Early Thursday morning, Joe Campbell waited for a coffee and a chocolate Coolatta at the counter of Dunkin Donuts. A couple of racetrackers stood in line, two golfers planned a tea time from a table and I asked the most natural question I could ask.
“How did you get to the track?”
The longtime NYRA blacksmith smiled. “My dad. I’m third generation,” he said. “Done it all my life. Next year will be 50. Fifty years.”
Rhoades Campbell was the first, Elmer Campbell was the second, Joe is the third and last. His kids aren’t shoeing horses.
“I’ll see you on the inside,” Campbell said, swinging the door open and heading to the track.
I liked that, see you on the inside.
Once on the inside Thursday morning, I kept asking the question.
“How did you get to the track?”
Dave Lynett smoked a cigarette while standing outside the clocker’s stand at the Oklahoma.
His family rented a room in their Lincoln Avenue house to Whitey Baldwin who ran Whitehead Horse Transportation. Lynett tagged along with him on his rounds around the stable area in the morning, snuck through the bent bars of the fence in the afternoon.
“Selling pencils,” Lynett said. “Make 2 bucks, enough to bet.”
If he won, he didn’t have to sell any more pencils that day. When Lynett retired from Saratoga County, he got a job minding the gap, when NYRA needed another clocker, he learned how to handle a watch, handle the rush.
“Been here ever since,” Lynett said. “Beats sitting home watching TV.”
Just up the stretch of the Oklahoma, Melvin “Bow” White watched the 7-furlong gap, the lanky, kind-eyed mainstay has been there for as long as I’ve been coming here, always standing inside the overhang of the pony shack. He hands out programs in the morning, ran the jockey board in the infield in the afternoon, maybe still does, plays the drums on Broadway some nights.
His Aunt Fanny ran the kitchen, that’s how he got here. White nods in the direction of Shug’s gap.
“Fizsimmons and his big horse, Nashua, were over there,” White said. “Then I was in the service, the Army, during ’Nam. We don’t need to talk about that. Moved here in ’64. Been here ever since.”
I thanked White for his service and rolled on through the Oklahoma backstretch and up middle alley to John Hertler’s barn. I asked Hertler’s longtime assistant the question.
Victor Berrios explained how he got here. It’s the most harrowing story you’ll hear all meet. The racetrack provided a landing pad, a life, to an 18-year-old kid escaping war-torn El Salvador. Berrios arrived in California, found his way to New York and got a job walking horses for Mary Cotter at Belmont Park.
“A guy was working at Belmont and said, ‘You want to work?’ I went to racetrack the next morning,” Berrios said. “I was very happy to see the horses. I got lucky. I got lucky.”
I’ll write more about Berrios tomorrow.
Around the corner from Hertler’s barn, Cecil Putnam grazed Shug McGaughey’s lead pony before putting him away in an outside stall behind Dominick Schettino’s barn. I asked the question.
She stopped in the middle of the road near Bill Mott’s barn and thought back to how it all started.
Growing up in Old Brookville, Long Island, Putnam climbed under the neighbor’s fence for her first job, helping out Danny Lopez with his show horses. She was 8, made a couple of bucks each day, horses would be her life.
A decade later, her friend Eileen was working for a vet at Belmont Park.
“Oh, you need to come to the racetrack,” she said. “She was realizing how hard it was for me to find places to go with the show horses.”
It was 1978. Belmont Park. Eileen knew Peter Howe, Putnam had her first racetrack gig.
“It was actually a perfect job to start,” Putnam said. “If you were standing still, you picked up a rake. It wasn’t a hard job but you learned this is how you do it.”
Putnam worked for Howe for about five years before getting a job with John Veitch, then Frank Whiteley and eventually became a constant at McGaughey’s Hall of Fame barn.
“I can’t complain,” she said. “I can’t complain.”
Back on middle alley, Roy Seales sat on a wooden chair outside three horses he rubs for Michelle Nevin.
He was discovered in his hometown in the Virgin Islands by owner/breeder Eugene Thomas.
“He picked me out,” Seales said. “He saw how I was buying a bag of feed for my little non-Thoroughbred. ‘Roy, I want you to come by my stable.’ ”
Seales likes to say he learned horses the right way.
“I take my time, like the old school,” Seales said.
If Thomas hadn’t seen Seales with that bag of feed, he might have taken another path. Seales’ brother, Sugar Ray Seales, won the gold medal for boxing at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Yeah, maybe that path.
“I put on the leather too,” Roy Seales said of his boxing days. “I was good with the leather, but this is something I was taught as a young, young boy.”
Like all of us, Roy, like all of us.