My sons want to go to a funeral

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My sons want to go to a funeral. If there’s a sure sign you’re getting old, this is it. Jack, 17, and Ryan, 20, both asked about attending Monday’s service for trainer Tom Voss, who died this week.

We’re not related to Voss. We didn’t grow up in his neighborhood. But, like plenty of people in those categories and beyond, we’re impacted by his death. Deeply.

Voss was there, part of the fabric, part of a life in and around racing. Voss was straight out of central casting, a character who would have fit in racing’s history no matter the era. He was half-grumpy, half-cheerful, half-aloof, half-rich, half-poor and all horseman. Voss, 63, had a heart attack at home and died quickly. He wouldn’t have been the type to wither, to stick around. Given a choice, he probably would have planned to go in the saddle, aboard one of the many horses he rode, the way John Wayne would have died in a movie. He’s so mad about missing out on that ending that he’ll hit Voss’ hometown of Monkton, Md. with lows in the single digits next week.

Voss trained racehorses for more than 40 years. He grew up riding, tried his hand as a jockey over timber, rode in the Maryland Hunt Cup, then went off and established a flat stable. He was a Mid-Atlantic stalwart in his 20s, racing and winning in Maryland, Delaware, New York, wherever he hung the yellow THV webbings and parked that three-horse Imperatore van. 

In the 1990s, he expanded the steeplechase base – he used to say it just happened – and leaped to the top. He finished fifth in 1995. Two years later, he won a title. Then, he made it look easy with three consecutive championships and a three-year winning percentage of .312 from 2000-02. In the midst of that, he guided 9-year-old flat horse John’s Call to the top of the game. They won two Grade 1 stakes, finished third in the Breeders’ Cup, went to Japan, traded opinions and jabs with Bobby Frankel.

My boys don’t really care much about that. Ryan remembers the man he met for real at Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point (held on the Voss family farm) years ago. Voss handed the kid a starter’s flag and a job.

“I’m the starter, you’re the recall man,” Voss grumbled. “When I drop my flag, you drop your flag. Got it? That’s all you have to remember.”

Ryan nodded, I think, and off they went. They spent the day together. Later, we went to the house for an end-of-the-races party. Like its chief occupant, the home was a study in contrasts with barn clothes and works of art sharing spaces. Ryan was struck by the paintings (of women) and the dozens of pairs of riding boots. “Mr. Boss” told my son to look around. He went upstairs, downstairs, found a photo of Chuck Norris on the piano, met some dogs, said hello to people from one end of that house to the other.

Years later, Ryan spent part of a Saratoga summer hotwalking for Voss. Ryan was green and sleepy (Cathy Sheppard bought him Vitamin Water to help the latter). Voss was tolerant. They went to lunch together after work, at a place nobody else went. Eventually, Voss paid Ryan – handing him $120 straight out of his pocket. Ryan is still trying to figure out the hourly wage, but he made an ally. Voss asked about Ryan when he hadn’t seen him for a while, told him to stay in school when he did see him. They talked about sushi, college, girls, I don’t know.

Younger brother Jack followed along. He never worked for Voss, though the trainer treated him like he did. Somehow, Voss got Jack’s phone number and would call – at any hour, on any day – to ask about leaving the fans on in the stalls, putting blankets on the horses at night and any other question trainers worry about.

“You going back to water off?” Voss would grumble.

“Sure, Mr. Voss, sure. I’ll be there,” Jack would reply. “Should I turn off the fans or leave them on?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. Might get cool. Might stay hot, too.”

And so it went.

Son No. 3 Nolan knew Voss, bantered with him, got lots of “what’s your brother doing?” comments. He’ll miss the rest.

Voss once bought an ad in Steeplechase Times with the simple text, “The game is afoot” and it’s – thus far – the only ad ever sold quoting Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare.

Voss was afoot. He could be infuriating. I’ve said over and over that I could more easily get Todd Pletcher on the phone for a story than I could Voss. Other reporters would badger me, “How do you get him to talk to you?” You don’t, but it works better if you don’t really try. Just have a conversation, you never know where it might go but it just might turn into something amazing.

When I heard he died, the 2002 article I wrote on him came to mind immediately. It was awful (the process, not the article). We barely talked beforehand, though we did spend a day riding around and watching horses train at the farm. He called me on his way home from the gym one night. The gym? Another time, he left me a message from Bethany Beach. The beach? He talked about studying the Civil War and the Titanic. Really? Tom Voss?

Other conversations have come and gone, and have flowed back and forth since Wednesday morning:

– An interview about Maryland Hunt Cup winner Florida Law; Tom swore the horse spoke to him the night before the race.

– A conversation about John’s Call (in retirement) on the Oklahoma rail at Saratoga; Nolan asked how fast John’s Call could still run, and Voss answered; Now if I had asked that question, forget it.

– This gem about horses racing off the farm, from 2000, “The secret to the farm is a horse recovers from a race much faster here – mentally. He relaxes faster here. At the racetrack, he does the same old thing. I don’t think we make a horse run any faster, but the proof is in the pudding. There’s a lot more notoriety and attention when you’re at the racetrack. We’re hidden back here. We pop out for the races, run the horses and we’re gone.”

– Or this one, an introspective moment, from 1997, “I would have loved to have been alive in the 1920s or 30s when it was all sporting and you just wanted to see whose horse was better. They didn’t have all the pressures we have. I’m two or three generations too late.”

He was 47 when he said that, and he was right. But we would have missed him.


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PHOTO: Tom Voss strolls the Springdale Training Center in South Carolina. Tod Marks photo.