Goodbye, Mr. Freeman

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One of my mentors, Mike Freeman died Wednesday. I got a call while sitting in a coffee shop in Middleburg. Susie Alexander, who was there for the first Saratoga Special, called to tell me that her mentor (too) had died. Great man. Old school. Fair and loyal. After going through two computers looking for a column I wrote about Mr. Freeman, I finally found it in the attic, in the bound-edition book with all the issues from the 2004 season of The Saratoga Special.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004.

Mike Freeman was injured in a stable accident earlier in the meet. The 75-year-old trainer fractured his shoulder and last time I heard was still in Saratoga Hospital.

Boy, you get too busy in this world. It happened Aug. 9 and every day I say I’m going over to see him. Haven’t made it there yet. Forgive me. For now, here’s a letter which will never replace a visit, but here goes. Will someone make sure he gets this? Better yet, I’ll take care of it myself.

Dear Mr. Freeman,

You gave me a job in 1990. It was my second year at Saratoga. I was 20 going on 40, and boy, did I have all the answers. I rode three and walked three and walked over with every sixth runner to the paddock and hotwalked them back at the barn. It was old school. I was taking home $235 a week. My friends were making more, and I’ll admit I almost quit. Then I called my dad at home and said I didn’t like hotwalking and I wasn’t riding enough. I’ll never forget what he told me.

“Sean, you can do whatever you want but the Freemans (Mike and wife, Iris) are good people. They’re good to know. They will treat you right and you’ll be glad to know them for the rest of your life. Like I said, you can do whatever you want but you would be leaving them in a bind and that’s not right. I think you should stick it out, it will be worth it in the long run.”

So I stayed. Wow, am I glad I stayed. You and Iris have been some of my greatest supporters since that day I walked in your barn. You put me on Hodges Bay when I was 23 and didn’t deserve a shot on a millionaire flat horse running over jumps. I lost three races on him at Saratoga. He was even money or less in all three of them and I somehow or other messed up each race. You never got excited, you never got mad, you believed in me with all your heart. I wish I could have ridden Hodge once when I knew what I was doing, but he taught me so much when I needed to learn it.

Later, when Joe and I started Steeplechase Times, you and Iris jumped in with advertising and subscriptions. When I wrote Saratoga Days, you bought countless copies out of my backpack. When we started The Saratoga Special, you were there to sign up, to get us off the ground. You’re one of the few advertisers that was here for Volume 1, Issue 1 back in 2001 and you’re still here in Volume 4, Issue 23. The paper wouldn’t be where it is today without both of you.

Along the way, I’ve met so many people who are friends of yours; they thought more of me for what you had told them. That means the world.

And like every job or experience, the people (and the horses) I met made it worthwhile too.

There was Lew, Boot, Pete, Kathleen, Phil and faces that I can only remember even if the names escape me. Lew now works in licensing; he was just as easy going then as he is now. Boot was the quintessential groom, gruff with the people and sweet with the horses. Pete galloped Hodges Bay like he was a pony. Kathleen could clean tack faster and more often than anyone I’ve ever seen. Phil gave me daily lessons, on topics from Father Bill Daley to how to make a horse drink. He was the oldest exercise rider I had ever seen, but even then I knew I could never ride like him. There was the tall guy who rubbed Closing Bid . . . I’ve never met anyone who wanted to be following the Grateful Dead while walking the Appalachian Trail more than him. Where is he now?

And the always-mentioned Apples who stayed at Belmont that summer; no one had more stories about him than Apples.

I’ll never forget the horses (though I may forget how to spell them); Oldsquaw, you demanded she train in cotton ear plugs. She’d shake them out all the way to the track but I figured it kept her occupied. Bat Prospector, who was ridden by a young jockey and future friend Mike Smith. She ran on the grass. Closing Bid, the chestnut stakes horse who was coming back from an injury. Joe’s Dollar, he could fly. Wild Disco, she lugged in with me one day I thought I was going to hit the canoe. Majesterian, big and black, he ended up third in the Molson Million if I remember correctly. Of course, Hodges Bay, I galloped him one day, I can still feel the buck he gave me at the five-eighths pole. And my favorite, Bee’s Prospector. He was the only horse I could gallop. I stayed until the last day to see Angel Cordero ride him in his comeback race. He finished third. And I hotwalked him back at the barn.

I was glad I stayed then and I’m glad I stayed now.

Get better, Mr. Freeman. There are some young kids who should get to know you.

Sincerely,

 

Sean Clancy