The Saratoga Special, Steeplechase Times, Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, Daily Racing Form, The Irish Field and others. He's been published in the New York Times, the Philaelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Sun. He is a writer, editor, publisher and owner of ST Publishing, Inc., parent company of the thisishorseracing.com Internet site. He lives in Fair Hill, Md. with his wife Sam, sons Ryan, Jack and Nolan, but can be found wherever horses run.


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Comments

  • Jimmy Lee Friday, 24 January 2014

    Another Clancy masterpiece about a master.

  • diana mcclure Friday, 24 January 2014

    Joe
    as always, a fabulous piece and a perfect tribute.

  • Jimmy Lee Friday, 24 January 2014

    A masterpiece about a master

  • Kathee Rengert Friday, 24 January 2014

    I am absolutely positively certain that Tom and his horses conversed.

  • Howard Newstadt Saturday, 25 January 2014

    Beautiful piece Joe. Best jump to flat move I ever played. Major loss. Great memories. Thanks for sharing yours.

  • Mary Beth Saturday, 25 January 2014

    Beautiful tribute. Excellent work!

  • Gen Saturday, 25 January 2014

    A wonderful piece. What a great tribute, nicely done. He will be missed by all.

  • The Rev. Charlie Barton Saturday, 25 January 2014

    Joe, I look forward to gathering together with you, your sons and hundreds of others on Monday. I believe that they will find what millions of others have discovered over the centuries - the words and rituals of the burial rite provide a space in which we can express hope, celebrate a life and feel a solidarity with others as we express our own grief over loss we may not be able to articulate clearer but still deeply feel. Thanks for this wonderful write up. You captured Tom well.
    The Rev. Charlie Barton, Rector of Saint James, Monkton.
    PS I invite any who read this to consider a analogy between training horses and forming human beings. There are places and practices that build on the natural gifts with which any creature is born. Such places apply knowledge, passion and skill as they encourage the ones in their care to stretch towards the best that is in them. Atlanta Hall is a great place for horses. As for humans...come and see. See you Monday at St. James.

  • Joe Clancy Saturday, 25 January 2014

    Rev. Barton,
    Thanks so much for taking the time to write. It means a great deal. We'll be there Monday, along with I'm sure plenty of others. St. James is a unique place with a spiritual feel. I've been there for several services and felt better, more complete, after each. This time, the boys will be with me.

    – Joe

  • Diane bomze Saturday, 25 January 2014

    Well done.... He was a gentleman, and great friend. Very unique

  • Peter Gross Saturday, 25 January 2014

    Joe,

    This was a lovely, emotional story. You have this great skill of finding the heart and soul of a human being.


    Peter Gross
    Down The Stretch

  • Tom Whedbee Saturday, 25 January 2014

    All so true about Tom. Great piece.

  • RS Monday, 27 January 2014

    It's a little colder (than it has been) at the Spa this week.....

  • Anthony& Katie Knapp Monday, 27 January 2014

    What a great tribute to a great horseman,you bring back so many memories.

  • Michael Thomas Thursday, 30 January 2014

    Your boys are so blessed in so many ways. You have reminded me why I love racing.

  • Steve Jordan Thursday, 30 January 2014

    To know Tom was,well,something very distinct.

  • Julie K Sunday, 02 February 2014

    To Tom's family and friends; my deepest sympathies on Tom's passing.
    I am a little slow receiving news as I have been in rural China for the past year. Reading these articles reminds me of Tom's, aptly described, "half grumpy, half cheerful....but all horseman" demeanor. The entire racing community has lost a true Horseman. Again, my sincerest condolences.
    Julie K, Inner Mongolia, China

  • Ross Tuesday, 04 February 2014

    Great article, Joe, about a nice guy by a nice guy !!!

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