By Chris McGrath
Possibly they don't know all that much about him, on the Flying Start course, when John Williams comes in and shares a few thoughts about conformation. Snowy-haired guy, mid-seventies, mischievous smile, and a voice–well, if you can talk like that, in tones as warm and seasoned as barn rafters contracting in the glow of a summer dusk, then for once the envy of age for youth is reversed. Because there's a lifetime not just in that voice, but in the words too: a lifetime with great horses, great horsemen. And, with Thoroughbreds, all the youthful enthusiasm and industry in the world is never going to outweigh sheer experience.
Not that anyone is going to surpass Williams, so well preserved inside and out, in terms of enthusiasm. Hear him on the prop he shows the students every year.
“Nashua's shoe!” he exclaims. “When he was 27 years old–and you could bake a pie in it. It's that round. The best horse I ever put a hand on. He was an iron horse. A phenotype. I could not fault him. He wasn't elegant, he was about 16, maybe 16.1 [hands]. But he had something we're not seeing much, anymore, either side of the Atlantic. Timber. He had timber.
“He was just a tree. You couldn't tell where the radius came into the top of his knee and the cannon came out of the bottom. A flat, strong, solid knee. Good angle to his pastern. That perfectly round foot. Wonderful slope to his shoulder, deep girth. Strong back. Wonderful quarters on him. Hind leg that dropped right out of his hip. Beautiful, fluid walk.”
Eddie Arcaro once told Williams how Nashua worked “like a pig” just before the Wood Memorial. He was wondering what on earth to say as he approached Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, standing by the rail with Max Hirsch and John Gaver, when he saw the trainer gesturing violently: go again! So Arcaro worked the horse again. This time Nashua put in a bullet, and three days later he won the Wood.
“Those old, tough trainers,” says Williams, shaking his head. “Hell, these horses ran races between races.”
One thing he surely can tell the kids is something Arthur Hancock said to him once: “When you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he had some help.”
They are getting unprecedented help, of course, courtesy of Sheikh Mohammed. But when Williams was starting out, in Maryland, he had a priceless grounding of his own. Above all, from a trainer named Wilmont D. Haun: Bill Haun, who saw him wasting his talent and energy in a slapdash barn at Pimlico racetrack. It was 1964, the year Horatio Luro brought a Canadian-bred colt, built on rather less imposing lines than Nashua, to win the Preakness.
As the circus moved on, and the Monmouth meet came to an end, Haun invited Williams to switch barns.
“I can't leave this guy,” the young man replied. “He's in bed. I can't leave these horses stuck here.”
“Well, if you ever change your mind, you come and see me.”
That did not take long. “And Bill Haun was probably the single most important guy for showing me the proper way to care for a horse,” recalls Williams. “A stable mostly of claiming horses, but treated like stakes horses because there's no difference. One day he screamed at me, 'Come in here. Look at this. You think that's a bandage?' 'Yes sir.' He said, 'Look at that pin crooked. There's a flap on that bandage sticking out and she might reach around and grab that. Touch this filly. You cannot do enough for her–because whether you like her or not, she feeds you.' This was a tremendous teacher. Mean S.O.B., but I learned so much.”
This stuff was straight out of the old school, Haun having started with Ben Jones in Kansas in the 1930s. But already there had been other mentors, of similar stamp, shaping lifelong standards in the young Williams: a veterinarian named I.W. Frock, for instance; an Irishman named Tom Harraway.
“Unsung heroes, those old horsemen,” says Williams. “Their horses had a good life. Imagine telling somebody today to put a cow manure poultice on that tendon, they'd think you're crazy. But those guys showed me that the most important person to a horse is not his trainer, not his owner, but his groom.”
That was how he had started out himself, as a horse-crazy kid, mucking out on a local farm; and why he also values his coalface education on the track. Not enough people do that today, he feels–and far too many view the sales ring as the end use of Thoroughbreds, rather than the winning post.
As it was, the flair and industry that caught Haun's eye would ultimately underpin a career that kept Williams ringside for historic developments in the modern business: as manager of Spendthrift, then in the vanguard of a new era of commercialism, for nearly a decade; subsequently partnering with Lee Eaton in sales preparation at a time when few others, save the Taylor boys, were experimenting in what has become a vast business within the business; and, an exceptional accolade, named Kentucky Farm Manager of the Year for the way he meanwhile ran his own farm.
Williams had left for the University of Maryland when Haun's boss, Edgar Lucas of Helmore, rang to say he had bought a farm in Howard County and would he please manage it. He was 25, and had never held a higher rank than groom.
“I always had a certain, not cockiness, but a certain degree of comfort because of the way I felt being with a horse,” Williams says. “Maybe it was blind luck, but that's how I felt. And I had a great quest for knowledge, especially in the veterinary field. I learned by doing. Because we had a wonderful clientele.
“Michael Erlanger. Howell Jackson, fantastic guy in Virginia. Adele Paxson, just a tremendous lady. Jim Ryan, Ryehill Farm. Allaire du Pont. She certainly wasn't interested in sales. She wanted another Kelso. Gosh, she was terrific. After I came to Kentucky, I saw her at Saratoga. And she said in her raspy voice, 'John, we need you back in Maryland-and there are no crab cakes in Kentucky.' Gordon Grayson. Tyson Gilpin, of Fasig-Tipton. Those Maryland breeders, they bred to race, and that's what I was in tune with. And then some of the horses we bred to, back then: Cyane, Nearctic, Quadrangle…”
He stayed 10 years, but every time he brought his glistening little draft to Keeneland, he was told to stop wasting his gifts out there in Maryland. Eventually Williams sat a couple of interviews. The job he really wanted was with Olin Gentry, at Darby Dan, but that went to the Spendthrift manager–and Williams ended up filling his shoes at the Combs farm instead. Suddenly a reputation made on 185 acres in Maryland was to be tested across 3,000 acres of Bluegrass.
“Spendthrift was a blast,” says Williams. “Those were heady times. Imagine syndicating back-to-back Triple Crown winners. I never thought we'd see that again. But just think about some of the clients Leslie Combs had. Again, most breeding for racing. Lou and Patrice Wolfson, who had Raise A Native there. Harbor View mostly raced. Aaron Jones. Joe Roebling, his grandfather built the Brooklyn Bridge. He had a wonderful horse called Rainy Lake when I was there. He was gay and they beat him almost to death, this wonderful man. John Morris. Sonny Whitney. Joe Layman. Daniel Wildenstein had Allez France there. Franklin Groves, who developed Northridge Farm. Liz Tippett, what a character. Art Appleton, of Appleton Farm in Florida, great friend of Mr. Combs. John Hanes. Mickey Taylor and Jim Hill. Incredible, wonderful people, and that's just a smattering.”
Still more cherished, however, were his own “crew”–especially the Irishmen he hired through Michael Osborne, many graduating from the Irish National Stud. Years before, visiting Nashua, Williams been appalled to see this great horse left to drip-dry in his stall in December while the grooms played cards in a warm room.
“A lot of those people were good, they just needed to be shown what was expected of them now,” he says. “And Steve Johnson, an excellent man who became my assistant, had already been hired by Linda Combs as broodmare manager. But I did bring in a lot of wonderful young men and women, and I'm so proud of them. More than I can name. Don Snellings from Virginia. Bill Reightler from Maryland. Peter Taaffe from Ireland. Terrific guy. His father Pat rode the greatest horse Ireland ever produced, Arkle. Ernie Frazier. Joe Williams. Black guy, used to say, 'John Williams. I had a brother named John. He run off. You might be my brother.' Terrific guy, saddle horse man.
“Buster Gordon, rubbed Sham. Bobby Burke, a grand prix rider I had breaking yearlings down at the training center. Clem Brooks, storied groom of Nashua. To this day, the best man I ever saw with a stallion shank in his hands. One of our most important hires was Beach Faulkner, who became the farm blacksmith.
“Rick Nichols, who manages Sheikh Hamdan's farm. And [later, on his own farm] Digby Griffin from Ireland. Don't think I ever had a better employee. Miss him terribly. Because these are lasting friendships too. I'm very lucky because a lot of people say, 'If you work for me, I really can't be your buddy. I can't have a pint with you and still get you to do what I ask.' I was able to do that with this crew.”
But that bond was earned. They all knew that Williams could pull a mane better than any of them. One morning a man didn't show for work. His boss worked his whole shift: turned out his stallions, mucked out, bedded, polished the brass, the show halters. The guy slides in around 10, sees Buster Gordon. “Buster, did you cover for me?” “No, I didn't.” “Who did?” “John Williams.” As Williams himself recalls: “He brought his tail dragging down to that office, his head down. Never did that again.”
If he really needs a book for the people, then how about the horses? Bringing over Caro for $4 million, only to find him infecting mares with a venereal disease. “They were going to shut us down, put a chain on the gate,” Williams recalls. “I thought that C.E.M. episode would be the toughest thing we ever had to face. But that was until I met Seattle Slew.”
The record $12 million syndication notoriously lacked libido when he started. Williams finally got him interested in an ancient Count Fleet mare he had brought from Maryland, a retired “old bag of bones.” Next time they brought her in, however, Slew proved more interested in the teaser. Other times they'd park the old dame alongside the mare to be covered and pull him over at the critical moment.
“He was so mad that we'd tricked him, when he dismounted you couldn't see his ears–that's how tight he had them pinned,” remembers Williams with a laugh. “My hair was black before that year. He just drove us crazy.”
Just as well, then, that stallion books remained in the 40s. Williams remembers protesting to Brownell Combs when as many as 60 mares were booked to Raise A Native: “Sixty! Brownell, you're gonna kill him!” But then, as he notes sadly, that's not all that has changed. “Affirmed won 14 Grade Is,” he says. “Show me that in the stud book today.”
But it's the characters he misses most. “Tom Gentry, the showman of showmen,” he muses. “Warner Jones. Harley Clemens. Fun guys to be around. You'd love to see them coming in the barn. Albert Yank, he was preposterous. California agent. He had this little gnarly guy with him one day. Mr. Combs said, 'Get Intrepid Hero ready for 1 o'clock.' Buster rubbed him, we had him ready. Yank comes up and he's got this little sawed off guy, about 5'3″ with an old sweater on. Yank is all over this horse, rubbing his head and patting down his neck. Then he puts his arm around this guy and says, 'Now Earl, Leslie and I are gonna screw you a little bit. But you are going to like it.' It was Earl Scheib, the car paint tycoon.”
Nor does Williams still see trainers who know families; who will forgive an offset knee because the mother was the same and could go flat out for six furlongs. Buying racehorses, not “curio pieces”.
“Wayne Lukas, a horseman from the bottom of his feet to the top of his well-groomed hair!” Williams exclaims. “He'd say, 'Don't show me that catalog, I can't cinch up a page.' He and Vincent O'Brien were the most discerning people I've ever seen evaluate an untried yearling. Vincent could look into a horse's eye and see what he was thinking. I'd say, 'Vincent, can I get you anything?' 'No, no, I'll just stand by this tree.' He'd be watching. He'd go down the shed row to look at a horse's bedding, see how he's behaving in his box.”
Of course, the very commercialism that has skewed so much of the business towards the ring was in part nourished by Spendthrift. By the time Williams left, when the farm went public in 1984, there were 45 stallions on the roster.
In fairness, Williams himself rode the wave somewhat, by teaming up with Eaton as pioneers of sales preparation; but he also started his own farm, named Ballindaggin for the County Wexford birthplace of his grandfather.
“I promised mom that if I ever had a piece of ground, I'd name it after his little town,” he says. “Mom used to say his room smelled like medicine, from the poultices and stuff he made at night. He had written everything down, because nobody in the family cared for the horse. After he died, they threw it all in the furnace. What I'd have given for those.
“The best I ever raised was Flawlessly, by Affirmed out of La Confidence, by Nijinsky II. Won nine Grade Is. A good example of you don't have to be perfect to run. She wasn't very impressive, physically, but so sweet; and had a great mind.
“The great old breeders I paid attention to, like Olin Gentry, depended upon strong female families. Mr. Combs said horses made their own pedigrees; and there was the adage that the hard race mares never produce. But look up Straight Deal, by Hail To Reason. She had 99 starts, and produced three stakes winners, including a Grade I winner; and every one of her six daughters produced at least one stakes winner. If you're young enough and can keep at it, pedigree will out.”
But that calls for something of the patience of the old sportsmen. Today too many horses are expected “to put another piece of chicken on the plate.” Yet there are boons to the modern business too: the Breeders' Cup, spread-the-joy partnerships, international competition, veterinary advances, casino funding. And, back where we started, the extraordinary Flying Start program.
Now there, notes Williams, is a real sportsman: Sheikh Mohammed. “His contribution to this game is immeasurable,” he says. “I've already said how important Michael Osborne was, getting good horsemen over here. When he passed away, Joe [Osborne] called and asked if I would take his father's place on that board [Flying Start]. What an honor.”
He is palpably moved by the reflection. As it happens, the course director Clodagh Kavanagh worked for Eaton Williams when herself learning the ropes. And the esteem of the bloodstock community for the standards set by that partnership can be judged by the dispersals it handled: Warner Jones, for instance, or Sangster-Niarchos. But then it was an enterprise that absolutely complemented what Williams had achieved in upgrading horsemanship around Kentucky's premier stallion barns.
“When I was at Spendthrift, I always thought the sales were a horse show,” reasons Williams. “Say my horse is made just like your horse, and similarly bred. But mine has a two-inch bridle path, and yours a seven-inch bridle path. My horse's mane is on the right side of his neck, and fits the thickness of his neck; yours flips on both sides. Mine has dapples and hard flesh. The fetlock hair is cut off of my horse's ankles. He's got proper feet. He has been taught to walk, because I had him on a long line. I'm going to outsell you. We've got the same horse–but I outsell you.”
Williams stresses that there were always splendid, hardboot horsemen in Kentucky; but the fact is that there were also guys brought over from tobacco farms. Some of those European migrants, in contrast, represented umpteen generations of horse lore.
“But sales were never my prime mover,” says Williams. “I think I knew how to present a horse and I love bringing a good horse out in front of somebody. But I'm a broodmare man, a farm guy. I just feel very fortunate to have had so many people to help me climb that fence post. And the horse–the horse has been such a wonderful conduit to friendship. The horse has really been good to this old boy from Ellicott City, Maryland, I'll tell you. It's been a great ride. I look back over it and, gosh, I'm not just saying it: I really feel blessed.”