Bid to Blame

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Trainer Al Stall will bump into his veterinarian or a van agent and try to set up something for a horse, only to get stopped short by one of two phrases: “No, no, that’s not what Fletcher said.” Or, “Your man Fletcher already took care of it, we’re all set.”

“He’s been with me since Day 1,” Stall said Thursday about hotwalker Fletcher Quinn. “He does what he wants to do, or what the horses need to do. He came to me at the Fair Grounds about a job one day and said he wanted to travel, said he was ready and he’s been with me ever since. He’s like an encyclopedia, doesn’t forget a thing.”

Quinn sure looks the part – gray beard, small braids under a dusty HayGain Hay Steamers hat and smiling eyes that look ready to tell a story. Quinn got his first job at the racetrack in “about 1970” in Louisiana.

“I met a guy who worked at the racetrack, we got to be friends and at the time there was no security at the Fair Grounds – you could go in like you want,” he said. “I used to be back there every day and just started working. Job security. You can always get a job at the racetrack. That’s what drove me to it.”

Quinn took jobs on the waterfront in New Orleans, tried to find something else to do, and lasted three months.

He went back to the track, caught on with eventual Hall of Famer Buddy Delp and started traveling. Fair Grounds, Delaware Park, Chicago, New York. He was at Delaware with the Delp stable when Spectacular Bid came around.

“He was about the best horse I ever saw, everybody talks about Secretariat and other horses but if you knew the horse like we did . . . I don’t see how he ran at all sometimes,” Quinn said. “The grooms did a lot of work to keep him sound and when he hit the racetrack you knew it.”

Quinn smiles when he thinks of the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner’s return in a Delaware Park allowance race, the first time Willie Shoemaker rode the son of Bold Bidder. They won by 17 lengths over another Delp horse, Armada Strike.

“Spectacular Bid was the only horse I ever saw run down the stretch so fast you heard his tail whistle,” Quinn said. “You know, like those things you used to hang on your car that whistled. He could run.”

Whistler or not, Spectacular Bid was quite a horse and Quinn was there. He also saw Dust Commander break his maiden, helped Delp with Timely Native, Dispersal and hundreds of other winners.

When he opened a public stable in 1991, Stall hired Quinn. The year doesn’t sound all that long ago. Twenty years sounds like a long time however, and Quinn has been there all along. He walks stakes winner Apart now and worked with champion Blame here last summer.

“Blame had a temper now,” he said. “Ten days before the Whitney last year we had to quit walking him outside. he’d walk around on his back legs, biting at you. He was  no easy horse. Apart, he’s laid back. Take him outside there on the grass and he doesn’t think about nothing but the grass. Ain’t got a mean bone in his body.”

He also delights in a certain $5 million race last November.

“The filly beat the boys in California the year before, but I told them then we had one back at Fair Grounds – told them we had a horse called Blame,” he said. “We won the Breeders’ Cup. It’s just, it’s just . . . I brag about it, but I can’t explain it.”

Quinn spans racing’s eras – Dust Commander to Blame and beyond. He uses phrases like “make a hustle” and “Duck or no dinner” regularly. He remembers the day jockey George Cusimano died in a car crash. He tells younger grooms about the way Delaware Park legend Jock LaBelle settled arguments with Friday night boxing matches – “You had a problem with a guy during the week, you had to get in the ring on Friday night. To settle it. Grooms, hotwalkers, anybody. You got in a fight on the racetrack, you had to get in the ring and fight in front of everybody. Stopped a lot of problems.”

Quinn has lasted through the racetrack changeover where much of the backside speaks Spanish and remembers the first signs of it when he took 29 horses to Chicago for Delp in 1982. Quinn hired a full team of Spanish-speaking staff.

Delp erupted at his shedrow foreman, for practical reasons: “Do you speak Spanish? How are you going to tell anyone what to do?”

“Settle down, Bud. It’s OK, Bud. I just point, Bud. Everything’s fine, Bud,” Quinn responded and the barn ran smoothly all meet. “I never did learn to speak Spanish and Bud Delp eventually apologized to me.”

Now 61, Quinn plans on sticking around the racetrack for a while longer but also wants “to go fishing.”

The fish stories are going to be great.