The thin green sign hangs from the white nylon rope, just like all the others around the backside of Keeneland. The wind knocks it into the concrete side of Barn 29, just up the hill from the track kitchen. A simple nameplate denoting a parking place. White, stenciled lettering. Every trainer stabled at Keeneland has one.
But this one is different – J. Gaver III.
The name Gaver goes back three generations – to that golden era of Thoroughbred racing. John Gaver Sr., John Gaver Jr. and Greentree Stable. The Hall of Fame. Private training spreads at Saratoga and Aiken. Tom Fool, Stage Door Johnny, The Axe, Buckaroo, Capot, Bowl Game, Late Bloomer. Yeah, that era.
It’s the first time in a long time the name Gaver has been painted onto a Keeneland trainer’s space.
Late last fall, John Gaver III (now 40) took out his trainer’s license. He won his first career race last Friday when Borobudur, a 5-year-old maiden who flunked out of Bobby Frankel and Pascal Barry’s barns, upset a $50,000 maiden. Picked out by Mike Bell and purchased for $20,000 at the Keeneland January sale by Frankie O’Connor and Will Arvin, Borobudur might not have done much for breeder Flaxman Holdings, but he continued the much-needed Gaver legacy in Thoroughbred racing.
John Gaver III remembers the Greentree estates. He went racing with his grandfather and father, hearing about all those great ones.
He traveled the Triple Crown with his father and Woodchopper as they tried to upend John Campo and Pleasant Colony. Gaver fought it, tried to go a logical route, disappeared to college in Oregon, got a job with the Racing Form and Churchill Downs, editing and handicapping.
In his early 30s, he had to make a choice. Frontside or backside? Write about or be written about? He’s a Gaver, not a Hirsch.
Gaver enrolled in old school. He spent 5 1/2 years with Bell and then another 2 1/2 years with Bill Mott. Eight hard years thrown on top of 40 years of footsteps in the sand of his father and grandfather.
“I got the taste, for better or worse,” Gaver said. “I used to go up to Saratoga every summer, it stays with you. For a while I thought it might be the worse. It was always a dream I had to be a horse trainer.”
For most of us, we read about Greentree in a book. We snuck back to the training center, through the trees at Saratoga. Maybe we got to wander through the ghosts to interview Bill Mott when he rented the training center. We’ve read the plaque in the Hall of Fame.
“Greentree had tremendous stock, back when it was a sport and not a business. I feel privileged to have experienced that,” Gaver said. “The game has changed a lot but it’s still horse racing. There’s something about horses that make you travel around, wake up at crazy hours, beat your head against the wall every once in a while but at the end of the day, it’s pretty satisfying.”
Gaver has built his stable from scratch. He’s up to about eight horses with promises of more to come. Keeneland gave him some stalls on Rice Road, he spent the winter training at Keeneland and running the few that were ready at Turfway Park. He came into the nightcap on Friday, 0-for-6 in his career. Borobudur came in 0-for-10. The royally-bred son of Kingmambo (out of Chimes Of Freedom) might only be 1-for-11 now, but his timing couldn’t have been better. Sent off the favorite in five of his six American starts, he couldn’t deliver. Until breaking Gaver’s maiden.
“It was a scary first step to take but once you start doing it, you hope things start falling into place. I came to the crossroads of do you really want to be a horse trainer? I’m glad I did it, pursuing a dream, I feel fortunate,” Gaver said. “The family has been good about it and supported me the whole way. The long days in Camden, the long days at Payson have paid off, it feels good now. If you like horses, it makes it worthwhile.”
Legacies can weigh heavily. Gaver’s grandfather graduated from Princeton, taught Spanish at a prep school, then embarked on his Hall of Fame training career. While most of the world struggles to find their pants in the morning, Gaver Sr. wore a coat and tie to the barn, trained four champions and 73 stakes winners.
“I don’t like to think of it as a chip but it does make you want to work harder, make sure you know your horses, make sure you lead something over there that’s competitive, go over legs in the morning, it’s attention to detail, I learned that from Mike and Bill,” Gaver said. “I watched Bill Mott duck under 50 webbings a day, he travels around and gets a line on his horses. I’m a people pleaser by nature, but you want to make people proud and do right be the name. My grandfather and father both passed away and I want to keep the good name they have on the track in fine stead.”
Gaver likes to think of himself as part Mike Bell and part Bill Mott. As for his father and grandfather, well, that was a different era.
“I never saw their training regimen, but they say my grandfather would breeze one the day before a race, whip him around there in 33, open up the airways,” Gaver said. “I would hope they’re proud, I know my dad never really wanted me to be a trainer because of the grind, the traveling, the demanding hours, but I know he’d be happy that I’m doing something I love to do. I hope they’re looking down favorably. I’ll be looking up above frequently, I’ll take advice from anywhere I can take it. If you see me looking up there, you’ll know what I’m doing.”
And about that parking spot?
“Oh man, it felt good,” Gaver said. “Even if I don’t get to park in it much, it felt good. I looked at the left and it’s Carl Nafzger, ‘Wow, he won the Kentucky Derby last year.’ I’d be lying if told you it didn’t feel good. Of course, people might look down the road and say who’s that guy?’ “
Not for long.