The Thoroughbred world suffered a great loss with the death of Richard Small this past weekend. Read Vinnie Perrone's award-winning story from the February 2009 Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred of this Maryland icon. He captured the man like no one else ever could:
The music plays. Trainer Dickie Small shambles from the Laurel Park paddock, his grin undone by a race track glance. This relates not to Richard’s Kid, the Robert E. Meyerhoff homebred he just dispatched, but to the hobgoblin hindering his path.“Hey,” Small says to the reporter. “Whaddya need?” The tone is warm, but the staccato cadence portends brief discourse.
The possibility of a magazine story arises. Small lifts his tweed racing cap, pushes a workman’s hand through silvery hair. “What?” he says with an awkward chuckle, squinting into the December grayness as if to somehow see the logic.
His stable these days is hardly newsworthy, he assures, gently recommending other subjects. Counterpoints nudge him barely, but enough to lure a follow-up some morning in his Laurel barn.
The day comes. At 9:30, Richard Watters Small whistles as he walks a fringe of shed-row dirt toward his oppressor waiting at the office door. “You’re gonna torture me,” the war vet says flatly.
The Room of the Unknown Soldier shows just one chair. Small enters his office, lifts without strain a jacket-covered heap of books and papers from a second seat, the hard plastic kind with no armrests. Again the message: This won’t take long.
He’s clutching a rolled-up New York Post, but at least he’s sitting. “So whaddya got,” he says, the question mark MIA.
The journalistic answers are clear but left unsaid.
Milestones. Forty years ago this month, momentous Viet-nam enlistment. Thirty years ago, the flame of Caesar’s Wish quenched too soon. Twenty years ago, Broad Brush’s quixotic move from racing sphinx to rising stallion.
Missions accomplished. Top of the class in officer candidate school. Freefalls through the blackest Vietnamese sky for a top-secret special forces unit of the Green Berets. Only Maryland trainer to snare the Breeders’ Cup Classic-G1. Stakes wins every year from 1974 to 2002. Three million-dollar earners.
Moxie. The events of 9/11 inciting a trip to a recruiting office at age 55 to give up training, reenlist and run an Army training company. The ability to remain viable after Meyerhoff relocated all his runners; the ability, without petition, to get them back.
Instead, Dickie Small hears the acknowledgment that reporters are professional meddlers as embraceable as cactus; any prickly questions hence may be ignored.
A moment of silence. Here and there, stablehands finish morning chores with knowing strokes. In the barn made tidy, a metaphor emerges: a reluctant outdoor spigot turns, and the words of Dickie Small begin to flow.
The real story, he says with vintage diffidence, the one unwritten, lies hidden in the giving soil of Monkton, Md., on the eastern reach of Baltimore County at the Harford line. For three centuries his ancestors, Pearces and Hutchinses mainly, had raised a lot of horses and a little hell, traditions enjoined early in the 1900s by rich Long Islanders seeking richer pastures. These arrivals numbered James R. Keene, a plunger given to fortunes made and squandered, and son Foxhall Keene, a sporting bon vivant known across seas for his athletic wizardry. Foxhall Keene based his Thoroughbred fleet near Lexington, Ky., but maintained a Monkton presence for nearly a decade, dubbing his estate with a dash of whimsy: Loafers Lodge.
More than a hundred years ago, Small says, the Keenes bought Domino, who begat a flimsy but dynastic sire line that descended through unbeaten champion Colin and eventually Broad Brush. There’s more: Broad Brush’s dam, Hay Patcher, was the daughter of flat-running hotshot Hoist the Flag, trained by Dickie’s dear late uncle, the versatile and accomplished horseman Sidney Watters Jr.
“There’s this narrow line of horses and narrow line of people, and they intersect,” Small says, the Post now a baton in his big hands. “The connection with Monkton, nobody’s ever put that together.”
Monkton. A far piece from the Ho Chi Minh trail, but the talking man has made that trip before. He knows the way.
For nearly three hours, and over four shorter sessions the next three weeks, Dickie Small serves giving portions, his pungent soliloquies spiced with revelations and reservations, with profundities and profanities, with hearty laughs and second thoughts.
“Just as long as the story’s not about me,” he says that first day. “Make it about the horses.”
The next afternoon, the Laurel press box receives a bulging envelope holding carefully folded Internet articles about the Domino line. The package, unmarked, evokes the work of Boo Radley.
Diversionary tactic or not, the Monkton angle soothes the angst and girds the tale. James R. Keene, a Wall Street speculator who’d made millions on mining stocks after the grains market busted him in 1884, attended a New York yearling sale with son Foxhall in 1892.
orses they knew: James, a co-founder of The Jockey Club and National Steeplechase Association, had won the 1879 Belmont Stakes with Spendthrift (and would win five more); Foxhall, a horseman of unrivaled stature by age 20, ranked as the nation’s preeminent polo player eight straight years and won an Olympic gold medal in the sport in 1900.
Within the Tattersalls sales ring that June day in 1892, James R. Keene thought little of a near-black yearling colt by Kentucky Derby runner-up Himyar, but a smitten Foxhall plucked Domino for $3,000 and finessed father into partnership.
Racing in James’s colors, Domino cut a vivid figure. Unbeaten in nine starts at 2, he won 19 of 25 in a three-year career and retired in 1895 with a get of $193,550, a North American mark that took Man o’ War to top it a quarter century later.
Standing at the Keenes’ Castleton Farm in Kentucky, Domino sired 19 named foals over two seasons, then died a healthy 6-year-old in an open paddock. Handlers reckoned the exuberant stallion reared once too many and way too high, an awkward spill breaking his spine.
Domino’s second crop brought Commando, who from 27 foals begat Belmont Stakes winner Peter Pan and unbeaten champion Colin. Another shy breeder, Colin managed 83 foals over 23 years; but the tenuous sire line included Neddie, a direct male forebear of 1971 horse of the year Ack Ack, Broad Brush’s father.
Until his death in January 1971, industrialist/diplomat/philanthropist Harry F. Guggen-heim of Cain Hoy Stable raced Ack Ack; the Battle Joined colt, trained by Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham, then had his breakthrough season for owner Buddy Fogelson, husband of actress Greer Garson. Guggenheim’s daughter, Mrs. Henry Obre, lived in Monkton at Andor Farm–the place once known as Loafers Lodge.
When Dickie was a kid, his horse-training father, Doug Small Sr., would inherit castoffs from legendary trainer Horatio Luro, then assisted by the middle-aged Whittingham.
“I’d known Charlie since I was a little boy–not well, but I knew him to speak to him,” Small says. “So when Broad Brush was running, Charlie was, of course, very interested in him because Ack Ack had been pretty much a failure as a stallion.”
They’d toast old times in a classic setting, the 1986 Ken-tucky Derby, Whittingham’s third (with Ferdinand), Small’s first (with Broad Brush). Ferdi-nand won, of course, with Bill Shoemaker’s needle-thread ride; Broad Brush finished third, three lengths back, after another touch of melodrama.
Dickie Small is rapt in the telling. The hard-trying, battle-tough, 63-year-old campaigner has turned himself loose, the conversational reins dangling.
If he were to write a book on Broad Brush, Small says, it would be a children’s book, an inspirational allegory on surmounting drab expectations through bold action and willing toil.
He thinks too many thought too little of Broad Brush as race horse or stallion, the gaudy facts diminished without cause. From 1985 through ’87, Broad Brush won 14 of 27 starts on 15 tracks, won 12 stakes (four Grade 1s), a then-Maryland-bred-record $2,656,793 and back-to-back Maryland-bred Horse of the Year titles. Sent to stud at Gainesway in Kentucky, the Meyerhoff homebred consistently ranked among North America’s leading stallions, and, in 1994, with a potent shove from Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Concern, became the world’s foremost stud by progeny prize winnings.
That’s the paper version, anyway. In reality, Small says, each day training Broad Brush was a raft-ride through the rapids: frenetic, perilous, thrilling, exhausting.
“They put a crazy horse with a crazy man,” Small says, meaning himself, “and the stars aligned.”
It might not have happened had the Meyerhoff brothers preserved their horse racing partnership, Sycamore Stable, in the mid-1970s. Robert, the building contractor, philanthropist and prolific art collector, wanted to cultivate a breeding enterprise; brother Harry liked buying yearlings. The dissolution gave Robert a chance to acquire Hay Patcher (by Hoist the Flag out of the *Turn-to mare Turn to Talent) and substantiated each brother’s vision: in 1977, Harry bought the yearling Spectacular Bid for $37,000; five years later, Robert sent Hay Patcher to Ack Ack and named the resultant colt, plain and brown but for one white sock, after a painting technique.
Small at times speaks his own chiaroscuros, sentences shading between faint whispers and unchecked laughter. At the moment, his tone bears mostly resignation.
“I hope you don’t make too big a deal out of all this.”
From Small’s family home, Strathmore Stud, south on Jarrettsville Pike to the close-by Phoenix foothills, Robert Meyerhoff’s 300-acre Fitzhugh Farm commands a valley to the east. “I pretty much lived next to Mr. Meyerhoff,” Small says, “and never knew who he was.”
That changed in 1984, when Meyerhoff went looking for a trainer to replace newly deceased Tommy Field. He summoned Small, who brought along friend and exercise rider Ann Wolff.
“It’s kind of a long story,” Small says, a favored preface. “Mr. Meyerhoff said he had 30 yearlings. Would I take 10 [soon-to-be] 2-year-olds? So I said okay. I had to come out to the farm and look at ’em, and see if they go well enough to bring ’em to the track. So I put ’em in a ring?–?like, in a little round pen, on a rope. Anyway, they bring all the horses out, and Ann wrote down these comments I make about the horses. Then they bring one out, this big, gawky thing. And I said, ‘This is the one.’”
“And right before she died, she started writing a book, and this is, like, the beginning of the book. I’ve got it at the house.”
He draws a handkerchief from the left pocket of beige jeans and dabs his eyes.
Historically, this could bring a pause, a break, an abrupt end to the monologue. Not today. Not two weeks later in a parking lot at Laurel Park. Here, Small reaches into his gray Toyota pickup, a stopwatch and an array of colorful, unknotted bow ties strung around the rearview mirror, and produces two scrapbooks. One bears Wolff’s black-inked, print-and-cursive chronicles of that prophetic day at Fitzhugh; specifically, of the third horse to enter the enclosure.
A plain brown wrapper, not much to look at, ears just a tick too long, with neck not quite set right. He takes a casual spin about the pen, eyeing the man at the other end of the line. “The other direction” the man requests. The colt leisurely turns around.
The tall quiet man says “that’s the one” pointing with a crooked finger at the inquisitive colt. He spits, “that’s the one.”
Crooked finger? Small holds out two massive, steady hands; it’s hard to tell exactly which finger was referenced. “I’ve got a couple straight ones,” he says.
The hitch in his step also seems less subtle than that first morning at the barn. During that epiphany, Small says the late Pimlico executive and race horse owner Nathan Cohen, a client of his, cautioned him on the burgeoning Meyerhoff alliance. “He said, ‘You can’t ever get along with him.’ I said, ‘Well, Nathan, I ain’t so easy to get along with myself.’”
Then the laugh, an open-throttle engine that dies a cough. He wipes his eyes on a sleeve, renews the chase.
“This whole thing with Broad Brush,” he says. “It’s just a [bloody] miracle.”
Now, without hesitation: “I keep readin’ all this history, and [General George] Washington kept sayin’, ‘It was the hand of divine providence.’ All these things that happened during the [American] revolution: the fog came in, the wind went the other way. . . it kept happenin’ with Broad Brush.”
Implausible events? The doorway is suddenly occupied by Jimbo, Vince Bracciale Jr., with a mouthful of pep and chewing tobacco. He and Small briefly talk business.
Jockey turned hay peddler, Bracciale for the moment stands as insurance man, padding Small’s comfort level, feeding the narratives. Bracciale accompanied Broad Brush to successive scores in the General George, Federico Tesio, Jim Beam and Wood Memorial that salty 3-year-old season of ’86 and zestfully shares the sensations.
But the trainer’s not there yet.
It’s a matter of context, Small says. His father rode timber races, then trained horses on the flat. Uncle Sidney rode and trained steeplechase marvels, later training flat sensations Hoist the Flag and Slew o’ Gold. His older brother, champion steeplechase jockey Doug Jr., won the American Grand National four times.
“I was around real good horses my whole life,” he says. “And here comes one that’s different.”
In his 2-year-old debut, Laurel, flat mile, fall of ’85, Broad Brush finished sixth of nine. But that’s not what disturbed his trainer.
“He came back, and it looked like you’d taken a potato-peeler–I’d never seen it before or since–and he had a hundred cuts on the inside of both legs. There was no blood, but it was the damnedest thing. What happened, he hit himself a bunch of times. I thought it had somethin’ to do with the track.”
Consulted blacksmith Kevin Meehan was equally perplexed, but both knew one man who would have the answer. In better, younger, sober days, Johnny Meehan had ridden jumpers and shod the gifted, Kelso among them. The question now: how to find him.
“I said, ‘Kevin, where’s your father?’ Well, he’s passed out in a ditch behind the Uptown [Bar]; he’s been there all night. And it’s rainin’, and he’s out cold. I’ll never forget this as long as I live. So we go there, pull in behind the Uptown, get him in the truck, tell him what happened. Now, we had to give him a beer first. He straightens up. . .
“‘Three-quarter and countersink it,’” the words fast and slurred. “‘What’d he say? What’d he say?’ BOOM! He passes out. Kevin said, ‘I know what to do.’ He did, and he never hit again the rest of his life. That’s the God’s honest truth.”
The antidote gave Small a new horse and two more years of complex puzzles to solve.
“I used to wake up in the middle of the night soakin’ wet,” he says. “‘What can we do today to keep him from hurtin’ himself?’ I’d have to do somethin’ different every day.”
Broad Brush grew as a storm on warm and open waters: The more work he got, the more he wanted. To better grasp the colt’s bracing strides and varied quirks, Small became his groom, chauffeur and respiratory therapist, bedding Broad Brush on peat moss to reduce dust particles and better serve his airways.
He calls Broad Brush “a real stuffy kind of a horse” and the peat moss practice “a real old-time thing” that allowed him to forgo Lasix, the pulmonary bleeding suppressant.
“I was scared to give him Lasix,” Small says. “I was afraid they’d never get him stopped.”
By will and by wheel, Broad Brush traveled as few horses have. The winter before the colt’s 3-year-old season, Small discovered the horse van as a means to relieve and restore his exceptional patient.
“He’d be [sore] at Pimlico; the track would be frozen; I’d have to take him around to work him,” Small says. “And then as soon as he came off the van, he’s okay.”
Road trips eased the morning stiffness and calmed the colt in other ways. Sometimes, Small would treat Broad Brush with a trip to the bank or the post office or to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. There, the trainer would sleep; the horse he once likened to “a gifted child” would earnestly watch the planes come and go.
“The ride limbered him up, but it also kept him interested in things,” Small says. “He was real curious. . . so he’d be relaxed, and I’d take him back at feed time, and he’d be perfectly content and go to sleep and rest during the night. You could sorta tell when he was gettin’ stale. When there were too many days he hadn’t done anything, he’d get real antsy.”
Which is how Broad Brush came to charge up a mountain in the snow the frigid day before the 1986 General George Stakes.
The General George then was a stairway to the Federico Tesio, but weather-wrought postponements had steepened the step. The General George was pushed back to February 20 that year, a Thursday, nine days before the Tesio. The trouble for Small: Broad Brush was ready to go on Wednesday.
“This horse, like, a day off was not gonna happen,” Small says. “No possible way. I went out, put chains on the van. This is the honest-to-God truth. I take him out to the farm [his father’s Strathmore Stud]; it’s on a damn mountain. We used to ski on it, and we used to exercise all our horses on this hill. So I take him up there, and the snow’s literally knee deep. I took three horses out there and just let ’em gallop up the hill. And he blasted up that hill and got a real heavy work. I know nobody’s gonna believe this, so I took some pictures of it.”
This hill at Strathmore? Take the gravel driveway past the stately yellow house with the aerial antenna and the missing black side shutter, through tire grooves in petrified mud to the back of the property and look out. Suddenly you’re Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. The world opens wide.
Still lost in the snowy flashback, Small scratches his head. “Anybody else did it,” he chortles, “they’d be committed.”
Broad Brush won his division of the General George, his first go with Bracciale, and then rebuffed Fobby Forbes for a whiskered win in the Tesio. Two tough trials in nine days, Small says, and still Broad Brush had to train hard in between.
Because the colt loafed without company, workouts became epic productions tightly choreographed. Wolff would ride alongside Broad Brush and Bracciale the first half mile, then yield to a stablemate waiting near the far turn under Jack Gerkin.
“Jack would do the hard part because this horse was runnin’, and as soon as Ann got out of the way, Jack would hook him,” Small says. “And all those times, he never got that far away. It’s, like, practically impossible.”
These morning trials took a toll, not on Broad Brush but those who prompted him. Small calls such horses “training aids,” ascribes the phenomenon as a sad but unavoidable rite of sacrifice.
“They just became tools. They literally were tools,” the word pronounced litchrally.
Once, before a race at New York’s Belmont Park, Small sought a galloping companion for Broad Brush and petitioned Uncle Sidney. “He had some real nice colt; he’s gettin’ all ready for Saratoga,” Small says. “He went once around Big Sandy with Broad Brush, and Sidney said that he laid down for a week, was never worth a nickel. And he just galloped with him.”
Quickly, Small returns to the February snow and Broad Brush’s sprightly mountain climb.
“Looking backwards,” he says, “that’s how he got to the Derby. If he don’t work, he don’t win the race; if he don’t win that race, he’s not goin’ in the next one [the Tesio]; if he don’t win the next one, he don’t go to the Jim Beam; if he don’t go to the Jim Beam, he don’t go to the Wood. That’s how he got to the Derby.”
As it involves Broad Brush and his connections, there’s more to the story.
On the way to the Jim Beam, Small says, Bracciale was asleep on the plane, a pool of drool collecting on his chin, when Robert Meyerhoff boarded.
“You have to know the boss,” Small says, quieter now. “He’s a really good guy, but he’s pretty straight. He said, ‘Jesus Christ. That’s the jockey?’?”
“Wait! Wait!” Bracciale beckons above the cackles. After the triumphant Jim Beam in Kentucky, he and some Maryland chums were in an airport lounge awaiting the flight home.
“Everybody’s all dressed up, and I had this [stuff] on”; he’s in weathered jeans and a work-scarred hooded sweatshirt. “So I said, ‘Put the shots up on the table.’ And then the boss is there with his wife. Get on the same plane. . .”
Bracciale looks down, shakes his head, leans out of the doorway and darkens the shed row dirt with tobacco juice.
He comes back spewing about the Derby, and the foreshadowing to Broad Brush’s third-place finish.
Small cuts in, says he and Meyerhoff had no long-range Derby plans, but that Broad Brush’s four straight victories and continued spunk compelled them.
The late, eminent Daily Racing Form columnist Joe Hirsch once told him, “The only time you go to the Derby is when you can’t not go.”
“I’m not the Derby type,” Small says, “but this is one of those times when you can’t not go.”
The race was lost before it started, Bracciale says. “I used to put a bunch of scenarios in my head while I’m sittin’ in the jocks’ room waitin’, while I’m goin’ to the gate, everything that could possibly, possibly happen, and that way I can react. So the horse is warmin’ up real calm and nice; everything’s goin’ real good. We gallop around, like, to the back, and you don’t realize that there’s thousands of people back there. And this roar goes up. This [horse] jumped and kicked, and I landed right on top of his ears. . . I got back on him someway.”
He makes a paddling motion with both arms, mimicking his means to recovery.
Small works a grin. “Thank God I didn’t see this. Oh my God, I’d have had the big one right there.”
The two collect themselves. “Yeah,” Bracciale says fancifully, “it was hard to expect what was gonna happen.”
“You never knew what he was gonna do,” Small says.
No race showcased the point like the Pennsylvania Derby, in which Broad Brush ran away from the pack on the far turn and spurned convention. Jockey Angel Cordero made a motion to turn into the Philadelphia Park homestretch, and Broad Brush declined to second it.
“I was in the race,” Bracciale says. “I was on a horse called Lac Ouimet. I’m behind. I see [Broad Brush] makin’ the lead early, and I said to myself, ‘He’s either gonna win by 20 lengths or somethin’ crazy’s gonna happen.’ And, all of a sudden, I see him go out. I mean, he is OUT–I can’t see him. I’m thinkin’, ‘That [horse] mighta went over the fence.’”
From the grandstand apron, three guys implausibly in the line of fire started waving frantically–arms, programs, Racing Forms. Broad Brush slowed approaching the outside fence, squandering his lead, took a sharp left into the homestretch outside the harrow lines, surged anew and won by a length and change.
“I went to the jocks’ room, and when I came out of the shower, Angel was sittin’ on the bench,” Bracciale says. “He still had his helmet on, the goggles were still down, and he was like this,” shaking his legs in terror. “I said, ‘Way to go.’ He said, ‘I ain’t never ridin’ that [f-ing] horse again.’”
Broad Brush’s 4-year-old season brought new peculiarities in a new land, southern California. After near misses in the San Fernando and Strub Stakes, then Grade 1s, Small fretted that a lack of able workmates would leave Broad Brush under-trained for the Santa Anita Handicap.
“I called up Mr. Meyerhoff, and I said, ‘Well, we’ve got two choices. We’ve either got to buy a horse that’s good enough to work with him, or I’ve got to take him back to Pimlico to work him.’ And he said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Well, you need a good one. . . or we’re not gonna win.’ And I have to give the boss credit. I mean, who’s [bloody] crazy enough to fly a horse from California to Maryland to work him?”
Broad Brush beat rival Ferdinand by a nose that day (with Cordero again riding him) and fortified his ledger with triumphs in the John B. Campbell, Trenton and Suburban Handicaps before retiring to Gainesway. Meyerhoff syndicated him for $4 million ($100,000 a share), the stud fee set at $25,000.
“The thing that was most amazing about the horse is this horse’s stallion career,” Small says. “The rest of the people would take a real good horse like that, and they want to get the stud fee as high as they can. And what happens is, half the time they can’t get enough mares. Well, Mr. Meyerhoff said, ‘We’ll just do the opposite. We’ll make it pretty low, and we’ll get to pick the mares.’”
Meyerhoff raced, rather than sold, the offspring of Broad Brush, the inherent wisdom thus evinced with a total of seven Maryland Breeder of the Year titles since 1992.
Broad Brush’s breeding shed exit in 2006 rears questions born on an auction bid more than a century ago: With Concern exiled to stud in Oklahoma, can young sire Include sustain the legacy? Is the Domino line imperiled?
It looks that way now, Small says, but it has before.
“So it’s this fascinating story,” he says, rising from the chair. “This could damn near be a book. But it all goes back to this tiny little part of Maryland where we all grew up. Monkton is where the thing all started. Foxhall Keene was a big foxhunter; Sidney was a master of the national hunt for Mr. [Paul] Mellon. See, Sidney had a pretty good dose of the war, World War II. I got a pretty good dose of Vietnam.”
Small walks to a high table by an office window, puts aside a workout ledger that reveals a soft-cover book: SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars. Studies and Observations Group. Small’s group.
He lifts the book, pulls out a pair of reading glasses. “I was readin’ it with the light on for a week,” he says, laughing.
The day Hoist the Flag won the Bay Shore in stakes-record time, March 20, 1971, First Lieutenant R.W. Small, Fifth Special Forces Group, occupied one of four stools in a rec hall bar in Camp Long Thanh, South Vietnam, watching a TV sports report on the Armed Forces Vietnam Network. From baseball spring training highlights, the screen flashed to a stately man leading a stately bay from the Aqueduct winner’s circle.
“That’s Sidney. I said, ‘My God, that’s my uncle!’”
“Right,” someone answered. “Have another.”
The epiphany tells much about Small as wartime castaway. Despite his closeness to Sidney Watters Jr., his mother’s brother, Small says the name Hoist the Flag held no meaning. He didn’t know Uncle Sid trained the 1970 juvenile champion and early favorite for the ’71 Kentucky Derby. He didn’t know the colt suffered a career-ending, near life-ending leg injury in a workout 11 days after the Bay Shore.
“When you’re in somethin’ like that,” he says, meaning the SOG, “that’s all there is.”
As cancer-wracked veterinary surgeon Jacques Jenny repaired Hoist the Flag’s extensive fractures, ensuring the birth of Hay Patcher and thus Broad Brush, Army Lt. Small protected and preserved with an exclusive, elite, little-known corps of Green Berets. The objective of his unit, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies Observations Group, was to train for possible High Altitude Level Opening missions, the so-called HALO insertions: covert operations behind enemy lines.
From 15,000 feet, safe from radar detection, Small and three comrades would parachute out of a C-130 or C-123 aircraft into darkness and the veiled jungles of South Vietnam. Their objective, technically, was to gather information on supply routes to and from the Ho Chi Minh trail. But he ascribes that endeavor as a ruse: The military knew the answers Small and his men provided. In truth, he says, the point of the exercises was to keep from getting killed.
“I don’t wanna start this but?. . .” He leafs through pages of his newly bought book. Bracciale, still in the office, remarkably, after more than an hour, inches closer.
Throughout his tour, Small says, he thought the HALO drops were a special-ops staple. Major John L. Plaster, writing 30 years removed via declassification, asserts that only five groups undertook such missions. None returned.
“So I’m thinkin’ it’s just my turn to do this,” Small says. “Well, turns out, they never did it before. They were inventin’ how to do all this while I was there.”
Small produces a small booklet, passport-size, with the inked details of his 24 training jumps from June 19 to August 1, 1971. Many bear the letters CE, combat exercises for which soldiers carried suicide capsules and explicit orders to kill. The enemy could be anywhere.
“Didn’t look like trainin’ to me,” Small says. “‘I said, ‘I don’t know how you tell the difference between this and war.’”
He says he’s “pretty much positive” he never parachuted into communist North Vietnam. But this he knows: A plane piloted by Formosans would arrive at the airfield, Small and his mates boarding after snaking through a fence hole. The jumpmaster, an American, had a stopwatch and a headset, and everyone had oxygen canisters. Watches were synchronized. The plane’s rear platform would descend. At the jumpmaster’s cue, the four would exit simultaneously, staying close, using tethered light wands to help identify their target, often a river or a road. The rip cord extinguished the light.
“It’s like the inside of a cow,” Small says of the darkness, and yet his training book shows jump after 90-second jump landing within 30 meters of the target.
With rations and supplies, the unit would spend up to a week on the ground observing movements, verifying maps and intelligence and “basically keepin’ your ass from getting greased.”
Small says he wasn’t a gung-ho soldier looking for a fight; rather, he thought the war would end before he graduated from college. He enrolled at University of Pennsylvania as a pre-vet major, played football and lacrosse and wrestled. A self-assessed uninspired student who cut corners reading Cliffs’ Notes, he transferred to University of Delaware and graduated in the spring of ’68 with a degree in animal science and agricultural biochemistry.
The war, alas, was raging, his call inevitable. Small took a starting gate job that summer at River Downs and was at Garden State the day the draft letter arrived. He enlisted without opening it.
“The people I knew, all they could think about was tryin’ to get out of it, and I thought of it a different way,” he says. “I said, ‘Look, all these other poor bastards have gotta go, and somebody’s got to go lead ’em. Somebody that’s had a bunch of good breaks, had a good education, had a good upbringing and all that.’
“It wasn’t that I wished to be there. I wanted to be with some people that knew what they were doin’, somebody that wasn’t gonna make some mistake and get everybody killed. There was definitely a self-preservation component to it.”
Basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., advanced training in Missouri. At officer candidate school in Fort Benning, Ga., he graduated first in his class.
“I did real well, and then you get to pick, and I picked special forces,” he says. “Hardly knew what it was.”
Small qualified for the Army’s modern pentathlon team–running, swimming, bike-riding, shooting, fencing–which could have kept him safe in Texas for a year. He chose Vietnam instead.
His position on the war? “Well, that’s interesting,” he says, “because Mr. Meyerhoff used to ask me that all the time, and they, of course, were very anti-war. And I always had trouble answering the question. But they don’t ask 18 and 20-year-old kids what they think about the war.
“Looking back on it, the whole thing was a cluster. People criticize the military terribly, but it’s been designed over centuries to get people to do what there’s no way in the world any sane person would do.”
On August 14, 1971, 13 days after his last jump, Dickie Small walked aimlessly through San Francisco International Airport, in uniform, ill-prepared for the wash of anti-war venom. He’d fulfilled his tour, opting neither to remain in the Army as a potential captain nor to accept an offer to train the very Israeli commandos who would launch the famed 1976 raid at Entebbe Airport in Uganda that freed 100 captives of pro-Palestinian guerillas.
Then, out of nowhere: “You’re gonna overdo this Army thing. I was in the deep water, but I didn’t actually do anything.”
Small had another hoist-the-flag experience, unrelated to his uncle. One summer day at Laurel Park in the early 1990s, as he was about to saddle speed merchant Higher Strata, the sky turned dark and the wind uneasy. A lightning jag zapped an infield flagpole two-thirds up, lopping it in a crack of smoke and flame.
In front of the tote board, Old Glory and a stub of staff lie on the rain-slammed grass. The tempest brought Laurel to cancel the race, but it didn’t deter Dickie Small. Amid the tumult, he crossed the muddying track with purpose, detached the flag and got it off the ground as etiquette requires. From the press box, he was last seen crossing back toward the clubhouse.
Standing in his tack room office now, he recalls the moment clearly. How did the noble episode conclude? Small says he folded the flag, in keeping with ceremony, and put it on a bush.
In November ’94, more than 23 years from his last wartime sky-dive, Dickie Small moved stealthily through the night and nailed his target: Churchill Downs.
Outside a cinder-block stable, a track security guard saw two unknown men with an unknown horse–a little one at that–and denied them passage. In the pre-dawn darkness, Small introduced himself and van driver Richard (Dickie Bird) Davison. Nothing. He introduced Concern, the horse known as Mouse. Nothing. He told the guard Concern would win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and pay double-digits. Entry granted.
Before leaving for Louisville, Small had been unusually glib and accessible in his Pimlico barn, juiced by the prospects of his bright-training colt and the commitment of one key competitor: Bertrando.
Bertrando’s pacesetting presence, Small reckoned, would force challengers to keep him from getting away, in turn aiding Concern’s late-running prowess.
“That race was a gimme,” he says.
He has a witness. Horse-breeding veterinarian Tom Bowman was in Lexington, Ky., the week of the Classic when he got a call from Small saying, “You’ll want to be here.”
“I’ve known him 30 years,” says Bowman, owner of Dance Forth Farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “I’ve never known him to tell me he’s gonna win a race–before or after.”
Assurances aside, Small reverted to the comfort of camouflage. He took Concern to the track at first light the morning they arrived, Classic eve, then headed for Lexington both to visit Broad Brush at Gainesway and to dodge reporters. Before leaving, he instructed a stablehand to answer only in Spanish should the press come calling.
Concern rallied stoutly to seize the win from Tabasco Cat, paying $17 as the first Maryland-bred and Maryland-based Classic hero. He became the stable’s third million-dollar winner and remains its richest, his total of $3,079,350 eclipsing Broad Brush and Valley Crossing ($1,616,490). Most trainers would embrace the encroaching press the following morning, thrilled to rhapsodize on all the savvy maneuvering that led to fame, wealth and glory. Small stood outside the stable as a captive, uncomfortably picking off pieces of a tall Styrofoam coffee cup. When a guy drove by offering congratulations, Small shouted, barely in jest, “I’m being held hostage!”
He spent much of that morning extolling the virtues of Broad Brush, Concern’s sire, and of Meyerhoff. “He bought [Concern’s] mother at auction, so he bred the horse’s father, he made the horse’s stud career, he bred this horse, and nobody ever mentioned it,” Small says. “They never gave the guy any credit for what he did. I mean, he basically started from scratch, and I could never get anybody to write it.”
Bowman remembers the Breeders’ Cup for another reason. A woman Small knew pulled into the Churchill Downs backstretch with a horse but no help. Not long before the Classic, there was Dickie, pitchfork in hand, mucking out her stall.
Do you have a superstition about the article? “Of course I do,” Small answers in a manner firm, not caustic. “I mean, that all goes back to Caesar’s Wish.” He’s laughing now. “A picture of her appeared, and she dropped dead three or four days later. Boom.”
The July 1978 cover of The Maryland Horse shows Small and the brown filly, a star faint on her forehead and bright by her name. Caesar’s Wish sprouted at 2, winning five stakes for owner Sally Gibson, and blossomed at 3 when she outdid juvenile filly champ Lakeville Miss in the Mother Goose Stakes and broke Ruffian’s stakes record.
“This is, like, an unbelievable story too,” Small says.
His mother, Jane Watters Small, was dying when she shepherded the earthly arrival of Caesar’s Wish, 1975, at Strathmore Stud. The filly, Small says, was the last his mother foaled.
Soon thereafter, Doug Small Sr., Dickie’s father, lost a horse-training job that forced him to sell the yearlings he’d bought from breeder Nathan Cohen, Caesar’s Wish among them. In her sunset, Jane Small gave Dickie some motherly advice: dawn lives in Caesar’s Wish. After the filly failed to meet her reserve at auction, Sally Gibson and her husband, John, bought her privately and turned her over to Dickie to train.
The Gibsons had toasted Small’s return from the war by giving him his first horses ?to train, a trail that led to Festive Mood. A rugged gelding, Festive Mood had 80 starts without a stakes win when he took residence with Small; he finished with 132 starts and seven stakes wins.
Where Festive Mood strained to hit the high notes, Small says, Caesar’s Wish was a homemade diva. “When I say rocket,” his voice low, “this is a rocket.”
Again, he says, the honest-to-God truth: He’s on the pony one morning, stopwatch in hand, Kathy Dibben deftly executing Small’s wish that Caesar’s Wish work an easy half-mile.
“Well, I looked at the watch: 46 [seconds]. It looks like she’s gallopin.’ And I think, ‘Geez, this watch ain’t no good, and I threw it out in the parkin’ lot at the seven-eighth pole–this is true as God. Broke into a thousand pieces.”
Next half-mile work, again without toil, Caesar’s Wish produced the same time on a new watch. It might not be such a corker, Small says, except for this: She’d never even raced.
By Proudest Roman, Caesar’s Wish became Small’s first Grade 1 winner, taking 11 of 16 races and carrying her speed to Saratoga, where her heart gave out. In the ’78 Alabama Stakes, strong and willing on the far turn, the filly ruptured a pulmonary artery, precisely nine months after Festive Mood had been euthanized for an irreparable leg break.
His road ahead once wide and fair, Dickie Small towed an empty trailer home. He drove a way, he says, a long way, then turned around and headed back to Saratoga to make sure she wasn’t there.
“What fire doesn’t destroy, it hardens,” Small says, repeating the Oscar Wilde quote. It applies to Caesar’s Wish, to war, to life.
In 1999, he and Meyerhoff separated civilly for divergent dogmas. Meyerhoff, at the time, wanted more early speed from his horses; Small considered his Broad Brush, Concern and Valley Crossing offspring innately bred for stamina. The philosophical gulf too wide, Meyerhoff transferred his 50 horses to Buddy Delp.
Batman was leaving Robin. Small responded at the time by thanking his former boss for the 15-year joy-ride.
The number of horses in Small’s stable dwindled to seven, later five. Even then he spoke no animosity, only the pain of having to lay off workers at his stable and his South Carolina training outpost. “Just crushed me,” he said then. “Hardest part of the whole thing.”
Small was able to dote more on those that remained, what few there were. But two of his own stakes-winning homebred mares, Tookin Down and Proud Owner, led the trainer on “an incredible journey” that produced six winners in 13 starts to begin 2000, the momentum carrying.
Small had weathered the storm, a truth less relevant with the attacks of September 11, 2001. His subsequent effort to reenlist to run an Army training company, he claims, reflected more self-regard than patriotism.
“I figured there was gonna be a world war, and everybody’d have to go anyway, and I might as well get in first,” he says. “I had all these great guys workin’ for me, and most of the horses were my own, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just go do that. These guys can run the barn, and I’ll go run a training company for a while.’”
Then 55, Small exceeded the age ceiling; so he never left his stable, and eventually Meyerhoff rejoined him. Meyerhoff now has about two dozen horses in Small’s Laurel barn. Other clients are John Gibson and Binnie Houghton (Buckingham Farm).
“No matter what happens, he’ll be my benefactor my whole life,” Small says of Meyer-hoff. “Everybody says, ‘Well, how do you stand the pressure?’ I don’t know how to say this, but it’s nothin’ like real pressure. I know what real pressure is. Real pressure is when nobody comes home.”
“I’m kinda worried you’re gonna overdo this,” Small says. “I don’t want some rah-rah thing.”
The subject is music.
Once, during the years he wintered at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Small drove to the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur, Tex.
“I thought it was closer than it was,” he says.
During his Vietnam days, the big song was Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” with its timeless lyric: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” The museum, in Joplin’s hometown, features a replica of her painted Porsche and other kitsch.
Small would go so far to pay homage to the counterculture’s gravel-voiced icon? Think of the political spectrum as a circle, he says, and plot the points: ultra-liberals and ultra-conservatives are very close.
“I mean, did you see Hair?” he asks. “How much difference is there between the guy that went in the Army and the other guy?”
Yes, Dickie Small saw Hair live on stage, and Cats and Phantom of the Opera (twice) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Now a smile. “I don’t even know what it means, but somebody wrote one time that I was an enigmatic iconoclast,” he says. “I guess it means doin’ the opposite of what the experts say.”
He thinks of the Bob Dylan song with that very lyric. “‘Tell Me.’ One of my favorites.”
Tell me, do those neon lights blind your eyes?
Tell me, behind what door your treasure lies.
Ever gone broke in a big way?
Ever gone the opposite of what the experts say?