Big Bill

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Kip Elser called John Servis about a kid who wanted to go from teaching school in South Carolina to walking horses at Delaware Park.

“Does he know anything?” Servis asked.

“Yeah, he can walk a horse.” Elser said.

“Sure, send him up, I’ll put him to work,” Servis said.

As Servis had learned, he handed the responsibility of dealing with the new hotwalker to his right-hand man, Bill Foster. Six foot, six inches, college educated, a crossword genius, a born horseman, a bust-or-boon gambler, Foster spent all
day, every day at the racetrack.

“Bill, we got this guy coming, he’s going to walk hots for us,” Servis explained. “He might be a little green.”

Foster said he’d handle it, expecting the new hotwalker to show up the next morning.

Dan Pride showed up early, as only he would, arriving at Servis’ barn at 2 on the afternoon before he was meant to start turning left, hoping to make the biggest turn of his life. With his wife, Beth, pregnant in the car, Pride bounced across the walking ring and shook hands with Foster, sitting in a chair, a couple of beers in, at the end of the barn like he did every day.

“Hi, I’m Dan Pride…”

“Yeah, they told me you were coming,” Foster said, without interest, offering comfort wasn’t in his repertoire.

“Do you mind showing me around?” Pride asked.

Hand in a bucket of ice, reaching for another beer, Foster looked up from his chair and grunted, “Yeah, come on…”

At the first stall, Pride asked, “Who’s this horse?” Foster offered a name. At the second stall, Pride asked “Who’s this horse?” Foster offered a name, slower than the first one. As Foster and Pride reached the third stall, Pride asked again, “Who’s this horse?”

Foster stopped. This show was over.

“I’m confused,” Foster said.

“What do you mean?” Pride asked. “Confused about what?”

“I was told you were coming here to walk horses not be the assistant trainer,” Foster said.

That was the end of the tour.

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Pride said, turning on his heel. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Pride survived that summer and wound up at Taylor Made Farm, Darley, Fasig-Tipton and eventually Godolphin while Servis and Foster would stay together, through thick – the Smarty Jones ride of 2004 and thin – the daily grind of the racetrack. Remember the big guy who looked like an undercover security guard wherever Smarty Jones went? Yeah, that was Bill Foster.

From Boston, tutored under Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, Foster met Servis in 1989.

“He walked in the barn, he was dressed up, he had penny loafers on, looking for a hot-walking job.” Servis said. “I said to my assistant, ‘Hot-walking job? He looks like he works for the racing commission. He can’t walk hots in those things, can he?’ She said, ‘I don’t know but we need one, I’m putting him to work.’ And the rest is history.”

And, oh what a history. Foster became part of Servis’ family, spending each Thanksgiving and Christmas, vacationing in the Poconos. He handled every chore at the Servis barn – hotwalker, night watchman, foreman, spare paperwork – before moving to a slower position as rec hall overseer, a job that sounds like it was created for Foster, as he lived in a dorm room across from Servis’ barn at Parx, all the way until he died in March.

A sister in Ohio, a couple of children who didn’t know him, Foster lived as a racetracker and died a racetracker. He was cremated, his ashes are still in Servis’ house, waiting to be spread at the racetrack.

“He was a good horseman, a good guy, a Damon Runyon character, just a pure racetracker” Servis said. “Loved to gamble until there was nothing left, then go hit someone up for $20 so he could gamble a little bit more. Very well educated, a college graduate, he would read the Philadelphia Inquirer every day and he’d do the puzzle, I’m telling you, in maybe 10 minutes. He became family. He was just Uncle Bill to my kids. We were together for a long time.”

Smarty Jones provided the pinnacle of the ride, rolling into the Belmont Stakes as the undefeated people’s horse. Sure, it ended with a thud, but to Foster, the ride from Parx to Oaklawn Park to Churchill Downs to Pimlico to Belmont Park, well, it legitimized his life, his choices.

“He loved the racetrack, that was his life,” Servis said. “And Smarty, that put the icing on the cake, it was why he hung around the track every day and did what he did, to be able to experience something like that and he did, he went on the whole ride, he loved it. No matter what happened, it was all about me, the barn, the horses.”

Just like it was that afternoon at Delaware Park.

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