Guest Column: Gretchen’s way

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“I can get paid to ride horses?”

It was the winter of 1986. I had just finished the first semester of my freshman year at Averett University, a small private college, located in the small town of Danville in southern Virginia. A friend of mine, Becky Atwell, had told me there was an opportunity to make extra money while I was home from school by galloping racehorses at the racetrack. 

At the time my riding background consisted of fox hunting, eventing and Pony Club. I had spent some weekends walking hots for Frank Calvo as a kid and was always fascinated by the track. I jumped at the opportunity to gallop horses and get paid for it at Laurel Park.

I showed up at Jack and Gretchen Mobberley’s barn Monday morning. I introduced myself.

Gretchen looked at Jack, “This is your new exercise boy?” That was it.

Now Becky had told me a lot about Jack and Gretchen. 

“Jack is very easy going and always smiles. Gretchen has a certain way she wants things done. Her way! She is fair but do things the way she wants them done and you will get along great with her.” 

The first horse I galloped was named Accusarie. He was a big plain bay gelding. Jack gave me the instructions, “Go straight off. Jog to the wire and gallop once around. And stay out of Gretchen’s way.”

I galloped Accusarie like a pro.

My second horse was Broadway Bill. He was another big beautiful colt named after Jack and Gretchen’s longtime owner Bill Backer. Another perfect ride. Easy money.

Horse No. 3 was an old claimer named To The Chef. He was an ordinary looking gelding with softball-size ankles.

“Now, son, this horse will teach you to keep your hands down,” Jack said, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “Go straight off. When he’s ready to gallop he will gallop. He’ll pick it up a little around by the gate but just relax. Don’t move your hands. He knows what to do.”

It’s been 30 years, but I remember the ride like it was yesterday. As Jack was accompanying me to the track with his pony Gretchen was coming back toward the barn.

“Is that To The Chef? You put the new boy on that horse?” Gretchen shook her head as we went past.

With a short, jarring stride I jogged him to the wire. He picked up a gallop without any direction from me. Chef started picking up the pace with every stride. I kept my hands down until I thought, “this is crazy.” I can slow this horse down. I am in charge. By the time we hit the clubhouse turn we were flying – absolutely stone running off. I had never gone that fast on a horse before. Jack got us pulled up with a smile and said, “He’ll be better tomorrow, son. He’s just testing you.”

Gretchen saw everything from the barn and frowned at Jack when we came back, or now that I think about it, maybe she was frowning at me. Both of us, I guess.

As my winter break came to an end and I headed back to school, Gretchen told me I had a job that summer if I wanted. Not only did I take her up on the opportunity but my sophomore year I transferred to the University of Maryland to continue working at the track.

I worked for Jack and Gretchen for the next five years. Their barn ran like clockwork. We worked six days a week. Monday, Wednesday, Friday were regular gallop days. Tuesday and Thursday were long gallop days. Saturday was generally the work day. As an exercise rider in the Mobberley’s barn you had the same eight to nine horses every day. You had a hot walker assigned to walk your horses and you had two saddles and two bridles. You were expected to take care of them like you owned them. 

Gretchen always rode the difficult fillies. Applause, Scotch Heather, Banner Yet Wave and Double Stitched were a few of the ones I remember. I don’t know how she did it but no one could get along with horses as well as she could. 

I remember when Gretchen had gotten hurt and couldn’t ride for a few days. I was so proud when Jack told me Gretchen wanted me to gallop her fillies. I got them around but not nearly as well as Gretchen could. It was very intimidating to ride Scotch Heather while Gretchen was sitting on the bench watching. 

I spent part of one summer going to their Summer Hill Farm to break babies. One afternoon I was jogging a baby out in the ring while Gretchen was riding the mower in her bikini. She could see I was having difficulty with one colt and she had enough. She stopped the mower and came over to the ring. I thought, ‘Man, is she going to get on this horse? In her bikini?” She stood at the rail and gave me a lesson. Within a few minutes the colt was doing figure eights as well as any older horse. She had a knack for understanding horses and what makes them tick. 

The more time I spent working for Jack and Gretchen the more I realized I wanted to become a trainer. 

Show up for work on time. Do your work as well as you can. And treat your horses well. Those were the three simple principles Gretchen asked of her employees and the same principles I incorporate into running my barn today. 

Gretchen will certainly be missed by all of us out here at the track. I have memories of Gretchen that will last forever. 

– Gretchen Mobberley was born on July 28, 1933. She died February 21, 2016. There will be a service at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Glenwood, Md. at noon March 7.