By Dan Ross
Officially born into horse racing as a 5-year-old match race jockey in Louisiana with feet tethered to the stirrups, Glynn “Tee Red” Bernis passed away Nov. 8 at the age of 75 having led the picaresque life once free of the stirrup ties of a leading apprentice jockey, Kentucky Derby competing trainer, jock's agent, raconteur and bon vivant.
“He was every Cajun stereotype you had. He was hot-tempered. He was passionate. He was hard working. He was loyal to the end of the earth and to a fault, and would do anything for anybody,” said Ran Leonard, who owned Cres Ran Farm in Crescent, just outside of Oklahoma City, which Bernis managed for several years.
His passing closes another window onto a history of racing decorated with the trophies and bruises of cutthroat gambles, family rivalries, tall tales and small mercies.
Bernis's formative schooling wasn't one of chalk and blackboard, but of the high-stakes drama kind seared through the southern match race circuit, amid the scrubs of Cajun Downs, Carencro and Broussard's Bar and Racetrack, where cannon shot Quarter Horses competed for tens of thousands of dollars a pop.
At the venerable age of six, Bernis was thrown aboard the lightning fast chestnut mare, Miss Pine, who would eventually bow out with an unimpeachable 32-for-32 win record.
Miss Pine was so fast and so prolific, when she beat another champion Quarter Horse, Shoefly Baby, in a match race in Mississippi, she crossed the wire and was loaded straight into the trailer for a swift return to Louisiana–she had won her connections so much money that day, incensed locals chased behind with pitchforks and torches and holes in their pockets.
Miss Pine was so fast and so prolific, she could outrun a rival weighted down with a rock-filled can. “There's a Cajun saying, 'You ride what you want, I'll ride who I want,'” Bernis explained, back in 2011. “They don't say anything about a live jockey.”
Miss Pine was ridden that day by Bernis's brother, Kenward. The two constituted the Cain and Abel of Cajun match racing, their blood ties having ripened into a fierce rivalry on the track, even after they had both graduated to the professional ranks.
In an old Sports Illustrated article called “The Men They Call Boys,” Bernis described a brawl between the two while locked in a blood-curdling neck-to-neck battle down the stretch. “Ken,” Bernis told Sports Illustrated, “is mad as hell at me because I'm winning.”
Bernis stood out for three reasons. A lid of red hair. Satellite dish ears. And hard to deny smarts in the saddle. Indeed, Bernis wasn't just beating Kenward in those days. He handed a licking to most who crossed his path–though professional rather than personal.
In his first season with a license, back in 1964, he was the leading apprentice in the nation by number of wins.
His success caught the eye of Marion Van Berg–father to record-setting trainer Jack Van Berg–who was later inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“Tee Red was at Miles Park. Marion Van Berg was the king in Detroit. He kept looking at the charts in the Racing Form and asking people, 'who is this Bernis kid winning five, six a day? I want him to ride my horses,'” remembered former jockey, Melvin Holland, who credits Bernis for launching his own career proper. “Of course, Tee Red went off riding for him for a bit.”
Half of his name came from the French word for small–petit, shortened to Tee. Turned out to be something of a misnomer.
“He would be riding at 111 pounds or something like that, Friday and Saturday or whatever. And on the dark days, Sunday and Monday, he'd blow up to 130 pounds. He'd have to hop into the hot box, take Lasix and everything to reduce another 10, 20 pounds again,” said former trainer, Greg Burchell. “One thing about Tee Red, he loved to eat.”
After just three years with a professional license, Bernis handed it back, along with all obligations for self-abnegation. “You never see an ex-jock who isn't hungry and thirsty,” said Holland.
That's when the jockey turned to training.
To begin with, Bernis maintained a claiming stable. Arkansas. Illinois. Louisiana. “He was the kind of guy, he just had the knack for spotting horses that had potential, but whoever had them before just wasn't getting it out of them,” said Holland, now a steward at Louisiana Downs.
“He was an excellent horseman,” Holland added. “He could take those old horses that back in the day you had to keep patched up. He knew the ones who needed to be trained and the ones who didn't. That takes some horsemanship.”
Still, once a jockey, always a jockey. “He hated for young riders, me in particular, to lose ground,” remembered Holland. “He always said, 'the shortest way home is on the fence.' His thing was, if he told me to not get off the fence, don't go wide, then if the horse got beat for that reason, he'd never say a word.”
The quality of horse in the Bernis stable stepped up a notch when the trainer joined forces with owner Glenn Bromagen, who raced under the Ashbrook Farm banner.
Bromagen's Tonka Wakhan–named after the titular horse in the 1958 film, Tonka, with Sal Mineo–took them all the way to the 1980 Kentucky Derby.
On the eve of the big race, Bernis explained to the Washington Post why he'd urged Bromagen to part with $27,000 at the yearling sales for the son of Big Spruce out of a mare he had once trained.
“I ran indexes and crosses and computers,” Bernis told the Post, “and I saw that this horse was bred to run all day long. I asked one of my owners to bid on him, and we took a shot.”
An outsider in the betting, Tonka Wakhan ran to his odds, finishing 10th. Though perhaps fate's twisted sense of humor played a part in keeping all things equal.
“He got badly bumped two strides out of the gate and that was that, he was done,” said Sandi Bromagen, wife of Glenn, who passed away last year.
Bromagen remembers a “great cook and a great friend.” A fierce competitor, too. “Tee Red was just such a character–a funny, funny character.”
At Arlington Park one day, he told famed rider, Ray Sibille, to “cluck” to his horse at the head of the stretch for an easy victory. As the field turned into the home straight, nothing happened, and though the horse belatedly got the memo, he lost by a whisker.
“Tee Red was furious,” said Bromagen. “He goes running up to Ray Sibille, 'what is wrong with you? All you had to do is cluck to him at the head of the stretch and this horse would win.'”
As Bromagen remembers it, Sibille, who had a stutter, replied, “'b-b-by the t-t-time I c-c-clucked it was t-t-too late.'”
In the 1990s, Bernis quit training for a spell, turned his hand to being a jockey's agent, only to retrieve his license once more at the turn of the millennium.
“He had a few horses for me that he trained in Iowa. Couple horses I sent to him. And it was reciprocated,” said trainer Jimmy DiVito, who credits Bernis with sending some Bromagen-owned horses his way, when he first started training in the 1970s. “He was a good guy and a good horseman. He'll be missed.”
Fellow Cajun and racing Hall of famer, Eddie Delahoussaye, got to know Bernis well when he trained for a spell in California.
“I remember when he first came there, he carried on training like the guys in the Midwest. I had been in California for quite a few years. I told him, 'Glynn you've got to train a little different. You cannot train these horses like the Midwest. You've got to train them over these tracks,'” remembers Delahoussaye.
“The first week or two, he tried his way. It didn't work. Finally, he said, 'you know, I think I'm going to try it your way.' And he started winning races,” Delahoussaye said. “He was a quick learner. He was a good horseman, I tell ya'.”
Like Bernis, Delahoussaye's instructive years in the saddle were on the Louisiana match racing circuit. Though it had evolved much–occupational health and safety wise, at the very least–by the time Delahoussaye broke onto the scene.
“Glynn said to me, 'I weighed about 60-some pounds, and you're riding an 1100-pound animal and you're trying to pull 'em up, and there's only maybe 400 yards to do it,'” Delahoussaye recalled.
“Sometimes they went through the fence. Sometimes they fell off. Sometimes they'd go through the woods and they'd have branches hitting them. That's how dangerous it was,” Delahoussaye said. “That had already changed when I came along.”
Bernis had been struggling with deteriorating health for a long while, brought on by diabetes, said Holland.
Every few weeks, Holland visited Bernis at a nursing home in Bossier City, Louisiana, where his old boss was tended by his former wife and his daughter, Jovaughn. Bernis also left behind a son, Frank, now an agent to jockey Brian Hernandez and formally an assistant to Tom Amoss.
“He got to where he couldn't see very well, but I have a kind of distinct voice–whether it's a good voice or a bad voice, it's kind of distinct. He always knew when I came in and said something to him. He would get all happy and say, 'oh great, let's go outside to the smoking area,” said Holland, whose visits were often punctuated with the smuggling in of contraband.
“The last time I'd seen him, I brought him a box of Marlboro Reds. We went outside and he smoked five of them, one after the other. Made his whole day,” said Holland. “The staff, they didn't like it too much. But boy, his eyes would light up when I'd see him.”
Added Holland, “We were fortunate enough, I think, at the time we came around and Tee Red was doing good, we were fortunate to be there when racing was really, really good. But those days are gone. They're gone and you move on. That's what you do.”