Bernadette Clayton went home for lunch, fed up with her job, and decided to make a change. She didn't know what she was going to do, just knew the current situation was not going to work.
She wrote a letter of resignation over lunch, turned it in when she got back and told a friend to let her know about any job openings. A few hours later, the friend bumped into Iris Freeman who was desperately seeking somebody to work at Chime Bell Farm. Freeman and her husband, esteemed trainer Mike, offered Clayton a job and they've been "family" ever since.
That was November 1998, and Clayton laughed about it all Thursday - a day after retired trainer Willard C. "Mike" Freeman died at 84. Clayton oversees the business at Chime Bell in Aiken, S.C. and covered the details of Freeman's training operation as well.
"Mike and Iris couldn't have been more supportive and it couldn't have been a better job," Clayton said. "I was raising two children by myself and there was never a question if I had to be somewhere. It's been a tough couple of days. Mike will be missed. He was an incredible man."
Freeman was born in Providence, R.I. and started training in the 1950s after briefly riding steeplechase races. Alfred Vanderbilt gave Freeman an opportunity to train in 1964 and the two teamed up to win stakes with Cold Comfort. Most notably, Freeman trained Hall of Famer Shuvee. Twice a champion, she won the filly Triple Crown (Acorn, Mother Goose, Coaching Club American Oaks) in 1969 and the Jockey Club Gold Cup against males in 1970 and 1971. In addition, Freeman trained Grade 1-winning millionaire Hodges Bay, Grade 1 winner Bukhar and stakes winners Gala Performance and Understudy among others. More recently, Freeman was responsible for recommending steeplechase racing as an option to owner Greg Hawkins. The Freeman-trained Campanile moved to jump racing with Janet Elliot and won major stakes in a four-season campaign. Freeman won more than 1,000 races and his horses earned more than $16 million according to Equibase statistics. Darley leases Freeman's old racing stable on Two Notch Road and a neighbor recently agreed to purchase that property.
Freeman had been ill for some time, but had been at home in Saratoga until moving to the Wesley Community nursing home about a month ago. Tuesday, several friends (including horsemen Bill Higgins and Glenn DiSanto) visited. Freeman died the next day.
Clayton smiled when she thought of the stories the old friends told.
"To go around the racetrack at Saratoga with Mike you felt like royalty," she said. "Everybody knew him and it was just magical. We're left with fabulous memories."
Funeral arrangements were not complete.