Goodbye to Bob

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NOTE: Republished from the December 19 edition of Steeplechase Times.

“Don’t slam the door. Whatever you do, don’t slam the door.”

My father rented a cottage from Bob Witham one winter in Camden, S.C. and those were the only instructions. Bob didn’t like the door to bang closed. He also didn’t like dirt, too many distractions, leaving the mail on the table, that kind of thing. It was the perfect place for my dad. I coped during a brief stay or two, and made a friend for life.

I don’t really know Bob Witham’s life story. Not sure how he came to America or exactly why. Not sure what he did for a living besides horses. I do know that I always felt better after seeing him – either on my twice-yearly visits to Camden for the jump races or some other crossing of our paths.

“Joe, how are you?”

“I’m good, Bob, how are you?”

“Good, real good, working, busy, you know. How’s your dad? Is he still riding? How’s your mom? Is she still selling real estate? Tell them I was asking about them, OK?”

“Sure will, Bob (and I did).”

And so it went. Sometimes he’d go on a tangent, but it was usually business. He’d talk about the 2-year-olds he just sent somewhere, his spin on the state of the Thoroughbred game, life in Camden, the horses he used to ride. The conversations changed slightly, but Bob was always happy to see me and I was always happy to see him.

I won’t see him anymore.

Witham died late in the morning of Dec. 17, five days afer being severely injured in a fall at the Camden Training Center in his hometown. The 65-year-old former jump jockey was paralyzed from the neck down, unable to breathe on his own. He met with a priest and a lawyer. His brother and sister came in from overseas. Friends cut a vacation short to see him in the hospital and say goodbye. Others flew down and back in a day, just to let him know they cared. Still others visited every day, and in the end there were dozens and dozens who came to see him, enjoy his company, tell him what he meant to them. They say Bob was perfectly lucid, coherent, talking in a whisper, smiling a little, communicating any way he could, doing crossword puzzles – but he wasn’t going to live. His body was just too damaged and there would be no recovery.

Living, working, smiling, probably telling a story one minute, in a hospital and unable to move the next. Saying goodbye to friends and family.

“It was a great life, with an unfair ending,” said longtime friend Tom Voss, who spent time with Witham in the hospital. “Just bad luck. But he wanted to see people. He gave me 20 more minutes. He said thanks for everything. I said ‘don’t thank me, I should be thanking you.’ He didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

Witham came to America in the mid-1970s. Small of size but big in personality, the Englishman came to ride and lived with the Secor family in Maryland. On his first day in the country, he met Voss.

“Delaware Park, in July, you know how hot it could get?” recalled Voss. “Bob was in a wool suit and a vest. He was a little guy with J.B. Secor and I remember that suit. It was hot, but he wasn’t sweating. Everybody liked him, obviously.”

Witham made friends everywhere – Secor, Voss, most of the Maryland horse crowd. He worked for Frank Christmas, then Sidney Watters. He gained a reputation as a star exercise rider while working for Hall of Fame trainer Frank Whiteley, who put Witham on three-time Horse of the Year Forego in the mornings. Witham often told a story of a near disaster – one rein came unbuckled from the bit – while galloping at Belmont Park. He never panicked, the old horse did his circuit and pulled up in the same spot as every other day. Asked what he was thinking at the time, Bob said, “– me, my rein’s broke and I’m on Forego.”

Witham rode jump races for a variety of trainers, and won his first race aboard Jay’s Trouble for Augustin Stable and Jonathan Sheppard at Block House in 1975. Eventually, he took a job with Voss and stayed (off-and-on) for 20 years. In 1980, Witham rode Blue Nearco to victory at Saratoga. The next year, he won a race on Bupersrose, dam of future Voss great Mickey Free, at Fair Hill. Witham also scored with Cookie at Fair Hill in 1981. That summer, the jockey broke both wrists in a fall from that horse at Saratoga (he laughed about the problems of using the bathroom).

My father once saddled a horse Bob rode at Saratoga. Bob showed up in the paddock without a whip. When my father asked why, Bob simply said “Well, the trainer told me not to hit him.” Bob didn’t want to be tempted.

Like many in steeplechasing at the time, Bob lived fast and furiously. He drank, he had a good time, he stayed out late, he wrecked the same car three times in one Saratoga night. On one particular evening after the Montpelier races, Voss punched Witham in the mouth at a restaurant – knocking out his teeth. By the end of the night, they made up.

“We had some great times and we lived through a lot,” said Voss. “When I saw him the other day, I told him we shouldn’t be alive now anyway with half the things we did. There’s no rhyme or reason we were still alive.”

Witham also beat alcohol, put the madness behind him, hadn’t had a drink in better than 20 years and got his teeth fixed.

“He had a great sense of humor, drinking or not,” said Voss. “He didn’t drink the last 20 years; he was the same person without all the destruction. He’d come up with these statements that would make you fall on the floor laughing, but he was very genuine. He wasn’t trying to outdo anybody or make fun of anybody, it was just the way he was.”

After his steeplechase days ended with that fall from Cookie (career total, eight American victories), Witham continued to work with horses. He moved to Camden, started a breaking and training business and prepped horses for clients such as Bob Levy and Shadwell Farm. Since 1992, Witham worked exclusively for Shadwell – taking a new batch of yearlings, and preparing them for the races. The graduates include 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil, 2008 Grade I winner Alwajeeha and a host of other stars.

Shadwell vice president/general manager Rick Nichols will remember more than a man who did a job, however.

“He made my job quite easy; we sent him horses and let him do his job,” Nichols said. “He was a fantastic horseman and that’s what mattered to us. But I’ll miss the friendship more than anything.”

In Camden last month, Bob raved about the current crop of soon to be 2-year-olds in his barn. I hope one gets named Witham.

Bob stayed connected to the jump world via the Voss family, his friends in Camden and his position as the senior patrol judge at the Carolina and Colonial Cup. Dressed impeccably (I’m going to miss the sport coats), he took the work seriously, oversaw a great team and prepared for anything. The Cup programs won’t look the same without his name there.

A few years ago, he even dusted off his boots and breeches and rode in some training flat races on the NSA circuit – winning aboard Commanders Palace, trained by longtime friend Mickey Preger, at Aiken in 1997.

“When it was time to go over to Aiken for the races, we couldn’t find him, he was that nervous – or at least he acted like he was that nervous,” said Preger, a fellow trainer at the Camden Training Center. “I used to joke that I put him on his last winner.”

Despite being 20 years younger than Witham, Preger felt like a peer.

“He’s the kindest person I ever met, hard-headed but kind,” Preger said. “He meant a lot to a lot of people.”

Bob the horseman who could ride Forego and prep world-class yearlings was also Bob the cook (he took classes in Columbia), Bob the host, Bob the guy who lost his keys just about every day. On the surface, he seemed like the absent-minded professor – little guy with a big smile and an accent, talking fast about 100 things at once. But there was more to Bob.

“He forgot his wallet, forgot his keys, forgot something everywhere he went,” Voss said. “He made you feel like he didn’t know what he was doing, but Bob always knew what Bob was doing. Down deep he had it all together, even if it didn’t look like it.”

For years, Witham stayed in Voss’ house in Maryland when Tom and Mimi traveled to Saratoga each summer. Of course, Witham took the opportunity to host dinner parties twice a week. Ten, twenty, thirty guests at a time, they ate, socialized, enjoyed themselves.

“In our house,” said Voss. “He had everybody in the community over at our house for dinner. Cooking, using all the pots and pans, using everything. We’d see people in Saratoga and all they could talk about was what a great time they had at our house. Amazing.”

The Vosses considered Bob family. He stayed with them in Maryland. They stayed with him in South Carolina. He showed up when their children were born.

“I always, and I told him again in the hospital, felt like he was my eldest son even though he was older than I was,” said Mimi. “He always spent time with us, was always part of our lives. He was always here and he was the sweetest man in the world.”

Which made saying goodbye that much more difficult. Visitors talked about how tough it was, but they also talked about not missing the chance. In the end, the visits were tougher on guests than on Bob.

“He wants to see everybody,” said Preger a few hours before Witham died. “He’s of 100 percent sound mind and very, very content with the whole thing. Any time now, they’re going to take him off the machines, but he’s OK with it.”

“I can’t imagine a more horrible thing happening, but he was very at peace with it,” said Mimi Voss. “He wanted to say goodbye to all his friends. He had what he thought were little issues with some people, but he wanted to see them too.”

Tom Voss saw spirituality in his friend.

“Whatever you do when you resign yourself that you’re going to die, I guess that’s what he had done,” he said. “You turn yourself over to God, that’s what they say. He was at peace.”

And maybe that was Bob’s last gift. Perspective in the face of tragedy.

People who saw him talked of a man comforting them – not the other way around. They remembered the things he liked – spur-of-the-moment dinner parties, shepherd’s pie, horses like Forego, Camden, giving his safety speech to photographers at the Colonial Cup, laughing about salad tongs (ask Preger), looking at the next Grade I winner in Shadwell’s shedrow, harassing Tom Voss, lending a stall or a bed to his friends.

He leaves all that behind, with us, and exits this world for another.

He didn’t slam the door.

•  •  •

“We’ve got nothing to worry about, sonny boy.”

Tom Voss summed up life in that short, silly sentence at the end of a conversation about Bob Witham. Voss meant that all the worries in the world don’t stack up against a man facing the end of his life.

Remember that the next time you’re overwhelmed by your in-box, your mobile phone, your bank statement, your Christmas schedule, your newspaper, your horses, your race meet, life in general.

•  •  •

A memorial mass for Bob Witham was held Friday, Dec. 19 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church in Camden, S.C. The may be a second memorial service in January. In lieu of flowers, the family suggested contributions to The Steeplechase Fund for Injured Jockeys, 400 Fair Hill Drive, Elkton, MD 21921 or The Donald MacBeth Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 18740, Encino, CA 91416.