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Monday, December 30, 2013

Reminiscing About Joe O'Brien

It's time to introduce a new contributor to View From the Racetrack Grandstand. Peter Lawrence.  Many of you may remember Peter but for those who don't, here is a mini bio of him.

Peter is a free lance writer who is a graduate of Syracuse University where he majored in journalism and was an Assistant Editor for the Illinois Standardbred, Associate Editor for Harness Horse, Managing Editor for Hub Rail, and copy editor for the Newark Star-Ledger.  Lawrence was first runner-up for the John Hervey Award for harness racing with a piece about Meadow Skipper which appeared right after the great stallion's death.  

In addition to writing about harness racing, Lawrence groomed for Stanley Dancer, Del Miller, and Billy Haughton and was then an Administrator for Joe O'Brien.  In his second piece for VFTRG, Lawrence writes about his experiences with 'Gentlemen' Joe O'Brien.


Joe O'Brien, photographed around the time I worked for him ...

Undated photo of Joe O'Brien (Photo by Unknown)
... as administrator, from 1978-1980. In case you don't know who he was, Joe was a Hall of Fame standardbred trainer, driver and (mostly unsuccessful) owner and breeder.

My salary was about $175 a week to start - I signed my own paycheck; in fact, I signed Joe and wife Ilene's paychecks, too! - but I wouldn't trade those years for anything. The pay was lacking, but I was in the middle of everything, and I seemingly met everyone in the sport.

I rarely saw Joe dressed in the "old gold and white" silks he's wearing in this photo. He was almost always elsewhere - Toronto, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, etc. - driving somewhere other than where I was based, on the ranch in Shafter (California), or at Sportsman's Park (Chicago suburb of Cicero, Illinois).

I knew Joe mostly with his wearing street clothes. He usually wore a favorite taxicab driver's type cap, with a green jacket given to him when he visited a track in the wilds of western Canada called Assiniboia Downs. Joe was, of course, a native Canadian from Prince Edward Island, in the eastern Maritime provinces.

Wish I had a set of Joe's colors hanging in my closet. He must've had fifty, or more, and that many helmets, too, all of which are probably now in storage somewhere, or tossed away. (Ugghh, what an awful thought, if they were thrown away.)

Our top horses at the time were Flight Director, Ima Lula, Armbro Vicky, and a young pacing colt named Nero's B.B., who earned about $240,000 finishing third in the $2,011,000 Woodrow Wilson in 1980. The starting check I wrote for that race ($10,000, maybe more?) made my hand weak when I signed it!

Ironically, although Joe was way past his prime years when I was with him, the check he picked up in the Wilson, as well as the winning check from the Adioo Volo at The Meadows with Armbro Vicky a few days earlier or later, made it the most successful week in his storied career.

Following the Wilson, a race that was still a BIG DEAL at the time, Nero's B.B. was still a maiden, and he next raced in a Maiden event back at Sportsman's. Yes, a maiden with a quarter of a million dollars on his card, freshly earned. I don't remember if he won that Sportsman's race, or not. I'm sure he was odds-on.

B.B.'s groom was a fellow named Eric Salton, who I understand passed away many years ago. He was a good guy, a real hard worker who could wear out a broom in as little as two weeks! From Eric I learned to never step in the way of someone sweeping that hard, lest he knock you over. Joe wasn't happy to keep buying Eric new brooms, but how can you be displeased with a guy working that energetically for you, really?

For students of racing history, Eric had the excellent pacer Armbro Ranger a few years before my arrival. Like in many other stables, the same O'Brien caretakers seemed to have the outfit's top horses - and earned the largest holiday bonuses - every year.

Joe, as you probably know, is long gone, too. So is his wife, Ilene. I can't seem to find out whether our principal owner those years, Thurman Downing, from Ohio, is alive or not. You'd think a coal company owner and wealthy guy like that would be findable somewhere in the Internet, but I can't locate anything about him.

Two other owners we had at the time, Marvin Katz and Norm Smiley, have (individually) gone on to great success in the racehorse ownership game. We also had the powerful Armstrong Bros. as patrons, but that group (I dealt mostly with Charlie Armstrong and Dr. Glen Brown) were slowly and surely moving their better horses elsewhere, like to trainers Bill Wellwood and Glen Garnsey. The best we still had for them were probably pacing filly Armbro Vicky and trotting filly Armbro Utopia.

Probably the last time I saw Joe, before he passed away from cancer in the mid-1980s, was at the Meadowlands a year or so earlier than that. He confided to me, softly saying, "I'd love to have just one more great horse in my career ..." as his voice trailed off.

He didn't get that horse, unfortunately.


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