Cup of Coffee: Talkin’ Man

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“Hey, editor. Can you get me a copy of the paper with the picture from The Chief’s day?”

Keith McFarlane met me at the Morning Line Kitchen asking for a photo of the winner’s circle tribute to Allen Jerkens. McFarlane was in the photo, holding a picture of The Chief.

Two days later, I found McFarlane at Leah Gyarmati’s barn.

“I thought you forgot about me,” McFarlane said, in between walking horses.

I asked him one question about Jerkens, the late great Hall of Fame trainer who still holds a spell over all of us.

When did you start working for him? 

McFarlane, in his deep Jamaican voice, laughed.

“We had about six feet of snow and that’s the time I go look for a job. I went to his barn, he used to gallop his horses in the snow, let them jump out of it. I went over and said, ‘Hello, Mr. Jerkens. You looking for an exercise rider?’ He looked around and said, ‘On a morning, that nobody shows up and you show up looking for a job.’ We started from there.

“I remember seeing him play polo in Jamaica, at Caymanas Park, in the middle of the track there was a polo field and he was a good polo player. I had always heard of The Chief, The Giant Killer, I said, I would like to work with this man. That’s when I found out, he had more imagination than any man I ever seen. He was a modest man, anybody could tell him something. He don’t feel like he’s too big or know too much.

“Jamaica was an English colony, we were taught by the English people, he would ask me questions. He would say, ‘Keith, what would an Englishman do with this horse?’ I would say, ‘I seen them do this, and that for certain things.’ He would say, ‘That makes sense.’

“A trainer would come to him, ‘Chief, I have a horse with a problem…what would you do?’ He’d say, ‘I don’t know any more than anyone else.’ He would go on for two minutes, then he’d come around, ‘You know, to tell you the truth, I remember I trained this horse, we used to do this, I would try this, I don’t know if it’s going to work, it would work for me . . . but I would try it.’ That’s him not telling you what to do, but telling you what to do.

 “I remember at Hialeah, he went to Woody Stephens, his good friend, ‘Woody, you just run a horse there, I have someone interested…’ The horse went 7 furlongs, they said it was too short. He went a mile and they said it was too long. The horse ran at Calder and we wound up with the horse. The next day, I’m on the horse and he’s on the pony, at Hialeah, on that long horse path. We pass Woody’s barn, every day, Woody say, ‘That the horse?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Oh, you going to win with that horse.’ Chief would say, ‘I can’t better you.’ Every day, up and down that path with the pony, not going to the track.

“At Hialeah, they had the gap at the quarter pole, one morning, he pushed me inside, onto the track, he didn’t have the horse down to gallop. I said, ‘Chief, what we going to do?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, you don’t know, we’re on the track.’ He said, ‘Just turn his head loose and let him go.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, let him go?’ He said, ‘Let him do whatever he wants.’ I said, ‘How far?’ He said, ‘Until he stops, when he gets tired, he’ll stop.’ I turn his head loose and bgggda, bggda, bggda, bggda. He sits on the pony, I pass him, the horse gets to the wire, slows down and I pull him up. He looks at me, ‘He looks like he liked that.’

“We walk him the next day, the next day and then go out there and do the same thing. Then two days before he’s to race, we go to the gate. He said, ‘Just let him walk around, smell it, look at it, nothing. We don’t know what he likes. Let’s see what he likes.’ I stand back there and the guy at the gate walks over, ‘What are you going to do Keith?’ I said, ‘The man said let him walk around, stand, smell it, watch the horses.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s Chief.’ Eddie Maple rode him, wire to wire, 7 furlongs.

He’d swing that saddle towel, like a rag, he’d always give you one, ‘Come on, flag the flies off him.’ He would look at the bedding in the stall, ‘Why does this horse have no bedding?’ He don’t mind how much it cost him, he’d fill that stall with straw. ‘How would you like to be sleeping on the spring? Can you sleep uncomfortable? It’s the same thing with the animal.’ His philosophy was if you do good for the horse, the horse would do good for you. If you help him, he’ll help you.”