by Patrick Smithwick
Winner of a Life Well Spent
Thomas H. Voss
Family, horses, Atlanta Hall Farm, a fast car and piles of good history books – that was the formula. It was a hard-driving lifestyle and as Tom got older, instead of sloughing some of it off, he added on. The man liked to work. Yet, for a visitor, it would be difficult to differentiate the work from the play.
In the early winter, Tom would get up at 5:30 on a Saturday morning, say Christmas Eve, have a cup of instant coffee, head to the barn, stand in front of a chart of 35 horses hanging outside on the wall, and scratch his hieroglyphics for what each horse is doing that day and what set each is going out on, match the right horse with the right rider, some sets going to the indoor track – trot three, gallop four, then turn and gallop five the other way; some later in the morning going to the synthetic outdoor track – he’d be there in the pickup to look over each horse as the riders circled, and then give out the orders; six of the young hurdle horses are just starting in work; they need the long jog around the perimeter of the Elkridge-Harford timber course.
Sets of three or four are tacked up and head out. Then, it goes into fast mode. Tom starts the van. Backs it up to the wall. Grooms finish brushing off the hunters, painting their feet. An amateur timber rider gallops his fourth horse, yanks off his blue jeans, pulls on his britches and hunting boots alongside two giggling galloping girls who are changing into their foxhunting attire in the old pine-panelled tack room festooned with show ring ribbons from the ’40s and ’50s. Clean legged, trace clipped, strong backed horses are loaded up – star professional jockey drives the van to the joint meet. Horses are unloaded. Who are these horses? Welter Weight, Florida Law, Iron Fist, Sam Sullivan – who between the four of them, will go on to win the Grand National, the Maryland Hunt Cup, the Virginia Gold Cup, the My Lady’s Manor, and many other races. It is the execution of this regimen, never missing a day, that will get them to the winner’s circle.
They hunt for two hours. Tom hops off Florida Law, steps into the van, changes clothes, and rushes to Laurel Park, where another van has brought a flat horse. He runs the horse and drives back to Atlanta Hall, calling his owners on the way, preparing to send one flat horse up to Aqueduct to run on Tuesday and another down to Florida. At the farm, he meets the van from Laurel, unloads the horse, slaps a poultice on the front legs, throws on a blanket, feeds him a hot mash, gives him a pat on the neck, and rushes up to his and his wife Mimi’s annual Christmas Eve party to which they’ve invited most of My Lady’s Manor.
If ever a man lived by the theme of a poem written by Robert Frost, a poet Tom loved –
“…My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation…”
– it was Tom Voss.
If he’d been a tennis player, the sports writers would have noted, “Like Tilden, he played the whole court.” If he’d been a writer, the critics would have asserted, “He was a writer of the 19th Century European mold, seldom seen in America, working in all genres.”
Horses were Tom’s passion, but he did not have a narrow focus. He thrived training both steeplechase and flat horses. In the steeplechase world, where there is a division between timber horses and hurdle horses, Tom trained both. In short, Tom was a “horseman.” That was the plain, Anglo-Saxon term of which he was most proud. As a teenager, beginning his career, he liked that title the most. We were horsemen.
Becoming The Horseman
What does it mean to be a horseman?
“Why does Tom matter?” I was asked, and “What does he mean for the average horse person with little or no knowledge of hunting, racing or the Voss family?” First, we can learn from the education of Tom Voss.
How did Tom become a horseman? Did he take a course at college in horsemanship? No such courses being offered then. Anyway, Tom started far earlier than college age. Earlier than high school.
He began as a child going on cross-country rides with my mother, Suzie Smithwick. He’d be on Pepper. I’d be on Queenie. He was soon hunting Pepper under the tutelage of that tough taskmaster, Walter “Wassie” Ball, who ran the hunting stable of Tom’s grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. E. S. Voss. Wassie taught Tom everything he knew, the old proven ways, about horses and foxhunting, protected and frustrated him by doing too much hilltopping and not the running and jumping Tom wanted to do. The strait-laced Mrs. Dean (Louise) Bedford, founder and first president of the United States Pony Club, had her eye on Tom. She was all about, “That throat latch is too tight…. Your stock’s not tied right…. Sit up straight in the saddle,” at the meet. But oh Lord! When the hunt hit a lull, she’d take us out running and jumping, galloping through streams, clattering across roads, all the while teaching us about foxes, hounds, hawks, the way the breeze was blowing, why the ground would not hold a scent. Soon, Tom started acquiring a horse or two, another pony, “Itch,” and keeping them at his mother’s barn. Immediately, Virginia horseman Emmett Grayson, who had worked for Tom’s father, was living in the barn, rubbing the horses, and every single day bestowing his thirty years of racetrack knowledge upon Tom.
At 16, Tom started working in the mornings before school, on the weekends, over summers and vacations for my father, Hall of Famer A. P. “Paddy” Smithwick, who was launching his racing stable after recuperating from a devastating fall in a hurdle race. At 17, Tom was training his own timber horse, Suspendido, along with Wassie, and riding him in Maryland timber races. At 18, he toured Irish stud farms, galloped and schooled for the legendary trainer, Dan Moore, rode out with champion jockey Tommy Carberry. Tom worked for my father – on the farm in Maryland, at Pimlico, at Delaware Park, at Saratoga – galloping, schooling over timber and hurdles, mucking out stalls, driving the van, putting on bandages. He was reading the condition book, studying the Racing Form, entering horses at the racing secretary’s office. He did this until he was 20 and began running horses under his own name, and riding them as an amateur in timber and hurdle races.
There is a lesson here. In steeplechasing, young jockeys need to know what they are doing before they ride in a point-to-point. They need to pay their dues. I’ve been to countless point-to-points when I’ve seen Tom look at a horse and rider in the paddock, give me a glance, and we’ve both known that neither that horse nor that rider should be going to the post. Not only can they get hurt, they can hurt others.
The same goes for trainers. A trainer is responsible for the well-being of both his horse and rider. No short cuts can be taken. Either the horse and rider are ready to race, or they are not. How does a trainer learn this? How does a rider learn this? There’s only one way, through years of apprenticeship with the best.
That’s what Tom received and then gave. By the time he was in his forties, freshmen matriculated into Voss University throughout the year – young riders, young grooms, kids whose families had thrown them out – and a few seasons later graduated with a Voss Degree.
“I arrived in Maryland with $26,000 worth of credit card debt, didn’t have an idea of what I was going to do. I was talking to Tom one night and he said, ‘See you at the barn in the morning,’ one trainer told me after Tom’s funeral. “Tom gave me that break I needed.”
“I was just off the boat,” an Englishman related, “I’d gotten too big to ride races in England but I was still light enough to gallop. There I was – completely lost at Saratoga, walking around the Annex one morning. Tom asked what I was doing. I told him I didn’t have an… idea.”
“ ‘Get on the van going to Maryland at the end of the week,’ Tom said. ‘Mimi’ll find you a place to live. You’ll be galloping for me.’ ”
“Tom saved my life,” a middle-aged man from Concord, Massachusetts, who owns a successful paving and construction company, proclaimed. “I was 12 and going nowhere. My parents had just gone through a tough divorce. I was dropped off at Tom and Mimi’s house when Tom was training at Rockingham Park. Every morning, 5:30 sharp, I heard, ‘Boy, time to get up.’ We’d have coffee, drive to the track without saying a word. Tom would park, then ‘OK boy, get to work.’ I was mucking out stalls and walking hots. In the afternoons, I came back, hayed and fed, whirlpooled horses. I owe the success of my career to Tom; he taught me that with hard work, you can do anything.”
The list goes on. Irish jockeys, English jockeys – some riding races, others now training; some in the U.S.A., others back in the old country – regaled friends with stories of how Tom gave them their first shot and launched their careers.
What did these graduates learn at Voss University? They learned how to work hard and how to treat a horse. Tom’s horses, stabled most of the year at Atlanta Hall, live the good life. Fed at 4:30 a.m. Turned out in paddocks and porta-paddocks from 5:30 to 6:30 where they can roll and buck, loosen up, graze and stretch. The rides – nice long quarter mile walks out to the track or to the fields to gallop. Back, they’re washed and rubbed off, cooled out. Fed at 11:00. At 3:30, some are grazed. Fed at 4:00. Checked over at 10:00 and fed carrots and a scoop of grain.
What the Press Doesn’t Understand
This needs to be publicized! These newspaper reporters who’ve never settled a nervous horse by running their hands down his neck, never sat on a two-year-old in the starting gate, had the bell go off, and shot out of that gate faster than a rocket, who’ve never galloped full tilt into a four-foot timber fence alongside three other horses, never raised a foal from birth and brought that foal along until one day it was standing strong and victorious in a winner’s circle, these reporters who make grand negative generalizations, drawn from one highly publicized mishap, about how race horses are poorly treated, well, they need to tour Atlanta Hall Farm where Tom’s daughter Elizabeth, and son-in-law Gary Murray are now carrying on the tradition, sending horses with the Tom Voss imprint to the paddock. The young trainers need to see it, too. And what to do with the horses when they get older? The racing critics would have you believe the slaughterhouse truck immediately appears at the barn. Not so.
Over his career, Tom didn’t just win races; he also turned hundreds of middle-aged flat horses who had lost their speed (flat races being about a mile), but were now more sensible and actually had more stamina, into top hurdle horses (hurdle races being about two miles), and sometimes when these hurdle horses lost a bit of their finishing zip, he turned them into timber horses (timber races being three to four miles), who, upon becoming teenagers, lived the good life of full-time foxhunters.
When they got too old for this – out into the big field, “The Meadow,” as Tom called it, alluding to the painting, “The Elkridge Harford Hunt Crossing Atlanta Hall Meadow,” by Tom’s great uncle, Frank Voss, where the pensioners would gallop and run free for the rest of their lives, up into their late 20’s. Frank Voss finished this painting, with his brother Ned in the foreground, in 1942. Today, just out of the frame of the painting, is an old tree under which Cookie, a favorite hurdle horse Tom owned jointly with his godfather, Gary Winants, is buried. Gary’s ashes are also spread there. Art, racing, foxhunting, family history, environmental work (to prevent runoff, Tom and his brother Jack planted trees along the creek that leads into the meadow) all came together when Tom rode through The Meadow, or when he looked over this timeless and peaceful painting hanging in his living room.
Atlanta Hall Farm
Tom turned it into one of the best training facilities in the country. That was an advantage, and that was a weight on his shoulders, too. For a few years, he had a farm manager. He graduated. Tom didn’t replace him. Then, he had the talented and devoted assistant trainer, Todd Wyatt. Todd graduated and Tom didn’t replace him.
No matter: in the middle of January, on a late afternoon before a blizzard was about to hit, there Tom would be, grease all over his hands, under a tractor, hooking up a plow. Early July, on a sultry Sunday afternoon, Tom would be up on another tractor, watering and harrowing the indoor track.
One year, part of the indoor collapses. Another year, a section of the outdoor track washes out. The barn needs a new roof. The fields need mowing. The alfalfa field has to be harvested. It was never ending. Owning your own training center has its plusses and its minuses. It was just too much sometimes! I used to tell him so. But then I’d remember the sign on his office desk, the office Mimi had designed and made for him in the old blacksmith’s shop, out away from everyone, which he never used. It said: “No crybabies.”
At The Track
Tom could treat every horse like a champion on Atlanta Hall Farm, but could he do it at the track? Yes. At Saratoga, he’d take sets out, as Europeans do, on relaxing hacks through Oklahoma, over to the racecourse, and around the paddock. Afternoons, he’d be back at the barn, grazing horses, turning them out in the paddocks. After dinner, at 10:00, he’d stop by the barn, offer each horse a carrot and a scoop of feed, give the horse a pat, talk to him, look him over, make sure everything was all right – the hay net was hung properly, the water bucket was full, the fan in front of the stall was set up just right, the horse was cool.
The flat tracks can learn something from steeplechasing – and from Tom. Trainers with a background in steeplechasing, Tom being a prime example, are well-rounded horsemen and make excellent flat trainers. Look at Hall of Famer Scotty Schulhoffer, trainer of Lemon Drop Kid. Who trained Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew? Billy Turner. My father Paddy and my Uncle Mikey both trained flat stakes winners. Jonathan Sheppard: the gambling man sees his name in the program at Saratoga, he rushes to the betting booth and puts down his money. Jimmy Murphy trained stakes winners for years in Maryland. Leo O’Brien is a top trainer in New York. All these trainers started off in steeplechasing.
That is a trait of Tom’s that J.B. Secor stressed in his eulogy at St. James Church. Loyalty to his riders. J.B. spoke of Jean-Luc Samyn, a turf specialist who rode John’s Call. After winning the Sword Dancer Invitational at Saratoga in 2000, and then winning the Turf Classic Invitational Stakes at Belmont, Tom was approached by one jock’s agent after another, and urged by kibitzers, to switch to a Hall of Fame jockey for the Breeders Cup. He stayed with Jean-Luc and Jean-Luc rode him brilliantly that day, finishing third.
Bravery, Grace Under Pressure and Stoicism
These are traits Turney McKnight stressed in his eulogy, reading a military report on an ancestor of Tom’s who fought with distinction in the Civil War. By the time Tom reached his 60s, his body “hurt all over,” he told me, the only time I ever heard him allude to his ailments. Foot problems? Right foot would no longer fit in his riding boot? Simple, cut out a section and go hunting all day with four square inches of your foot exposed to the sleet and snow. Running horses at a point-to-point in Maryland, a sanctioned hunt meet in Tennessee, and a turf race at Belmont Park all on the same day in the spring? You’d better have inherited some military leadership genes in order to plan, coordinate, and order the movements of your troops. And on this day, what might be the most enjoyable moment? Holding granddaughter Genevieve in your arms and teaching her how to watch a race.
The racetrack is not known for being conducive to a healthy family life. When Tom grew up, steeplechase outfits were on the move: stabled at Delaware Park late spring and June, Monmouth Park in July, Saratoga in August, Belmont in the fall. Trainers didn’t have a chance to watch their sons’ football games, their daughters’ soccer matches. Wives were separated from their husbands.
Tom chose to batten down the hatches at Atlanta Hall and to ship. This way, he often had to leave, but usually only for a day or two at a time. He’d be back on the farm with his wife Mimi as soon as possible, his son and daughter, his grandchildren, his mother, his friends, his owners all stopping by to see him. Tom is an unusual example of the horse racing life, of a training career – he lived in the exact center of his racing facility – leading to a fulfilling family life.
Tom’s daughter Elizabeth has been learning the art of foxhunting from her dad since she was a little girl, and has been steeped in Tom’s methods of training since she first galloped for him as a teenager. Elizabeth is married to Gary Murray who works both at the Voss stable and as a bloodstock agent. For decades, Mimi has been breeding her own string of horses and raising them on the farm, most of whom Tom sent to the winner’s circle.
Master of Foxhounds
He loved foxhunting, used it to train his timber horses and was devoted to carrying on the family tradition. His grandfather, E. S. “Ned” Voss, was Joint Master of the EHHC for 31 years, Tom for 21.
The movie “Titanic”, based on A Night to Remember by Walter Lord, comes out. We watch the movie together, with our sons (his son my godson, my son his godson). Later, we meet Walter over lunch. Tom quietly, respectfully, asks questions about the Titantic, has his paperback copy signed by the renowned historian in his 80s, and asks about Walter’s book, The Fremantle Diary, A Journal of the Confederacy. A few years later, Tom’s son Sam galvanizes family members by researching the role of the Voss’s in the Civil War, visiting historic sites.
The night of my 40th birthday, Tom gives me a box of pencils, stands and recites a verse from Kipling’s “Gunga Din,” which ends, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” Last winter, he’s seated at the counter in our kitchen. I mention I’m teaching some Robert Frost. Tom takes a puff of his cigarette, a sip of his Coors Light, and recites, flawlessly, all four verses of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” A show stopper – the wives were impressed.
Tom was generous. On a local level, where did Baltimore County trainers go in February when the ground was frozen? Oh Lord, Uncle Mikey would bring a van load of horses. J.B. would have a set. Others would arrive. And there we’d be on Tom’s horses – all in the indoor track. Close quarters! Fingers and feet frozen, we’d be galloping Tom’s horses one direction, and on the outside wall would be Mikey’s jogging. The big door would open and close. Gusts of frigid wind would burst in. Horses would skip and shy away from it into other horses. Around and around, with Tom by the door, watching every move.
Three months later, March – here’s a van of horses needing to school over Tom’s hurdles. Four months later, the goings hard as a brick: where to go? Tom’s all-weather track.
In the same light, Tom supported the small point-to-points, sending young jumpers to them for experience and giving small meets a little prestige when his yellow van with the black horizontal stripe authoritatively rolled in and four perfectly turned out horses stepped down off the ramp. He worked night and day every spring to make the Elkridge-Harford Point-to-Point, held since the 1940s on Atlanta Hall, one of the best run meets in the country, with its winners going on to win the Maryland Hunt Cup.
Saratoga & Pop’s Race
The Voss family loves Saratoga, and while there Tom fully supported steeplechasing, running at least one horse in every steeplechase race, winning a high percentage of them, and also winning flat races. Part of his afternoon routine was going to the backside, where he could be quiet and alone, and watch the flat races, analyzing the performances of horses he liked. At the end of the meet, he’d pick up a couple of good hurdle or turf prospects. Tom thrived in the heady atmosphere of the big time, riding the retired John’s Call through Horse Haven with his sets, trading jokes, stories and training tips with the best horsemen in the country.
Every summer, Tom and I would gear up to win the A. P. Smithwick Memorial, a Grade I $100,000 hurdle race held at Saratoga. We’d go through the whole experience together: he’d have me fully involved. I schooled and blew out Cookie before he won the A. P. Smithwick when it was held at Belmont in the early ’80s. I schooled and galloped Mickey Free, Brigade of Guards, and Anofferyoucan’t Refuse – all winners of the A. P Smithwick. We did it together. He knew I loved this. We were on a mission to win, as I call it, “Pop’s Race.” A few years, Tom didn’t have a horse that was a natural fit for the race. No matter, late spring he’d pick out one or two with the race in mind, train them for it, and when the time came, they finished in the money. That’s loyalty, giving, family, sportsmanship, friendship and incredible skill as a horseman all wrapped in one package. That’s Tom, and there’s so much more.
Tom, you not only finished in the money, you finished the winner of a life well spent. You met every goal you set, and then, you didn’t relax – you raised the bar. We can all learn from the example you have given of a life lived with vigor, passion, forgiveness, and a great sense of humor.
Ride on, horseman and friend of a lifetime – ride on!
by Crystal Brumme Kimball
It was early on the morning of Wednesday, January 22, and I was typing the minutes of the annual meeting of the Maryland Steeplechase Association. Board member Tom Voss had proposed a new race series to encourage and mentor amateur riders. In reading my notes, I could hear Tom’s gruff voice as he explained that he was adding an amateur flat to his meet, why he was adding an amateur flat, and what he thought the MSA should do as a whole. As I struggled to meld his spoken words and distinctive voice to the flat confines of digital paper, the email from my fellow MSA board member arrived:
It is with a deep sense of sorrow and shock that we share the sad news that Tom Voss, EHHC Joint Master for 21 years, passed away suddenly last night. No further information is available. Please keep Jen, Mimi, Elizabeth and Sam in your thoughts and prayers.
What? How can that be? He is sitting here beside me, talking to me, helping me to type out his vision for our spring races! It can’t be!
* * * *
Tom did not always make it to the MSA Board meetings, but even when physically absent, he loomed large over the proceedings. Although formally known as “The Elkridge-Harford Hunt Point-to-Point Races,” we casually referred to them as the “Voss Races.” The races are held at the Voss family’s famed Atlanta Hall farm, and of course they will be filled by horses in training with Voss. Each year, Tom would modify the conditions for his races to reflect his current stable, and the rest of us would happily follow suit, as in so doing it generally meant that our race cards would likewise fill with Voss horses.
I have served as secretary for the Maryland Steeplechase Association since 1996, but it was not until the death of Jonathan Kiser in 2000 that Tom really engaged with the organization. Jonathan was one of Tom’s protégés and a particular favorite of Tom’s. Discussing the proposed idea of a Jonathan Kiser Memorial Endowment Fund was probably my first real conversation with Tom. I wanted to see if he would be willing to allow a selected young rider to live at Atlanta Hall each summer and train with him (and do barn work for him). Although “working student” programs were common in other areas of the horse world, they were not that common in steeplechasing. I had to explain several times that he would not be expected to pay the young rider, that the young rider would be benefiting from the experience of working for him and riding for him. That this experience would be called the Kiser Scholarship. He was skeptical, not certain that anyone would consider working for him to be a benefit, but his affection for Jonathan won the day and he agreed to try it. For one summer. And then another summer. And then another – and now, fourteen years later, there are over a dozen “Kiser Kids” who had the unforgettable experience of living and training with Tom Voss for one week during a summer of their youth – and they will always be a part of Maryland steeplechasing, in some way, for the rest of their lives.
* * * *
Tom…we did it. We got the amateur flat race series going for this spring. In addition to your Voss races, Green Spring, Howard County and Potomac will each offer an amateur jockey flat race. But we are not using the name you suggested, “The Corinthian Series.” The word “Corinthian” is an adjective meaning “involving or displaying the highest standards of sportsmanship.” Well, so does the title we chose for the series: “The Tom Voss Flat Race Series.” You’ll probably hate that, but we think it is appropriate!
Developing amateur riders is critical to the future of the sport, not just for ensuring a pool of future jockeys (although that is important), but also for developing future trainers, owners, spectators and sponsors. For the last 15 years, the MSA has recognized the overall leading amateur rider of the year. This year, the overall leading amateur rider will be the first recipient of the inaugural Thomas H. Voss Memorial Perpetual Trophy.
Meanwhile, the show must go on. Back at Atlanta Hall, Sam Voss and Elizabeth Voss Murray will take up the reins of their father’s race, co-chairing the 2014 Elkridge-Harford Hunt Point-to-Point, and Jack Fisher will host this year’s “Kiser Kid.” As we put this issue to bed, we receive news that the Board of Governors of the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club has unanimously elected Elizabeth to fill her father’s unexpired term as Master of the Foxhounds. Elizabeth is the fifth generation of the Voss family to hunt with EHHC, and her service means that the family’s 52 year legacy of a Voss member serving as Master will continue.
Tom…with your children chairing your race, your daughter picking up your whip, the perpetuation of the Jonathan Kiser Memorial Endowment Fund and Scholarship, the creation of your amateur flat race series, and the establishment of the perpetual trophy in your name for leading overall amateur rider of the year, you will continue to loom large in Maryland steeplechasing for generations to come.
Crystal Brumme Kimball was the founder and publisher of The Equiery and the secretary of the Maryland Steeplechase Association.
Dear Partner, Brother, Cousin, Friend
January 22, 2014
You are here with me. You will always be here with me. Not a day has gone by in my life when I have not thought: ha – wouldn’t Tom get a kick out of this! I could be teaching a class or feeding the horses and I think of you. Now, I still think of you – here, now, your presence.
I’m so glad I gave you the big kiss on your whiskery cheek and said “I love you” that last moment of our time together. I am thankful for that. I’ll always remember that moment. You accepted it. Seated at the counter in the kitchen, you just kept staring straight ahead – with that gleam in your eye, Mimi across from you.
In many ways, we know each other quietly – even telepathically. For years you smoked Pop’s cigarette – Pall Malls, and every morning, you and I crumple up a red or blue bandana and stick it in our in our right back pocket. I saw the simple things: the way only you drive into our entrance, swing right close to the corn crib, spin the wheel left, and turn the car perfectly, fluidly, 360 degrees, bringing it to a stop. Where? You know I know: you execute the turn as Pop used to do, and you park in the exact spot where Pop always parked his car. Ready to go.
I can feel your spirit, strongly. You are strong. You command the attention of the room, and then walk through without saying a word. You and I both had our ambitions stoked, forged, in the stable of my father where we received the same training, and lived by emulating the same principles. I went off to write; you stayed and polished and perfected your knowledge of the Thoroughbred horse, and met with plenty of defeats and deaths and losses, and you kept going. You understood and supported my ambition.
Years later, it was April, your busiest time of year, and I was in the running for a book award. I was one of three finalists – the winner of the purse, much improved since that last one, to be announced in Kentucky in just a few days. We were at your house after the Elkridge-Harford races – at your party which you failed to attend. As we were preparing to leave, I walked into the kitchen and there you were, just back from the barn, dirty and scruffy, having finally concluded a long day of overseeing the entire point-to-point, starting each race, and winning half the races with your own horses. I hadn’t had a real conversation with you for a couple of weeks.
“Hey, when’re you going down?” you asked, eyeballing me.
“Our flight’s Tuesday night…”
“Mine’s early Wednesday morning,” you said, looking away, your voice trailing into a whisper.
That’s what I love about you.
It feels as if a physical, palpable chunk of me is gone. Part of me, those early wild years, the riding years, sharing my father, sharing the striving, the sacrifices we made for our passions. The skiing, the galloping head and head on our ponies, on Pop’s horses, the reducing in hot cars, the canoeing. Your saving me when I was getting crushed by the canoe in the rapids.
You like that story. Canoeing down Deer Creek in a hurricane – we capsized. I was drowning. You saved me.
The jumping. You were born jumping. When we skied, you jumped every mogul. When we rode Pepper and Queenie together, you sought out every chicken coop we could handle. When we skated, you had to put lines of buckets on the ice to jump. And when we started driving: oh boy – those drives to and from the Merrymans and the Fenwicks, where all the pretty girls were, we were racing and we were jumping my Corvair, getting a foot of air over the bump on Cold Bottom Road.
Coming home with Tiger driving one night, Bobby Burke’s big- engined car stood off too far at a bridge. We went through a tree and landed in a stream. It looked like our time was up, but this time I saved you.
You might have been a little too brave, too tough, too stoic – that injury this fall. You told me about the light-headedness, the falling down, the not telling anyone, the putting off going to the doctor. And then, on your last day with us when you felt sick and weak, you had to go out and work, plowing the entrance in the artic chill. That was your way.
Those last days, you seemed so relaxed and pleasant and at peace. Happy with your family all around you. Even in death – I know that body on the bed this morning was not you.
This is you, this spirit I feel in the air. The power, force shimmering here, now, this love of animals and family and the out-of-doors, of steeplechasing and schooling young horses and giving them a pat on the neck after they’ve gone well, this going to the races, going there on a mission, willing the horse to win – like you did that afternoon after taking the gamble of a lifetime – you and Douglas putting up a quarter of a million to run John’s Call, soon to be a ten-year-old, on Breeder’s Cup Day against the fastest turf horses on the globe. John blazed down the backside at Churchill Downs with the leaders, and you and I were on the rail, by the wire, watching. I was standing behind you and John was flying – my body felt on fire, John, old John, how could he hold this speed, how could he keep it going? Around the last turn, he was pinned in along the hedge. Then we were both jumping up and down as Jean-Luc pulled him out wide at the head of the stretch and he was head-and-head with the other two. You were calling out “Come on John! Come on John!” and then Irish superstar Johnny Murtaugh on Kalanisi flew up on the outside. The four of them came battling down the stretch, Kalanisi winning, John third, beaten by a neck for $2 million, having lost his shoe!
Those feet of his! You had to deal with those platter plates. If John hadn’t blown that shoe off at the quarter pole, he would have won by a neck. He had the same guts and heart and drive as you.
What a laughably terrible dinner we had that night, but it was fun with your mother, wife and children all there.
Food and drink always tasted better with you: how about the kidney pies after hunting. Well, first the port in the tack room – then the kidney pies. We’d be in our boots, laughing, warming up, the sweat and dirt still on our faces, your face with a bad scratch or two, Mimi on the other side of the kitchen counter, serving up the port and pie and laughing with us.
I’m glad we got in the hunting together on Welterweight and Florida Law. Ha – how I loved rolling along, letting’em tippytoe, and jumping that big coop on the racecourse head-and-head with you. How I enjoyed going to the meet, the hunt itself, and then, best of all, when you and I drove home together, sitting up in the cab, just the two of us…
It was harder to accomplish that as we got older – the just-the-two-of-us. First of all, you became more and more enamored with Mimi! Secondly, the kids came around, and then when you became a grandfather – well, it was impossible to extract you from Atlanta Hall! I’d have to stop by and talk to you between visits from a caravan of relatives and friends and workers – not to mention your constantly ringing cell phone – calls from grooms, jockeys, agents, owners. And the sycophants! How you savored that word for years. “Sycophants!” you’d say, after that one night 25 years ago we had it out with one another. No blows exchanged. But that night I remembered the force of your body punches as a teenager.
* * *
The sun is setting over the Griswold’s hill where I saw you hunting a few weeks ago.
“I’ve been hunting three times a week,” you proclaimed the other night, and scowled at me. I’d been missing from the field and I caught your message. Then you admitted, “The last time my foot hurt so bad, I had to get off the horse in the middle of the hunt, call Gary and ask him to come pick me up.”
* * *
The papers, the press, your thousands of followers – Tom, you are having quite the write-ups.
Still, so many people misunderstand you, but you don’t care. You don’t like small talk, and you tend to put your head down, light a cigarette and walk the other way at the sign of a phony approaching – Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye being a favorite of yours. At work, you work. “It’s in the details,” you’ve told me. “Pay attention,” you say to your riders and grooms. You push all else aside and focus on each individual horse. No gladhanding, no chitchatting, no distractions.
In Orlando the night of my rehearsal dinner – you were the best man in my wedding the next day. We – you and my ushers – had been thrown out of a nightclub across the street from the police station. I was being held by two bouncers, worked over by another. Then this huge undercover cop was strangling me; I broke free and he was coming for me. Suddenly, there you were.
“Listen you big …, you touch my friend again and I’ll kill you.” That night, and any other night, or morning, or moment, I always knew, no matter what the odds, what the circumstance, you’d be there.
You’re not afraid of anything: except snakes, sharks, heights, Mrs. Bedford, and Mimi when angry. And yet you relish experiencing fear and tension, vicariously. I got your text the other frigid, snowy day when school was closed: “‘Vertigo’ on at 2:00.” I remember that late night as kids we watched it in Ned’s room .
You have a sensitive side – a love of children, of sculpture and painting, of well-written novels, of books on American history, of classic movies – especially Hitchcock. In life, you did have to toughen up. First, your father Edie’s death that morning we were having breakfast in your house, then your brother Ned’s, my father’s, your brother Jack’s, our godfather Gary’s, my mother’s, Uncle Mikey’s. Jonathon Kiser – most nervy and athletically gifted rider you’ve ever had, dies of a freak head injury. Bob Witham – dies from a fall from a horse, not unlike ones we’ve all had. We got through them together. Suspendido – you retire him from racing. He’s living the life of a stallion – hit by lightening. Florida Law – retires, hit by lightning.
Remember when we were ten, before any of this happened, and we were shooting sparrows with our BB guns? You hit one. You picked it up, cupped it in your hands, and I saw a tear. We buried the sparrow, right there, outside our back porch.
* * *
This letter is winding down.
* * *
A quote comes to mind: “Man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
In your case, Tom, we can top that. Our last night together, Jimmy and I brought up the time a horse kicked you in the jaw eight years ago. You attempted to carry on, directing your astonished riders to jog down to the “finish line fence,” walk along the fence, turn, and school head-and-head over the first two hurdles, and then, “Each man for himself!”
You thought about it, lying on the sofa in your living room, your foot raised as the doctors told you to do. You grinned and swung your feet to the floor. You stood up. “But I didn’t go down,” you said, and laughed, “I didn’t go down.”
Tom, you will never go down. You can be kicked in the head, spurting blood, spitting teeth, but you will never go down. You will always be here for me, and for Sam, Elizabeth, Genevieve, Thomas and Jen, for this countryside you and Jack worked to preserve, for the Hunt and the keeping of its traditions, for steeplechasing and the racing you loved, and most of all for Mimi who will always have that passionate, youthful love you had for her, and gave her, until your last moment.
Given as a eulogy on January 27, 2014, at St. James Church, Monkton. Photo 1: Patrick (aboard a new schooling paint pony) and Tom (riding Patrick’s pony Queenie) as children. Photo 2: Tom and Patrick before the 2001 Maryland Hunt Cup in which Patrick rode Welter Weight to finish second to Solo Lord.