Trainer Chuck Lawrence went to the Breeders' Cup with a horse last year. He's won 359 races as a trainer. He rode 1994 steeplechase champion Warm Spell, and won two National Steeplechase Association jockey championships as part of a 122-win career. But his Horse Who Changed Everything wasn't even a horse.
Without hesitation, Lawrence pointed to Lil Fritz - whose dam was a Welsh pony and whose sire was a racing Quarter Horse. The result was a race pony, a Virginia legend and the start of a career. According to the Virginia Steeplechase Association's database, Lil Fritz made 33 starts. He won 22 and placed in the other 11. More importantly, he taught Lawrence the basics of racing, riding, horsemanship and even a little bit about a life.
"I always wanted to be a jockey and would go to Charles Town and Shenandoah with my dad," said Lawrence, who grew up in Marshall, Va. "I'd wear my dad's silks to school. It's all I thought about."
Jim Lawrence, a trainer and veteran horseman who died last year at 86, recognized his son's interest and came up with the best answer he could - Lil Fritz. According to the VSA database, he was by Mr. My-T-Fine and out of Grey Lady but good luck trying to confirm that. Their son, a chestnut with a skinny blaze, could run a little bit - at least in the children's races on the Mid-Atlantic point-to-point circuit.
Lawrence, 49, remembered a 1978 trip to Old Dominion Point-to-Point for a race. Lil Fritz got stirred up on the ride to the races and so did his jockey.
"I was riding in the back of the trailer, a two-horse trailer, with my pony pawing and me worrying about him losing all his energy pawing," he said. "I got out of that trailer and I was a wreck."
Lil Fritz showed no ill effects, and covered the half-mile in 1:04 to defeat Pennie and Princess. At Rappanhannock the next month, Lil Fritz won again and Lawrence was hooked. In 1979, they made four starts together, winning once but finishing second three times to Thoroughbreds Twin Nora and Red Raven ridden by another future jump jockey and trainer Ricky Hendriks. Lawrence and his pony won races in 1980 and 1981 before the jockey moved on to horses and races that counted.
Named for Lawrence's grandfather, also a trainer, Lil Fritz extended his racing career with other riders (including Patrick Worrall and Jill Waterman) and won 16 of his final 18 starts.
By 1989, Lawrence was champion steeplechase jockey - booting home 27 winners from 104 rides while teaming up with Hall of Fame trainer Burley Cocks among others. Lawrence won major races on Ropes End, Dawson, Uptown Swell and Molotov while riding all "like they were Man o' War" in Cocks' words. Four years later, Lawrence was champion again with 21 wins including victories in the New York Turf Writers Cup, A.P. Smithwick Memorial and Temple Gwathmey. The next year, Lawrence and Warm Spell (a flashy chestnut son of Northern Baby owned and trained by Kentuckian Dr. John Griggs) teamed up to win the Eclipse Award as champion steeplechaser.
Lawrence still gives credit to Lil Fritz.
"I learned the horsemanship from clipping to horseshoeing to coming home after school and galloping that horse - rain, snow, sun, whatever - all the work that goes into training and everything I learned from Lil Fritz and my dad and another old-timer Frankie Woodson," Lawrence said.
The future trainer also picked up on all the intangibles involved.
"The anticipation for the race, the shipping, the whole nine yards is no different than what I feel today when I run a horse," he said. "Those nervous feelings I had when Lil Fritz ran the first time are no different than walking over with a horse for the Breeders' Cup."
Lawrence did that last year, when he ran Cage Fighter in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Keeneland. The longshot (a stakes winner of $388,471) finished last, but - like Lil Fritz before him - whetted an appetite.
"It's very pleasing to walk through the shedrow and see the horses I have," said Lawrence, who is aiming 3-year-old Vorticity at Oaklawn Park's Rebel Stakes March 19. "It's fun for it to come full circle and to be getting good horses like I was when I was riding races. It's very rewarding."
Lawrence and his wife Beth have two young children, Chace and Ashby, and while their father isn't planning to buy or breed a racing pony any time soon you never know.
"It's not something I'm going to force upon them," Lawrence said. "I wanted to do it. My daughter really wants to ride and my son Chace is more like a trainer. He wants to feel the horses' legs, likes coming to the races with me, things like that. I went to the barn every chance I got as a kid and when I was 14, every school vacation or all summer I was on a horse. I don't know if they'll be like that, but if they want to do it I'm going to support them 100 percent."