Lunching With Legends at Lil's

Chris McGrath sits down with Ercel Ellis, Arthur Hancock III and Dr. Robert Copelan | courtesy Chris McGrath

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He's such a fixture here, he's even on the sandwich menu. Here you go: the Copelan, grilled cheddar and onion on pumpernickel. True, that only makes Dr. Robert Copelan an institution within an institution. Lunch at Lil's Coffee House on Main Street is a ritual cherished by many other horse folk in the neighborhood of Paris, Kentucky. But it's certainly a joy, for all of them, to see the great veterinarian seated alongside veteran radio host Ercel Ellis Jr., at their usual table in the corner, exchanging wit and wisdom accumulated through an aggregate 189 years-the vast majority among horsemen and horses.

And when I say horses, I mean horses. Copelan once held Citation on the end of a shank. Ellis, for his part, remembers being taken to see a stallion by his father, who had 20 years previously been the first to slip a halter over the same horse's ears as a foal. His name was Man o' War.

It's a genuine privilege, then, to sample the pristine recollection and observation that unites the old friends, especially on a day when they're able to make up for TDN's intrusion with the company of a rather more welcome interloper in Arthur B. Hancock III-a mere stripling, barely into his 80s. (Ellis is 92, Copelan 97.)

Man o' War, Citation, Sunday Silence. Where do we start? How can we ever finish? Somehow we must make do with an hour or so of chat and this inadequate record. Right now Ellis is talking about his maternal grandfather, a Civil War veteran who seems to have spent his entire waking life in the saddle. “He died the year I was born,” he says. “I don't believe he ever was in a car. One time he rode a horse up the steps of the Phoenix Hotel in downtown Lexington. He was up and down those courthouse steps all the time, as well. They'd ask him to lead the Labor Day parade down Main Street. My mother was standing there watching and she heard this lady behind her saying, 'Look at old Colonel Redd, leading the Labor Day parade. Never worked a day in his life!'”

In 1929 Ellis's father was hired to manage Dixiana Farm by its new owner, Charles T. Fisher.

“And he was there until he died in 1964,” Ellis says. “Wonderful place to grow up. Mata Hari was foaled in the same 'crop' as me, 1931. She was top of the Experimental Handicap over the colts. Ended up dam of Spy Song, good speed horse for Dixiana and a very good sire as well.

“Mata Hari was out a Man o' War mare named War Woman. I'm pretty sure she was supposed to go to E.R. Bradley's to breed to one of those stud horses over there, but they just couldn't get her loaded. Next day, same thing. And they had this unraced horse named Peter Hastings turned out there. They said, 'We gotta breed this damned mare!' So they brought her round to him, and the only runner he ever sired was Mata Hari.”

But it was on tales of Man o' War that Ellis was raised. Like the time a clocker sought out his groom at Saratoga.

“What's the name of that big red colt?”

“Man o' War.”

“Who's he by?”

“By himself, mostly.”

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Or the day he came to stand at Elizabeth Dangerfield's farm. “They'd turned him out the first time and, that horse, all he ever wanted to do was run,” Ellis says. “So he was flying, and she called the groom out and said: 'Tom, God's sake go catch that horse before he gets hurt.' And he said, 'Miss Elizabeth, if all those good horses in New York couldn't catch him, how d'you expect me to?'”

“I'd trade anything to have been brought up at a place like Dixiana,” Copelan complains. “I was raised in the city. My father was managing editor of the Cincinnati Times-Star, which was owned by the Taft family. I always wanted a pony, but my parents would never get me one. So I had to wait until I was in Ohio State when I borrowed a fraternity brother's car, went out to Darby Dan and got a job with the broodmares.”

Copelan always had the build to be a jockey and, back then, that was still his dream.

“There was a mile racetrack on the farm,” he recalls. “We weren't allowed up there, but I couldn't get my mind off it while I was rubbing these broodmares. So one day I waited until after everybody left at 4 p.m. They had this spotted pony there and I put a saddle on him and rode down between these paddocks, where they had a yearling that was going to be sold at Keeneland. I remember one of them was out of Bloodroot [1946 Broodmare of the Year]. Well, these yearlings had never seen a spotted pony. And so one of them came running, jumped out onto the road in front of me, jumped into the other paddock, then with that other yearling raced down to the end, they both jumped that fence, and down into Big Darby Creek.”

Copelan pauses. He's a masterly storyteller, unfurling the words with dry precision.

“I wanted to be dead,” he resumes. “I'd done something that was illegal and dishonest, and didn't know but what those two colts were drowned. So I rode that pony up to Will Corman's house-he was the manager-and knocked the front door. And Mrs. Corman came to the door. 'It's suppertime!' 'Yes ma'am, I know, but I need to see Will.' 'You come back after supper!' And she started shutting the door. 'Mrs. Corman, please God, listen to me: I've done something and I need Will.' So Will came out. 'Well, what the **** you done now?' So we went down there and by now it's getting dark. It was eight or nine feet down into the Creek, but finally we saw their eyes in the flashlight. And we put shanks on them and didn't they just hop up that bank. We hosed them off, and Will said, 'These two S.O.B.s can't be worth a quarter. There's not a goddamned scratch on either of them!' And sure as the world, neither one broke their maiden.”

Next morning Copelan was on the carpet before the hardboot legend, Olin Gentry.

“And he was very calm,” Copelan says, still exuding relief and gratitude 75 years later. “He said, 'You did a damned foolish thing yesterday. I hope you learned a lesson. I know you wanted to be a jockey. I remember when I did.' And no matter what anybody ever said about Mr. Gentry, after that they couldn't say it in front of me.”

During veterinary college Copelan spent a couple of summers as an exercise rider at Calumet. For one of them, Citation was on the farm for running repairs. Once having held a medical tray for that horse, not even a patient like Secretariat was going to find Copelan overawed.

As for Ellis, he served with the navy in Korea before joining Dixiana's trainer Jack Hodgins at the Fair Grounds. That was where he first became aware of Copelan, who had just started in practice there.

“We knew that we both came from this area,” Copelan says. “I saw him every day, and he saw me every day. But we never spoke to one another.”

“He had time to run around with girls,” Ellis retorts teasingly. “When you worked for Jack Hodgins, all you ever wanted was to grab an hour of sleep. He had a lot of old time racetrackers working for him, and after payday I never knew how many stalls, I'd have to clean next morning. When we shipped back up to Kentucky or Chicago, first you had to load the horses and then you had to load the drunks. But though he was a tough old so-and-so, he kept them on.”

The first time their paths crossed unavoidably, Copelan was sent to inspect a couple of 2-year-olds Ellis was trying to sell.

“He turned them both down,” Ellis says. “I thought to myself: what a ****. But he was right. Neither one of them was worth a ham sandwich.”

Deciding that the racetrack was no place for a newlywed, Ellis switched to press and advertising. In 1958 he started filling in for the regular host of a 15-minute radio broadcast, “Post Time,” long the principal national hub for the latest results. Eventually he took over–and he's been “too stupid to stop” ever since, since 1998 entertaining devotees with two hours of “Horse Tales” every Saturday morning.

In fact, neither of these gentlemen have made much concession to age, albeit Ellis has conceded that he can no longer tend the couple of retired claimers he used to train. Instead he visits them every Sunday at Old Friends, where they rub shoulders with household names.

Yet Copelan yields nothing to his friend in terms of professional longevity. Five years the senior of the pair, he only ended a 65-year career in 2018, at 91-a career so pioneering that you routinely hear him invoked as an inspiration by outstanding practitioners of the next generation. But does Copelan want to tell us about the innovations he authored, or the champions he repaired? Nope: once again, he's instead telling a story against himself.

“Lester Joffrion trained a horse for a wealthy man from Chicago, and thought he was off behind,” Copelan recalls. “So I went to Arlington and they brought him up with a rider on. I said, 'Okay, jog him up there 100 yards, and then turn around and jog him back.' 'Oh man,' he said, 'you can't do that with this horse.' 'What d'you mean?' 'Jog him up there, he'd run off with you.' And I said, 'Let's get this straight, you mean to tell me you can't jog this S.O.B. 100 yards?' 'That's right.' 'Get down off that goddamned horse.'”

Copelan went back to the car for the boots he'd used to pay his way through college, exercising horses at Beulah Park.

“And I had a white coverall, remember when veterinarians used to wear those? So up I get onto that horse, with Lester on the pony next to me. So we jogged the 100 yards, turned round, jogged back. And just for the hell of it I jogged him another 100. So now we're on the racetrack and I said, 'Let's just jog him off here as well.' And Lester said, 'Doc, you know what you're doing?' 'Of course I do.' 'Because, listen to me, this S.O.B. is tougher than hell.' 'Well, we'll see. Turn him loose.'”

Copelan pauses. We know what's coming. Sure enough, the horse takes off. Copelan recalls yelling back, asking how far this horse was ready to go?

“And I just heard this voice fading away: 'To the Rocky Mountaaaiins…”

You really need to hear those unhurried, wry tones for the full, hilarious effect.

“I hadn't been on a horse for a number of years,” Copelan continues. “And soon my ace leg, the shorter of the two stirrups, went paralyzed: I had no feeling in it. So I was putting my weight on the outside, and this horse was running his butt off. I really was afraid for my life. And I thought to myself: 'You wanted to show them? Now look at you, you're going to kill yourself.'

“I didn't even know whether I'd gone by the wire and was going round again. But suddenly I saw this crowd at the gate, where the gallopers were coming on, so I just eased him to the outside, woah, and he pulled right up. And Lester galloped over and said, 'You can't breathe can you, you dumb so-and-so?'”

He shook his head, panting. And we, too, find ourselves wordless-only with mirth-after the pay-off.

“And you know the second last page of the Racing Form, where they published the workouts, and the horse that worked the fastest was in black letters? Well, I got black letters for my half-mile.”

But that episode had a happy sequel. It turned out that the horse's groom Sonny Henderson was originally from Lexington and, later, when he'd had enough shipping up and down between Chicago and New Orleans, he applied for a job at the surgery.

“And he worked with us for maybe 35 years,” Copelan says. “He meant a great deal to me: a wonderful man, knew his job so well. He and I were about the same size, and he's buried in one of my suits.”

The presence at the table of his old friend's son now prompts Copelan to share a couple of memories of Bull Hancock. Like the time at Hialeah when Bull asked him to X-ray a horse's knee. Copelan developed the picture and was coming back through the gate when Bull spotted him.

“And he came toward me at what I considered a higher speed than normal,” Copelan recalls. “As you know, he was an imposing figure. And he had that hat on, that the sweat had leaked through. 'Well, what did the X-ray show?' 'Bull, he's got a slab fracture.' And he took off that hat, threw it on the ground and stomped on it. 'Hell, I promise you one thing, I'm not going to operate on that S.O.B., I'll tell you that!' And he turned around and started back over toward the barn. And I was glad he was going that way. And then turned round and said, 'What day you want him up there?'”

Arthur Hancock at Stone Farm | EquiSport

Drone was another that had the same injury. Copelan remembers arriving at the Thoroughbred Club dinner straight after getting the results. When told, the big man was again distraught. “Goddamit!” he bellowed. “Right, I'm going to stand him, $25,000 a share! Are you in?”

“And I said yes!” says Copelan with a chuckle. “I didn't have anything like that money. But John Thornbury [his partner in Sunnyside Farm] and I bought a share, and he was certainly a good investment.”

“Daddy said he was best horse he ever had,” Hancock observes. “He could outrun Dike by 10 lengths, and Dike was third to Majestic Prince and Arts And Letters in the Derby. It broke Daddy's heart when he had that fracture. I remember him saying at supper, 'Lord's got his finger pointed at me, I'm never going to win the goddamned Derby. Best horse I ever had, and this happens.'”

As a celebrated raconteur himself, Hancock is soon on a roll. He's telling us how Forli came to Claiborne after being confined to his stall for some time, recuperating from injury. This was before tranquillizers were available, so his father suggested they walk the horse three or four hours before turning him out.

Hancock mimics the reply made by the farm veterinarian, Colonel Sager, in his upstate New York accents: “Oh, Mr. Bull, he's like a hospital patient that's been in bed two months. He's not going to have any energy.”

“So Daddy said okay, and we took him out in the field,” Hancock recalls. “We lined the paddock, I was there in one of corners. Well, Forli took off, jumped a double fence, cleared the first, hit the second, flipped over. I jumped across into the other paddock and caught him. All he'd done was skin a stifle. And Daddy just said, 'Goddam, Colonel!'”

Another time Sager decided that he would solve a curious quirk in Nasrullah, who never wanted to be observed eating.

“As soon as you walked up to his stall, he'd just stop,” Hancock says. “Wouldn't eat, wouldn't chew, he'd just stand there like a statue. So the Colonel said, 'I'm going to break the old gentleman of that habit.' And he pulled a chair up right in front of the stall. Eventually he came back and said, 'I sat there for three hours and in all that time the old gentleman didn't move once. So I decided to let him enjoy his meal and left.'”

All too soon, it's time to go. The talk has been regularly interrupted by friends and admirers, several women planting a kiss on Copelan's pate. These are all remarkable men, of a vigor and sparkle that amply entitles them to outstay even Fred W. Hooper, who lived to 103. It was Hooper who sent Susan's Girl to Copelan after she broke down in California. He patched her up so well that she was able to return and win a championship at six, adding to those already won at three and four. Hooper expressed his gratitude by naming her son by Tri Jet for the man who had salvaged her. Copelan, the horse, won three Grade Is as a 2-year-old.

In terms of caliber, however, even that puts him behind his human namesake. At the end of lunch Copelan gives a flawless recital of High Flight, the extraordinary poem written by the Spitfire pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr., who was just 19 when killed in a mid-air collision in 1941:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of…

What amazing things we humans are capable of, at 19 or 97! It is the “surly bonds” of time itself that these gentlemen appear to have slipped. And if a younger person will always leave their company feeling younger still, that has absolutely nothing to do with a mere contrast in years. It's because these men remind us, whatever our age, to live to the full each new day that we're granted.

 

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