Charlie’s Horses

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Forgive me, but when a racetracker starts to talk about all the places the sport can take you my mental checklist starts small: Timonium, Aqueduct, the vet, the back of a truck, the manure pit, the track kitchen, a nap under a fly sheet in a bad director’s chair while waiting for the blacksmith.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but it’s OK to dream a little. 

Just ask Charlie Vogt. The 35-year veteran of the backside went to England with Topsider, France with Noble Dancer. He met Jack Klugman, rubbed champion Plugged Nickle, was there when an immature gray horse named Evening Attire walked into the barn in Florida. It’s all a long way from Holly Hill, S.C., where Vogt grew up and learned the horses at Lucien Laurin’s training center alongside Secretariat’s groom Eddie Sweat and so many others. 

The 61-year-old is semi-retired and lives in Gloversville with his wife Darlene. Besides Holly Hill and a short stint with Laurin’s son Roger, Vogt’s only job has been with the Kelly family. He rubbed horses for Hall of Famer Tommy “T.J.” Kelly, worked for Tim, Larry, Pat and now is a summer hotwalker and sage of racing history at Pat’s barn in the back of the main-track stable area. Friday, Vogt held a horse for a bath, handed it to a co-worker and started talking. 

In the mid-1970s, Danny Vogt (a longtime NYRA whitecap and now retired downstate) galloped horses at Belmont Park, and told his brother that Kelly was a “nice guy to work for” and so it began. Charlie never left. Kelly died in April at 93, but not before imparting his horsemanship and wisdom on a long list of family members, employees, acquaintances, writers and anyone else who crossed his path. 

“It’s different here without Mr. Kelly,” said Vogt. “He’s going to be missed. A lot of people like that are going to be missed. I learned a whole lot from him, about horses, about everything.”

Kelly’s horses could run a little too, and Vogt was associated with some of the best. He cared for Topsider, who set the 6 ½-furlong track record at Saratoga in 1979 and held it for 30 years until Quality Road came along. 

“He was a handful, he was a handful, yes he was,” said Vogt. “If you didn’t know him, you couldn’t deal with him. A mind of his own. You had to do things his way, but he could run. He could really run.”

Turf star Noble Dancer, who made $900,000 and won the United Nations and San Luis Rey twice each, could run too. Vogt was his groom, and accompanied the English-bred to France for the 1979 Arc de Triomphe. They finished 11th behind Three Troikas in a huge field.

“When I got him, he had done most of his running so he was pretty easy to work with,” Vogt said. “I didn’t have him too long, but the owner wanted to try the Arc so over we went. What an experience. They really take care of you over there. They didn’t let you need for nothing.”

The trip gave Vogt a lasting memory of Kelly’s simplistic approach and calm demeanor. Before training, Noble Dancer would walk out of the stable and stare at a flock of sheep on the move at about the same time. They came from a nearby “castle” as Vogt put it and were tended by a woman with orange hair. America’s hope in the international race would ponder those sheep and their shepherd until they moved out of sight.

“Every morning that lady would come out with those sheep and he would stop and look – you couldn’t get him to move,” Vogt said. “It was funny. He’d just stand there and look at those sheep. Mr. Kelly would want to train, and we’d just have to wait.”

Kelly studied the situation and gave his groom a simple solution, “You know what we’ve got to do? We’ve got to get this horse out early in the morning so he can’t see that woman and those sheep.”

So they did.

Plugged Nickle was champion sprinter of 1980 for Kelly and Vogt, but was also one of the year’s top 3-year-olds at any distance. He won the Florida Derby, the Wood Memorial, the Jim Dandy, finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Travers.

In the Vosburgh, Plugged Nickle won a slugfest with Jaklin Klugman, scoring by a half-length in the 7-furlong Grade 1 at Belmont Park. Owned by and named for the actor, the runner-up was a pretty good horse too with a third in the Derby and a victory over Plugged Nickle in the Jerome. The California-bred couldn’t handle Plugged Nickle in the Vosburgh, however, and Klugman (who famously played Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple) wanted to talk about it. One day, the groom looked down the shedrow and here came Klugman, looking just like the disheveled, disorganized Madison.

“That can’t be,” Vogt said then. Klugman walked up, shook Vogt’s hand and said, “This is the horse that beat me?”

Vogt smiled and said, “Yes it is. Yes it is.”

The smile was back Friday. “That made my day,” he said.

In his final start of that championship campaign, Plugged Nickle took on veteran Dr. Patches in the 1 1/8-mile Stuyvesant at Aqueduct in November. Vogt led up his horse, watched as Cash Asmussen settled into the saddle in the paddock and walked to the track. The groom turned them loose, and found a spot by the rail. The other grooms moved along for better viewing spots, something eat or drink, what have you. Vogt never moved, just waited for his horse to return. Plugged Nickle led from start to finish and romped by 6 lengths.

“Those other guys all said to me ‘You must have known he was coming back here, you didn’t move,’ ” Vogt recalled. “Yes, I had a feeling he was going to be back. Dr. Patches couldn’t handle our horse.”

Vogt watched plenty of good horses he didn’t rub. He was there when Ruffian broke down in the match race. Champion mare Shuvee was “about the best” he ever saw. 

More recently, Vogt remembers Evening Attire as a 2-year-old and remembers him getting cast in the stall. The future Grade 1 winner had enough sense to be still against the wall, and wait for help. 

“He was that smart,” Vogt said. “They get hurt trying to fight their way off the wall.”

Now, Vogt walks Ranger’s Girl. The 2-year-old half-sister to Evening Attire has yet to race, but the gray daughter of U S Ranger looks the part to Vogt.

“I like her, I think she’s going to be a nice horse. She’s going to be all right.”

So is her hotwalker.