A Lucky Man

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“I’ll see you when I’m lucky.”

For the better part of 15 years, my day at the races ended when I heard that statement from John Thigpen. I can’t even be sure where we met, but the relationship stayed fairly constant in Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, wherever the circuit took us. He provided conversation, insight, opinion, jokes, a program, a chair, some history, a little advice. Eventually, he even became a paper boy. I sent him a box, and he handed them out on his rounds.

And he made lots of rounds. Mr. Thigpen used to be in the tack business – traveling the country for some of the biggest names in the industry (M.J. Knoud, Kopf Manufacturing Company, B.T Crump and Company, Blue Ribbon Leather Company and Northrun Saddlery). He was good at it, too. Mr. Thigpen could have sold hockey pucks to Cubans. He once got me a ticket to a big trade fair in Pennsylvania (I was a Northrun salesman for a day) so I could try to sell ads. I didn’t do so well, but I had a blast watching Mr. Thigpen. Predictably, he knew everyone and kept up a steady banter with customers of all ages.

When he died last month, he left me thinking about all of those moments, all those years.

At the two-day Virginia Fall meet one year, he booked me a hotel room in Warrenton (Howard Johnson’s?). We ate dinner together that night, breakfast the next morning – he knew everyone in both restaurants – toured Middleburg Training Center, talked about Paul Mellon, soaked up the mountain views along Atoka Road.

At Saratoga one year, Mr. Thigpen got into an accident. A bigger truck hit his little silver pick-up at the intersection of Fifth and East Avenues (who hasn’t almost been hit there?). His biggest worry were the Steeplechase Times he left blowing all over the corner.

In 1998, Sean led the NSA jockey race late in the year. Mr. Thigpen came along for the ride and shared a personal good-luck habit. “I’m holding my left one,” he’d tell us whenever things got close in the standings. Craig Thornton won three on the season’s final weekend, and then got another victory via disqualification after the season ended, but he never passed Sean (they settled for a tie). Thanks for the luck, odd as it was.

Years into our friendship, Mr. Thigpen met my family. He liked my son, Jack, right away. In the middle at home, Jack makes friends easily and found a sure one this time. Mr. Thigpen asked about Jack every time we spoke. “Holler at Jack for me when you get home,” Mr. Thigpen would say at the end of a phone conversation. He also took a shine to my wife, Sam, and made me smile every time he said “Tell Sam I’m crazy ’bout her.” I did, on both accounts. Over the past few years, I met Mr. Thigpen’s sons Andy and Jack but never did meet Mrs. Thigpen – though I heard plenty of stories (she’s apparently a saint). I hope my family stays as together as the Thigpens.

In 2002, the NSA presented Mr. Thigpen with the Monk Noland Award for behind-the-scenes service. Nothing fancy, the award gets given periodically in honor of a man who put in countless hours to help the sport. The crowd at Springdale Hall Club that night stood and cheered for no more deserving recipient – and I got chills. One of my favorite moments in steeplechasing.

The last few years were tough on Mr. Thigpen, and anyone who knew him. As his sons told me, he failed a little bit at a time. He didn’t travel as much. He stopped driving. He grew a beard. He and June moved to a home for seniors. He still talked – louder – but the conversations weren’t quite as regular. He had his moments though, and floored me with spot-on opinions and statements about the latest crisis in the sport. He would have made a good ombudsman, with the ability to make peace while still taking a stand.

But he’s gone at 89. Somebody recently told me that steeplechasing too often doesn’t recognize people who contribute to the sport. People pass away before we pay them tribute. She was right, but it’s not just steeplechasing. We never fully appreciate a life well lived until it ends. That’s not steeplechasing, it’s human nature, the way life goes. Mr. Thigpen certainly didn’t wait to tell anyone how he felt. Me? I guess I should have written this column years ago, but I think he knew. I’ll miss the conversations, the time, the phone calls. I’ll miss him.

And I’ll see him when I’m lucky.