Conditionin' a hoss is like tunin' a violin," said Pickles the groom as he teetered back in the wooden chair, his long toothpick legs draped over the sides, his hat pushed up on his head till the baldness showed. "You can see those big professionals tunin' their violins and it looks like a very easy thing the way they do it." Pickles paused and emitted the sound that he uses when he is groping for the judicious phrase. "Arraw, arraw," he said, "then you see a high school band tunin' up and it looks like there's such a crankin' and a grindin' goin' on. Now, our man here, he's like the concert violin player: no strain, but plenty goin' on underneath. And he'll never tell you what he's about. He'd like you to think that trainin' hosses is his own deep dark secret. My gawda-mighty, the Gimbels don't tell the—arraw, arraw—the Macys. But I'll tell you the truth—he hasn't got any special secret. He's just got supreme confidence in himself, and he runs things. I say he runs things!"
Pickles the groom (straight name: Francis Hertzfeld) was sitting in the little office of Greentree Stable's winter quarters in Aiken, S.C., and he was talking about John M. Gaver, Greentree's head trainer for 25 years and Pickles' boss for all of them. Pickles began telling how the two of them, the garrulous groom and the taciturn trainer, had got together in the first place. "I was known in the early days as a top hand but erratic as hell," he said, wobbling back and forth on the overmatched chair. "My father was a Jewish immigrant, a professor of ancient dead languages, and my mother was colored and a teacher, too, and you know what they say around the racetrack, that mongrels and crossbreds is the most dangerous animals in the world. I smoked reefers and I drank and everything else till La Guardia said reefers were against the law, and I wasn't gettin' enough kick out of 'em to go to jail. But I came to our man here"—Pickles usually refers to Trainer Gaver as "this man," "our man" or "my man"—"and he gave me work. Now, if you want a challenge, I don't care if you're a man or a racehoss, this man'll challenge you. If it's work you want, he'll give you work. So now I'm—arraw, arraw—obligated to him. He kep' me outa the tall weeds. And I believe in this man and what he is doin'. Tryin' to produce the classic hoss, the big 'cap winners, the hosses that can win those classic races. He's not interested in winnin' cheap claimin' races, and neither is Mr. Jock Whitney the owner. And I'll tell you sumpin' else." Pickles' voice fell to an ominous low. "If they didn't feel that way I'd just have to pick up my pay and walk outa here tomorrer."
Now Pickles had to perform his appointed rounds. He was serving a temporary tour of duty as night watchman at Greentree's winter quarters, though he normally works as a foreman, saddling up, mucking out stalls, rubbing horses and directing the other grooms. He picked up his watchman's clock and slid out the door of the office, a long, cadaverously skinny man of middle years and sallow complexion who lost one lung a year ago to cancer and part of the other lung decades ago to a young horse that caught him when he wasn't paying attention. "I haven't got much wind left," he said, "but I got a wife and two little children up in Delaware, and if I can squeeze five six seven more years out of myself, then they'll be outa the woods, you know? It'd be a rough deal, leavin' em right now."
Outside the warm office, Greentree's winter quarters was an unimposing sight: a huddle of low, grayish sheds, a large unpainted barn, a blacksmith's shop of unpainted cinder blocks with a sheet-metal roof, a walking ring around a centerpiece of stunted oak and weathered-wood fencing. On a clothesline the intimate garments of grooms and exercise boys flapped in the breeze, and some horse bandages dangled almost to the ground. A narrow sandy path led through the scrub pines and magnolias to a red-clay road that the horses have to cross to reach the deep Aiken training track for their morning workouts (or "worksout," as Pickles calls them in his relentless quest for the proper usage). Now the hand-controlled traffic light over the lonely clay road was dark, but in the morning a stablehand would diligently return to duty, snapping the light to red at the first sign of a horse and stopping what little traffic there is. "We don't want no $2,000 automobiles crashin' into no $200,000 horses," an exercise boy explained.
Pickles walked around punching his time clock and stumbling over cats. The names of two of them, Princeton and Tiger, attested to the academic background of Trainer Gaver, who took a B.S. at Princeton in 1924 and once taught at a fashionable boys' school. Three other cats, Susan B. Anthony, Bear and Toes, were snoozing, and Top Cat was plying his trade. For one week Top Cat had been on self-assigned guard duty at the entrance to the habitation of a mole, and he was at his post again, an overweight orange cat with a potbelly and a heart full of malice, at least toward moles. Momentarily missing from the scene was the trainer's 4-year-old basset hound, Yogi, who is sworn to kill every squirrel in the world, but who has not been able to connect yet and is training on a diet of cottage cheese. "Yes, sir," Pickles observed, "we got ourselves a crazy collection of wildlife around here, and the craziest is the hosses."
Greentree is one of the last of the privately owned "society" stables, where racehorses are more or less handcrafted. Trainer Gaver usually has a short string winter-racing in Florida and a shorter string in California and keeps the bulk of his Thoroughbreds in winter quarters at Aiken, where they are trained and retrained for the new racing season in New York and Maryland and, sometimes, points west. Many of the horses at Aiken were barely 2 years old and, since they had not even been named, bore their parents' names on brass tags. Pickles inspected a long shed row of them: Tom Fool/Tudor Princess, Cohoes/Douce France, Turn-to/Old Game, Traffic Judge/Downhill Only, Tom Fool/Red Fleet, Round Table/Rose Coral and others with illustrious forebears and no reputations of their own. Interspersed among the babies were three colts who had been made eligible for the Kentucky Derby and an ornery 4-year-old who would just as soon bite off your ear as look at you. "No, I'm not the least bit afraid of him," Pickles said. "You show 'em you're afraid of 'em and you might as well pick up yo' gear and git out. You're finished." Pickles has had his chest caved in and one leg broken by horses, but he does not aim to be finished for another five six seven years.
Well, I'll tell you how it started with me," said John M. Gaver, a relaxed man in his early 60s with clear-blue eyes and straggly white hair and a soft border-state accent that contrasts with his tweed coat and Brooks Brothers shirt and regimental ties and wide-waled cords. "My father was a country doctor in Maryland, and we had two driving horses. I used to spend all my time studying them, and I'd come in smelling of manure and talking like a stablehand. After Princeton I taught for a while, and then I worked for a bank and then for the Maryland Bloodstock Agency. One day when I was asked if I wanted a job with the Whitney stable I said, hell yes. Goodby Maryland Bloodstock Agency, goodby Baltimore, goodby Maryland!"
Yogi the basset waddled by, and Gaver called to him. "Yogi, c'm here! Now listen, I want to tell you something important. The sun's out and there's thousands of squirrels runnin' all over the front yard. Now I want you to go out and get yourself five squirrels." Gaver opened the door, repeated "Five!" and Yogi went off to the hunt. Gaver confided, "He never gets any, but they drive him crazy."
In a quarter of a century as Greentree's head trainer, John M. Gaver has won nearly every important race, including the Kentucky Derby (Shut Out, 1942), and he has trained the Horse of the Year twice (Capot, 1949, and Tom Fool, 1953). He has never had a Triple Crown winner, but he has brought off a more difficult feat: the Handicap Triple Crown (the Metropolitan, Brooklyn and Suburban), in which top horses go from race to race with varying amounts of lead hanging from their saddlebags. ( Tom Fool carried 130, 128 and 136 pounds in winning the Handicap Triple Crown in 1953.) Only two other horses, Whisk Broom II and Kelso, have won the Handicap Triple Crown, while eight horses have won the other Triple Crown: the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Last year Greentree's fortunes took a dip, but that is the game, and Gaver has high hopes for the colts now in his stable. In 1963 Greentree won $947,544, second only to Rex Ellsworth for national high. And even last year, when Gaver's horses took in a mere $371,801, Greentree won 47 out of 160 races for a batting average of .293, highest of any major stable and an interesting contrast to the record of Audley Farm (owner, James Edwards), which won 250 races but entered 1,721. Gaver plays to win, and he does not enter a horse in a race unless he has reached his peak of training fitness. "In the first place," says Gaver, with the independence of a man who works for the Whitneys, "I don't give a damn what they say about me. Greentree Stable and Mr. Widener's stable are the ones that sort of set the tone of American racing, whether their horses are any good or not. Training for Greentree, you're always a kind of sitting duck for others. A lot of 'em say I'm not enough of a good-time Charlie, because I don't talk a whole lot and I don't get around much. And, of course, they're always pointing out that I'm not a racetracker by birth.
"But I don't think I'm hard on horses. I know I have that reputation, and it's true that I'll work a horse when I think he needs to be worked to bring out the best that's in him. Jock Whitney and his sister [ Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson, co-owner of Greentree] want their horses to give everything they're capable of giving, without, of course, having some rider sit there and cut the blood out of 'em. Their mother, Mrs. Whitney, she wanted the same thing when I trained for her. I guess my own attitude came from old man Jimmy Rowe. He trained for Mrs. Whitney, and he just loved to pop a horse out of the box the first time and win with 'im. He won the Kentucky Derby with Regret [for Harry Payne Whitney] and that was her first start of the year. That's conditioning! And, of course, he had the reputation of being hard on horses. My own reputation may come from the fact that people know I was a worshiper of old man Rowe and his methods. I work 'em hard, but I give 'em plenty of time. You take Groton, our best 3-year-old. Before he breezes he'll have been galloping for two solid months here at Aiken, to get a good foundation under him. Seven days a week for two months, starting with a quarter-mile gallop and now up to a pair of one-mile gallops every morning. That's a lot of work, but he's been conditioned for it."