The Outside Rail

Months ago, Mimi Voss asked me to make an introductory speech about Tom Voss for his Hall of Fame induction. I told her I’d be honored – then started sweating. It went off without a hitch (or many hitches) Friday, but I pretty much stuck to the abridged version. Here’s all of it, or most of it, from a Word doc on my computer labled simply, “Voss.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Tom Voss’ Hall of Fame induction was supposed to happen 10 or 15 years from now, with him standing up here making a half-grouchy, half-funny speech after training another steeplechase champion or two and producing some more Grade 1 turf winners off the farm.

His speech would have been difficult to understand, and wouldn’t have lasted very long. He would have smoked a cigarette and chewed an Altoid before he came up here. He would have said he didn’t care about the award, then gotten very emotional about it. He would have wiped his brow with a red bandana. He would have mentioned some cool old horses like Wild Sir, Mickey Free and Cookie, Bupersrose, John’s Call and Quel Senor, Slip Away, Florida Law and Welter Weight, Brigade Of Guards, The Looper, Sam Sullivan and Teb’s Bend . . . He would have thanked Mimi and Sam and Elizabeth, given some credit to Todd Wyatt, Jonathan Kiser and a lot of people on the farm, mentioned some running buddies like Bob Witham, J.B. Secor and Patrick Smithwick and paid tribute to some mentors from way back like Paddy Smithwick.

But here we are. Voss died in 2014, leaving all of us to figure it out. Make a speech in honor of Tom Voss? Oh sure. I can see him scoffing at that notion right now.

“Clancy, making a speech about me? Come on. Nobody wants to listen to this stuff.”

Wednesday, I told NYRA valet Harry Rice that this speech was one more chance for Tom Voss to make me uncomfortable.

My relationship with Tom Voss went in many directions. We started Steeplechase Times in 1994 and Sean and I used to flip a coin to figure out who had to interview Voss. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. Most of the time, we struggled through an interview. He’d talk, but it was usually about anything other than his horses or himself. He’d talk about Bobby Frankel or the Civil War, movies, art, pretty much anything. He got to like the paper, and what we were doing and when you got him going about his horses, he was a great interview. He once bought an ad that simply said, “The game is afoot.” It’s a line from Sherlock Holmes and before that Shakespeare. Of course it is.

I once hosted a panel discussion with steeplechase trainers and the question came up about how long it took to convert a horse from flat racing to jump racing. Three trainers gave very careful answers about it all depending on the horse and how the initial schooling sessions went. Voss said, “Twenty-nine days.” Robert Perez sent Voss a horse on July 1 and he ran over jumps at Saratoga July 29. Voss said he won, but I looked it up the other night and he didn’t, but that’s not the point. The disarming answer was the point, and he was great with those.

In 2002, I wrote a 3,000-word feature on him for Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred and barely talked to him. I went to the farm, rode around in a dilapidated pick-up truck and watched horses train. He showed me the barn, the gallops, the indoor track. I left with a great impression of his operation, but not much more. I had lots of notes about Gettysburg and Bethany Beach, a little bit on the Titanic.

I remember telling my editor, Lucy Acton, that I’d never finish that story. But I did and it’s one of my favorites even if it’s somehow not quite right.

There was literally one quote from him in it.

For as much joy as he got from intimidating adults , he was a star with children. I took my son Ryan, now 24, to the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point at the Voss farm one year. Ryan was probably 10 and about five minutes after arriving, Voss had him out on the course helping start the races. “Hold this flag,” Voss told him. “Don’t drop it until I drop mine.” Ryan kept nodding and saying, “OK, Mr. Boss,” but what a day he had. Ryan’s brother Jack would get calls and texts in the middle of the night about leaving the fans on in the horses’ stalls. “Might get cool,” Voss would say. “Might get hot too.” When Voss died, they pretty much insisted on coming to the funeral.

Voss was well known beyond steeplechasing because of John’s Call, who went from OK flat horse to OK hurdle horse to world-class turf horse. He won the Sword Dancer here as a 9-year-old in 2000, then added the Turf Classic and finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Nothing against Kalanisi, but John’s Call should have been turf champion that year. Voss could tell John’s Call stories all day, especially to children. I had my son Nolan interview him one day by the rail of the Oklahoma. It went much better than my interviews. Voss was on John’s Call, by then a lead pony, and Nolan asked if he was ever tempted to kick him in the belly and see how fast he could go. Voss laughed, then proceeded to tell Nolan that the horse would probably love that, but it wouldn’t be very good for either of them. I think of that conversation every time they run the John’s Call Stakes here.

My favorite Tom Voss story involves a horse most of you have never heard of. Florida Law. He was gray, gallant, old and divided his time between being a foxhunter and a timber horse. He ran in the Maryland Hunt Cup seven times. It’s a 4-mile race, with 22 fences. A lot can go wrong. He never fell, but Florida Law endured some of the most hard-luck defeats you could dream up. In 1995, he lost by a nose when the winner broke the course record by three seconds. The next year, while looking like a winner, his jockey came off at the last fence.

In 1998, on his sixth attempt, he won – by a head. Voss beamed. He was so happy for his horse. Voss didn’t really care about what he had achieved. It was all about the horse. Then he told me a story about doing a barn check the night before the race. Florida Law, Voss said, spoke to him. It was dark, just the two of them, alone. Maybe there was a dog or a barn cat, and there were surely other horses around, but Voss and Florida Law had a moment. The horse told his trainer, who was probably holding a carrot, that he would win the Maryland Hunt Cup the next day. I remember the hair standing up on my arms when he told me that story and I believed every word.

It wasn’t hocus pocus or some sort of tale to impress someone. I don’t think Florida Law literally talked, but he and Voss communicated that night, and probably others.

And I think that’s why Voss trained horses as well as he did. He communicated with them, and they to him. I asked trainer Jack Fisher, who worked for Voss way back when, what he learned from him.

“Work hard and pay attention,” said Jack, sounding a lot like Voss.

Voss worked hard and he paid attention, all the way to the Hall of Fame.

Originally published in The Saratoga Special newspaper Aug. 6, 2017.