(first appeared in the May 2014 issue of The Equiery)
by Patrick Smithwick
Dickie. Tall. Broad-shouldered. That unforgettable face, more expressive with time. A fedora slapped down on his head, the brim cocked upwards. Stomach more pronounced than when he leaped out of planes into North Vietnam. That energy. The love of life, of horses. Of the quiet early morning. That love of the racetrack.
Richard Watters Small loved life. Every moment, a celebration of astonishment or laughter.
Sending an email with a chuckle from his kitchen table at 3:15 a.m.
Leaning on the outside rail just up from the winner’s circle, stopwatch in hand, punching in the fractions, timing–timing hopefully–the first three-eighths breeze of a new set of two-year-olds.
By the starting gate, joking with his gate crew buddies, stepping into the arena, locking hands with a 25-year-old. Not breaking the line of conversation. Effortlessly lifting the rump of a two-year-old colt, so that the colt found himself neatly stuffed into a stall.
You never felt more secure on a horse in or near the gate than when Dickie was there.
By 5:15 a.m., he’d finish transposing the chart of sets from his legal pad on to the white board by the tack room. The riders would study it while he’d walk up and down the shedrow, talking, checking with the grooms, asking the young girl rider eyeing the chart, “What do you think? Does it look all right?” This, in his mid-60s, acting as fresh and excited as if he had gotten his trainer’s license the day before.
Like his Hall of Fame Uncle Sidney, Dickie insisted on allowing his horses to lead as natural a life as possible–oats, hay, a skilled and caring groom, a rider that wouldn’t fool with them too much, a rider that would let them run. No clipping of coats. No blankets in the winter. No hay nets. Virtually no drugs. Only one vet, who was a close friend, was ever seen on the shedrow, and that was for conversational purposes. Dickie kept his horses happy, not forcing them to do anything unnatural or unnecessary, and allowing them to release their natural inclination to run, to sprint, to fly.
Dickie emulated his Uncle Sidney Watters, a natural horseman, brought up in northern Baltimore County on the farm, Dunmore–with time off to be a tail gunner in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Dickie ran his stable the same way [as Uncle Sidney]. The most organized, neat, clean, efficiently run stable in the country. (His house would have to be the same? Wrong. His house looked just like the crash pad of a couple of fraternity boys who had gotten their first jobs on the track and were finishing up a long summer.)
Mumbling Dick Small
As printed in the Centennial history of Gilman School: “Mumbling” Dick Small. That mumbling didn’t change much over the years. And neither did Dickie’s teenage, country-boy fondness for profanity.
Just get Dickie talking. Doesn’t matter about what. Standard martingales, spurs (“I’ll pull them right off a rider”). Anything that inhibits a horse’s free movement. “Gyps,”(backstretch lingo for penny-pinching horsemen who treat their horses poorly) or the New York Times–all laced with a stunning string of profanities.
The next minute, when a well-dressed, leggy female steps into the shedrow, there Dickie would be, speaking clearly. No profanities. And not just about horses. He would hold forth on whatever his latest passion might be.
But Dickie loved his old, countrified expressions and witticisms (few of which can be printed in this publication). One morning, I breezed an older horse half a mile in 48 and change, which is crawling in Dickie’s world. Jogging back afterwards, I eyed him on the rail, checking in with him.
“Snow fences,” he mumbled.
“What,” I asked, huffing and puffing, pulling up to a walk.
“He’s headed for the snow fences.” Got it. The horse is headed for the point-to-points. This was Dickie’s slightly disparaging way of referring to the world of steeplechasing.
Dickie knew and enjoyed the point-to-points. He might run a horse in a stakes race at Pimlico on the first weekend of April, but no matter what, he’d be in his truck by late afternoon, speeding north to the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point, where blood-red wire-and-stave snow fences lined the finish, to present the trophy to the winner of the Jane Watters Small Memorial for amateur riders, the race named in honor of his mother.
Horses of a Lifetime
Dickie’s leather satchel lies on the top of the picnic table, condition books spewing out of it. These pamphlets list the races at different tracks across the country. He doesn’t mind shipping far–Arkansas, Ohio, Illinois.
Back in the Broad Brush days, he and Charles Turner would load Broad Brush up around midnight and they’d drive through the night, arrive at a track three states away in the morning and blow away the competition that afternoon. From 1985 to 1987 Broad Brush went to the post 27 times at 15 different tracks. He won 15 of those, twelve of them stakes, earning two Maryland-bred horse of the year titles and over $2,500,000. He was third in both the Derby and the Preakness. Broad Brush’s son Concern won the Breeders Cup Classic. Before them both, Caesar’s Wish won the Black-Eyed Susan at home at Pimlico, then shipped to Belmont where she won the Mother Goose, broke Ruffian’s record, and became Dickie’s favorite. For 39 straight years, Dickie won a Maryland stakes race every single year, except one.
Dickie always had a purpose, a goal, something higher than his own career. Whether he was winning Grade I stakes and being written up as the wonder boy in his 30s and would arrive at the barn, muck out five stalls alongside his help, toss each mucksack onto his back as if it were a Gilman bookbag, and at the end of the morning, when the track closed, unload a tractor-trailer of hay, or whether in his 60s, when he was weakened by cancer and undergoing simultaneous treatment of megadoses of chemotherapy and ultra-strong radiation–no matter, he was at the barn living the life he loved, plotting his training strategies, cracking jokes, worrying about and planning what would happen to his loyal platoon of horsemen and horsewomen–grooms, hot walkers, riders–some of whom had worked with him for decades.
Late afternoon recently, I knocked on his open kitchen door. No answer. I walked in. “Anyone home?” Went up the stairs. He pushed himself up out of the bed and gave me a strong hug. He collapsed back in the bed. We chatted. Then, he mustered his forces and was up and out of the room and down the steps brewing up hot tea in the kitchen.
About his last visit to the doctor: “So, he checked me over, looked at my blood tests, told me I could leave. ‘Set up your next monthly appointment with the receptionist,’ he said. I stood up to walk out. He continued to study my chart. ‘Oh,’ he said, as I got to the door, ‘on second thought, don’t bother.’ ”
Dickie thought that was hilarious.
When Dickie analyzed his own illness that afternoon, he said it had to be Agent Orange that had taken away his health. “We were crawling through places that had been thick jungles and there wasn’t a leaf on a tree, crawling through the dirt, hiding in it, day after day,” he said. “No, I’m not going to make an issue of it. Some people have said why don’t I file a lawsuit. I don’t want to do that. It’d just make me bitter.”
A Glass Half Full
Dickie gave to the hundreds of apprentice riders and young horsemen whom he mentored. He gave to his family. He gave to the hard-working and talented Mexican men and women who became a part of his family. He gave his life to this country.
“He was a guy who always thought the glass was half full,” one might say.
If you knew him, you knew that was wrong. The glass was full, overflowing, brimming and bubbling over.
|Gone too soon….
Richard Watters “Dickie” Small of Baltimore died on April 4 at the age of 68 after battling cancer. Small was a prominent Maryland trainer and conditioned the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Concern as well as such racing greats as Caesar’s Wish (Maryland-bred Black-Eyed Susan and Mother Goose winner) and Broad Brush (Maryland’s all-time money winner at age four in 1987). Broad Brush finished third in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Concern, a son of Broad Brush, won $2.5 million in his 1994 season alone.
Small attended the Gilman School and played lacrosse at the University of Delaware. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a Green Beret.
He became a licensed trainer in 1974, and Equibase lists him as having 1,119 wins earning $38.9 million. He won 36 graded stakes and continued to be actively involved with Maryland racing right up to his death. He was featured in the March 2014 Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred for helping launch the careers of racing’s future generation including such female riders as Andrea Seefeldt, Jerilyn Brown, Rosie Napravnik and Forest Boyce.