With a stable of sixty head of horses spread over three barns the best way to catch up on the news was at feedtime in the night watchman's golf cart. Cathy Ross, one of "the Cuddy Girls" who came down to New Egypt with a group of Canadian A.M. "Mac" Cuddy's high-priced two-year-olds and Jersey native Keith Miller - who would rub 1980s two-year-old trotter of the year Smokin' Yankee - stop by the backside to get the latest.
Some of the nicknames stick for years, a white-haired gent is still called "Red" and a robust fellow is still called "Slim." Roger Pritchard was called "Shadow Roll" for his distinctive handlebar mustache as he'd brush it with a finger and add "don'tcha know" with a somewhat English accent. He'd campaigned World Champion trotter Su Mac Lad for six years who retired as the richest harness horse of all time in 1965 with earnings of $885,095... close to $8 million in 2022 monies.
When Albatross went on the road for Dancer as a three-year-old in 1971 he had two of his best: Joe Wideman (caretaker of Cardigan Bay) and Roger as his paddock helper and the night watchman.
The odd couple pairing was when Roger was with Chester and Bonefish when they went on the road and were in Syracuse. After helping Chester that morning Shadowroll had gone over to the food tent for some breakfast and discovered they were serving the ice-cold ones.
"I went with the true intentions of getting some ham and eggs but," he'd say with a shrug, "it was already about NINETY in the shade and there was a nice friendly crowd sittin' there who wanted to hear about Summie."
Chester had to do the afternoon chores stepping over a curled-up Roger asleep on the carpet in front of the stall. Mention the incident to Chester he'd growl and shake his head.
The next day Chester was all smiles when the Night Stalker didn't show up for work and his eyes lit up as he looked around for his missing "chum."
"Hey Bucky," he called out, "did that Night Stalker pull a Hank Snow last night?"
I turned and shrugged. "Hank Snow? Who's Hank Snow?”
"That old country and western singer," he answered gleefully. "He recorded the song I'm Movin' On a few years back."
Chester was whistlin' and chirpin' all morning long. When the word got out that the Night Stalker had left there was a mad dash to his half-empty tackroom to sift over the spoils of war. The next morning in the walk ring everyone was sporting a hat or a shirt or sneakers that had been left behind. I even saw Chester rummaging over the leftovers. He didn't say anything but he'd found a token that he stuck in his truck.
"Find something worth keeping, Chester?" I asked later in the day as he tore up the Night Stalker's best towel for a rub rag.
"Nah," he said with a disgusted look on his face. "They never really leave anything good.
One of the peculiarities of the business is how quick a nickname will be picked up. New help comes and goes and the only thing that remains is their nickname. The old timers never refer to them as anything but "winter help" but occasionally there'll be a nomen that tickles `em and they'll start calling them by that and never bother to learn what their real name is.. or was... or whatever.
There was a new gal that forever asking one old veteran an insufferable amount of questions because she "wanted to do things in the proper manner" who he quickly dubbed "The Queen."
"Bah," Old Chester would grunt, "she gives me a royal pain." He'd stand by his trunk and glance side-to-side, peering out from under the canopy on the lookout for her.
"Hey Bucky," he'd ask, "has the Queen been around today. Let me know if you see her cuz I ain't in no mood to play 'sixty questions' this morning."
Chester always called me ‘Bucky.’ “There's the Pride of New England himself: little Bucky Pye" in reference to my being from the northeast, home of the old master Alfred E. 'Bucky' Day. Bucky was the winner of over 2,500 races in his career when it was a seasonal sport and was the perennial leading driver at the racetracks he competed and he did it without shuffling back and forth by air, train, or car. He won with some of the most foul-gaited ill-tempered smelts you could imagine and, as Jim Morrill Sr. put it: "he was part horse."
"He's the best," I'd grin to egg Chester on.
"Hrumph," Chester would grumble, "yeah... @#% you and Bucky Day too."
Chester really just tolerated people. He'd been on the circuit for many years - was in the Cavalry during the service, worked for Hugh "Doc" Parshall, took care of a number of headline horses for Stanley - and had experienced a lot.
"I've seen ‘em come and seen ‘em go," he'd say. "All these ones are just passin' through. Y'know what I mean, Bucky? I've seen it before. Here today and gone tomorrow. Just like ships in the night."
Chester reveled in the activity that went on over in the backside of the barn.
"That's where the action's at," he'd say, "outta sight and outta mind. There's always something goin' on, more new faces and new romances than I can count.” He’d pause and eye a newbie passing by.
“That one’s a Hoosier for sure.” He’d nod at a couple from Ohio sitting on their trunk. “There’s a pair of Buckeyes if I ever saw two. Where's that short squatty kid hail from,” he asked, “the one with no neck?” He was forever called "No neck" after that.
This is an updated article originally published in TIMES: in harness in March of 1990
Now Carl got the nomen of "Captain Carl" one evening as we sat around the barn racing our two-year-olds from the comfort of the tops of the tack trunks over a few well-deserved refreshment beverages. Someone imitated his southern baritone drawl: "Now this is Captain Carl Smith coming to you live on WWVA from Lewisburg, West Virginia... brought to you by Old Gran'pappy, a fine sippin' liquor... and as the little boy said: 'suit yourself."
And Captain Carl would tilt his head to the side, raise his eyebrows, point his finger at you and agree "as the little boy said."
In his lighter moments he'd ask about "dear old New England" with a laugh. "How's things at Sufferin' Downs?" he'd chuckle referring to Suffolk Downs in East Boston that had raced harness in the '60s but now a shuttered Thoroughbred track. Chester hadn't been up north for a dozen years and when I brought an old magazine in with a picture of one of his charges on the cover as he set a track trotting record of 2:03h at the Downs he got a little misty.
"D'ya mind if I take a look at that when you're through?" he asked. I could see he still held a soft spot for "the little black horse" even after all the years: Speedy Play, a gelding foaled in 1962 by Speedster who took a mark of 2:01.1f as a five-year-old and banked over $366,000 in 8 years of racing. That would be close to $2 million today.
Being the night watchman for a big stable can keep you on your toes. You've got to make sure that none of the young ones get cast or cord themselves by tearing off their bandages or get hung up in the screens. In the hot weather the water buckets are always dry. A good caretaker will go back to the barn just to make sure his charges are all set for the night.
There was one guy who'd go back just to gab with the night watchwoman to bug her as she did her work and would forget about his colts. He'd be out there at all hours of the night so he earned himself the tag of "the Night Stalker" and of course he wouldn't be worth a quarter during the day. Ironically he trained in the same set as Chester and while Chester's colts would come out looking like a million bucks, the Night Stalker's charges would be a bit on the scruffy side. Naturally, as luck would have it, his colts would out trot Chester's every time. In fact, one of Chester's high-priced colts hadn't trotted a complete mile through March and the Night Stalker let everyone know it with a big smile. He pushed it too far when he left a pair of leather pacing hopples on Chester's trunk after a training session. Old Chester would have set a record for the hammer throw if he'd been in the Olympics as they sailed 100 feet through the air and landed halfway into the walking ring.
It got to the point that the Night Stalker got to busting everyone a bit too much and "Crazy Don" picked him up and dropped him on his head. That put a little sense in it as he quieted down after that and decided to head back to Maryland or Delaware or wherever he was from. He packed up a small suitcase in the middle of the night and caught the first bus home, his head wrapped up like he had a massive toothache.
When one of the winter help was continually late for his training set it became a daily ritual to watch him rush around trying to get ready.
"Dammit," grinned old Carl Smith as the kid darted around, "we're gonna have to throw a pair of speedy cut boots on him in case he starts to hit hisself."
He always was "Speedy" whenever anyone mentioned him.