Inglorious hot walker in Queen's Plate spotlight
Russell Parchen can be a bit of a grumpy kind of fella, all 81 years of him.
After 50 years of working at Woodbine and other famous racetracks around North America, the long-time former groom and now hot walker is pretty opinionated about the sport he left the railroad for in his early 1930s.
Naturally, he doesn't like how it's changed since the glory days — when horses were the only thing you could bet on and crowds were often huge — what with all these fancy bars and restaurants, slot machines and other things now to get people in.
Nor does he like the smaller fields or how trainers can run out a nine-year-old maiden who's never won in their life.
But he's easily softened and the best way to do it is to walk one of his barn's horses.
Parchen's object of affection Monday at Woodbine was Inglorious, the gorgeous three-year-old bay filly who likely goes into Sunday's 152nd running of the $1-million Queen's Plate (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 4:30 p.m. ET) as one of the two favourites, with Check Your Soul.
Parchen might not admit this, but when Inglorious was paraded for the lunchtime media conference and he stood on the infield with his buddy, Wayne (Radar) Gutzman, another veteran walker, watching her go by, he beamed.
Just a little. Touch of a smile. Chest puffed up a bit.
Later, Parchen was full of what for him is high praise for the filly, owned by Donna and Vern Dubinsky and trained by Josie Carroll.
"She's a good stake horse," said Parchen, who is given now to a touch of pudginess, but, one can easily see, was once a powerful man. "Nothing bothers her and she tries all the time."
That's almost gushing for other folks.
It's not possible, of course, for anyone to have "seen it all" in horse racing, but, together, Parchen and Gutzman have seen an awful lot.
Most famously, Parchen was the groom for Dancer's Image, trained by Lou Cavalaris Jr.
That horse won the 1968 Kentucky Derby, but was disqualified for still having traces of the drug phenylbutazone or "bute" in his system, something that could not have happened, many believe, unless someone had snuck in the barn and given the horse a second dose in the days previous.
The disqualification was in the Kentucky courts for two years before owner Pete Fuller lost the appeal, but, nowadays, most list Dancer's Image as the winner anyway.
Parchen was also in Chicago on Aug. 24, 1968, when Dr. Fager set a world record for the mile that stood for 40 years.
At the Arkansas Derby, he walked Sunny's Halo, Pud Foster's great horse and the second Canadian-bred to win the Kentucky Derby in 1993 for trainer Dave Cross.
That's where the careers of Parchen and Gutzman come together because the latter walked Sunny's Halo during most of his two-year-old season when the colt was based out of Woodbine.
'All horses have different personalities'
When you look at the careers of jockeys, trainers and other horse people, so many of them contain the phrase "started as a hot walker…"
Sandy Hawley, who would go on to become Canada's greatest jockey, was one of them, doing his bit in the late '60s — cooling the horses out after races and morning workouts or, if an animal had a day off, just simply taking it for a stroll.
If you visit the barns early in the morning, you see the walkers going around and around with their charges — miles and miles a day. But there's so much more to it, though, Hawley noted.
"A hot walker has to control a horse and, sometimes after a morning workout, they can get a little bit rambunctious," he said, standing along the rail of the ring. "All horses have different personalities and you have to deal with them … all of the time."
You can't be too rough, but must be firm so the horse knows who's in charge. Sounds easy enough - until the horse decides it wants to do something else.
"I remember when I was a hot walker, they always told me if a horse got scared and reared, don't try to hold on to the shank [the part that hangs off the side of the bit with a lead attached], you have to give them some shank and, when they come back down, gather the shank back up," Hawley said.
One day, Hawley was just a tad slow and "the horse wheeled and kicked me in the stomach, so it can be a dangerous job as well."
Gutzman, who picked up the nickname Radar because he's the spitting image of actor Gary Burghoff aka Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H, said the biggest injury is broken toes. You get stepped on a lot.
Other than that, just a broken wrist for the jockey-sized Deep River, Ont., native, who hardly looks like he could hang on to a big horse. At 62, he remains pretty healthy.
As for Parchen, even after five decades, he's never broken anything, not even the often-stepped-on toes. There was the one time when a horse got him by the shoulder as the then-groom was walking by, lifting him right off his feet.
"Lucky I was wearing lots of clothes," he said, smiling.
Surprisingly, when you consider the standard view of thoroughbreds is they're a tad nuts, Parchen believes the more talented a horse, the easier it is to handle, for the most part.
"A good stake horse has no bad habits and nothing bothers him," he said. "He walks around like an old cow.
"You can ... pass horses and all of that and it doesn't bother them … they are brainier, they aren't scared of noise or anything like that. The other [less talented] horses are nervous, jumping around and everything like that."
'Most of them aren't very close'
Life on the backstretch isn't really one big happy family. It's more like a lot of small communities in each barn who don't really have much contact with the other operations.
"Most of them aren't very close to each other," Parchen said. "You get close to people in your own barn.
"Some of the people, you don't even see them anymore from the other barns."
Horse people, it seems, kind of just fade away.
Most hot walkers are up around 4 or 4:30 a.m., in the barns at 5:30, walking until before lunch and then in the afternoon if their horses are racing.
Gutzman and Parchen, two friends, live in the Woodbine backstretch dorm and eat in the "kitchen" back there where everyone goes — "the kitchen isn't as good as it used to be … when I first came here, we had a real good kitchen," Parchen said — or they go out to eat.
You can bring home about $300 clear a week or perhaps a little more if the trainer wants to slip you some extra. And, unlike the old days, you can pretty much rely on actually getting paid.
"Sometimes, when I worked out west, a trainer had to sue the goddamn owners to get his money," Parchen said, smiling and shaking his head.
His current employer, Carroll, "is pretty good. And she's reliable on paying you."
Again, high praise.
Will they keep doing it?
"Who knows? If I have a good job, I might keep working," Gutzman said.
As for Parchen, 20 years Radar's senior, well, "it's good exercise and keeps you fit, you know. Who knows what's going to happen?"
Take it one big Sunday at a time.