Dec. 1901: The double personalities of stable owners

“Mr. James Creelman gives his recollections and impressions of all the rulers and otherwise great men alive; one or two, indeed, have since died, but no one could read the volume without feeling his own reminiscences swell up, and the next and inevitable crime is telling them. Horse racing has little in common with Padishahs, Grand Moguls, and Czars, but Creelman’s memories of such salts of the earth incline the ordinary mind naturally toward its own picayune background. The turf, too, has its magnates, autocrats, and curios, whose characteristics and mannerisms are certainly as interesting as those of some turbaned Turk or backwoods Dagonet.

I had met him before on the race course, but Maj. B. G. Thomas at home in Lexington, Ky., was another proposition. Almost every man, for that matter, who meddles with racing has two personalities, one for the paddock and the other for the ingle. But the major was an unusual example of this in that no man ever surpassed him in drawing a courteous line between abstract association and concrete confidence. As for his personal appearance, Maj. Thomas, with all due respect, resembled not a little the late Senator Mahone, of Virginia, but on a larger and, many people think, a finer scale; in short, he had Mahone’s physical attributes as an artist or photographer would classify them, however wide the gulf may be between Readjuster socialism and rock-born aristocracy.

Maj. Thomas, with his stallions Himyar, King Ban, and Lelex, has held a big block of stock in thoroughbred development the last quarter of a century. He always preferred the glory of breeding winners for some one else to race to the intoxicating pleasure of galloping them under his own colors, and no doubt he was right from more standpoints than one, for the yearlings from his Dixiana farm consistently brought sums that justified his system. Yet the major must have felt something like chagrin when he saw the celebrated “Jack” Chinn kiss Ban Fox’s nozzle on Champion Day at Monmouth Park, for it’s rather hard to see a colt of your own breeding win a fortune for somebody else.

One day in 1891; while I was a guest among others of Milton Young at his beautiful McGrathiana, the home of Hanover, but now his burial place, I met Maj. Thomas in the – yes, in the Phoenix Hotel in Lexington. The moment I saw him he reminded me of something in “Rob Roy” about MacGregor’s foot on his native health, and few know better than racing men what that infers in the Blue Grass bailiwick. During the day, in the town office of the master of Dixiana, he gave me the patented model of a racing bridle he had invented, for transmission to the officials of the Jockey Club in New York.

Shakespeare, Bacon, or somebody made an everlasting epigram on contrasts, but whoever was guilty must have had the Dwyer brothers in mind when he made it, for “Mike” is “Phil’s” antipode and Philip is Michael’s antithesis. Damon and Pythias or Orestes and Pylades were not more fraternally devoted to one another than are these great turfmen whose red and blue sash swept the board in the memorable years from Rhadamanthus to Hanover, but so far as the turf knows them the brothers are alike only in that each knows a racehorse a trifle better than the other.

Although both men rate $1,000 as most well-to-do people would rate 50 cents, there is something like method in “Phil” Dwyer’s financiering, whereas his brother likes nothing so much as flinging a fortune upon his opinion. For example, I was one of a group including Michael Dwyer and Col. Dave Pulsifer in the Sheepshead paddock just after Salvator had won the Suburban of ’91 from the colonel’s Tenny. Mr. Dwyer had played the swayback heavily in the early books, as well as on that day, and so was in humor to agree with Col. Pulsifer that the Suburban result was a fluke. The latter, turning to me, said: “I’ll match my horse against Mackey’s (Haggin’s superintendent) for —,” and then paused, whereupon Dwyer said quietly: “$5,000, Dave, and I’ll go half.”

I hunted up Mackey and Trainer Matt Byrnes, and the match was finally arranged, those on the inside understanding that Dwyer, not Pulsifer, had all the Tenny end of it. It was Michael’s money that held the odds near even against Tenny, when Salvator’s quality certainly justified longer figures. After that soul-stirring race “Mike’s” mustache curled as saucily as ever, and he laughed in that quiet way of his as he said: “That’s a racehorse,” meaning the son of Prince Charlie, which, from the man who had owned Luke Blackburn and Hindoo, had plenty of significance.

“Phil” Dwyer always mingled more with the upper ten of turfdom than his brother, and few ever saw Michael at any of the hotels where racing aristocrats gather, at least in New York; he preferred a stratum of his own, whereas “Phil” sought more crustaceous environment. Yet of the two “Mike” is probably better fitted for the social game because of a certain savoir faire which “Phil’s” more robust temper denies. I recall what a fury the latter got in when a luckless vis-à-vis asked him innocently: “Did you really play $35,000 for Bolero?”

Out came “Phil’s” pocket checkbook, and flushed was “Phil’s” ever-ruddy face. “Is my check good, sir? Di you think I’m good for $35,000, sir, or not?” and so on, where “Mike” would have murmured: “Well, Billy Easton says so, and I guess he knows.” And there you have the difference between the brothers in a nutshell.

To switch from the Dwyers to John Hunter is to get up a real corner in contrasts. Here you have the Bayard, the Chesterfield of the turf. He is the sole survivor of that coterie which included “Larry” Jerome, Punster Travers, “Tom” Doswell, and their ilk. He was never more interesting than when his innate reserve battled with his impulse to argue. He had rock-ribbed theories as to blood blending, and I remember how that arch iconoclast, Milton Young, indulged the Hunter soul with a novel formula. These two, with “Lou” Kittson and the writer, had chatted for an hour of this breeding, and that, when suddenly Mr. Hunter gave Young a solar plexus dig, in noting which one must remember that if there was one thing Mr. Hunter couldn’t stand it was chaff.

“Now, see here, Young,” said he, “you are a practical man, a practical breeder. Tell me, then, if you wanted to get a perfect racehorse, how would you go about to get one?”

We all looked at the Kentuckian, and the Kentuckian leaned back and, stuffing his hands in his pockets, gazed fixedly at his questioner. Then he said thoughtfully:

“What would I do in order to get a perfect racehorse?”

“Exactly,” said Mr. Hunter.

“Well, sir,” said the Kentuckian, slowly, “I fancy I would buy him!”

It was blowing a gale outside that night, but the way Mr. Hunter traveled to the street would have put a Futurity winner to shame. And that was Young all over. Behind his usual grim humor he hid ideas and methods worth a fortune to him, and which have been hunted by other breeders since before the days of Strathmeath.

But if the master of McGrathiana is taciturn with humor; other stars of the turf are the one without the other. Such was the late David Dunham Withers, the man who spent $2,000,000 building a racetrack at Monmouth Park. Men called him the “Sage of Brookdale.” But why sage? I asked him that one day and  he made as if to trot away, as was his custom if he expected an interview, but he checked himself and grumbled, “They call me that, do they? Well, I do keep my mouth shut.” And he certainly did.

Then there is Wyndham Walden, sphinx-like in all conscience, never winking an eyelash when interrogated, and withal, so placidly polite that you feel like saying “Thanks, Mr. Walked, for what you haven’t told me.” And yet I remember Wyndham’s candor one day in the paddock at Monmouth Park when his people were saddling Reckon a few feet away from Belmont’s La Tosca. “We’ve a chance,” he said, “but they’ve a very fast filly there,” which might be translated, “I wouldn’t influence any friend to play us to win;” and the result was La Tosca first, Reckon second. Still, Walden would never have said even that much if he had felt doubt as to his interlocutor’s sincerity.

The owner of Tenny had a different way of stalling people off. Where Walden would deal in monosyllables, Pulsifer would take you by the sleeve and whisper tips enough to break the biggest Hill-Morgan syndicate in Christendom, and though you left him pleased, when you came to think it over you couldn’t make head or tail of what he had told you. I once heart the owner of Geraldine ask Charlie Reed how he defined the peculiar reserve or reticence of turfmen.

“It isn’t the one nor the other,” said this oracle of the ring: “it’s C. O. D. business good and hard. Show me a man who tells you his affairs straight, and I’ll lay he goes broke.” Porter Ashe believed that the average turfite suspected every man he came across simply because he was an object of suspicion himself and felt conscious, but it was the lamented “Larry” Jerome who opined that racing men were secretive “because they were too honest to tell the truth.”

Speaking of Charlie Reed, the turf never knew a greater original. Full of quaint sayings, bubbling over with good nature, yet as shrewd as a pawnbroker. Reed could entertain a grand stand full of cynics and misanthropes by the hour, and end by getting them in line before his booth, resigned to lose their money to so versatile and at the same time paternal old gentleman.

“I’d like to see the public win,” Reed would say; “I sleep better somehow when they do, and yet I always feel like going to confession the next night.”

The late Senator Hearst and Marcus Daly were utterly ingenuous, but they knew so little about the merits and condition of their own horses that their confidence was only tittle-tattle, and so not negotiable. “Iron King” Scott, of Erie, was too crabbed to be closely deciphered; if his green and white jacket lost a race he blamed either his jockey or the judges, as instance the Lorillard Stakes, when Hearst beat him after a dead heat. Said the Senator at a subsequent dinner at Long Branch: “I was willing to divide the stakes, but Matt Allen heard the other people tell Scott, ‘Run it off; run it off; we can beat these hayseeds from California,’ and so Matt ran it off, and I didn’t blame him.” Scott, despite his great wealth, was perhaps the sorest loser of his day, and so was never popular with judges, spectators, trainers, and boys.” (The Washington Post, 12/08/1901)

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