In honor of February as Black History Month, we’d like to share some stories about the African-American grooms of The Meadow in Doswell, Virginia, birthplace of Secretariat. Though they were never well known like Secretariat’s racetrack groom Eddie Sweat and exercise rider Charlie Davis, the grooms in Doswell were the first to take care of Big Red and the other champions of Chris Chenery’s Meadow Stable.
Though some of the men had passed away before Kate Tweedy and I started working on “Secretariat’s Meadow” in 2007, we were able to interview several of the grooms over time and even do a videotaped oral history. They shared stories that had never been told and we are greatly indebted to them for so vividly enriching our book.
Here is the excerpt of their chapter from”Secretariat’s Meadow:”
” A Good Hand on a Horse…the Grooms of Meadow Stable.”
They grew up working with their hands in the rural Caroline County of the post-Depression years. Local jobs were scarce and mostly limited to cutting pulpwood for the local sawmill, working on the railroad, in a mechanic shop or as a farm laborer. But the calloused black hands of the men who became the grooms of Meadow Stable would touch some of the greatest Thoroughbreds in racing …and leave their own indelible imprint on the history of The Meadow.
Their names did not appear in the headlines or record books, but Lewis Tillman, Sr. and Lewis Tillman, Jr., Bannie Mines, Alvin Mines, Charlie Ross, Wesley Tillman, Garfield Tillman, Raymond “Peter Blue” Goodall, Howard Gregory and others from the closeknit web of local families most assuredly contributed to the success of Meadow Stable. Personally selected for their jobs, these men would be entrusted with the daily care of the valuable broodmares and their foals, helping with the early training of skittish colts and fillies, the transportation of finely-tuned racehorses and the handling of powerful stallions in the breeding shed.
Wesley Tillman came to work at The Meadow as a youngster. In 1946, at the age of twelve, he began helping in the hay fields with his grandfather Samuel Tillman during the summer.
“My grandfather said, ‘If you’re big enough to walk all the way down here to the farm, you’re big enough to work.’ So he gave me a pitchfork and I started throwing hay on the wagon. That was my first job,” Tillman said. He made two dollars a day.
By age eighteen, he was helping his uncle Lewis Tillman,Sr., who was in charge of the broodmare barn. They would turn the horses out in the morning after feeding and get them back up in the evening. In the meantime, they would clean out the stalls and put in fresh bedding. When the mares and foals came back up from the Cove in the evening, they would feed them and put them in their stalls for the night. Wesley also pulled night watch duty when mares were getting ready to foal.
His next job was “up the hill” to the yearling barn. “That’s when I started breaking horses,” Tillman said. “You had to be real gentle with any horse and take your time with them. If you groomed them right, they would even get to like you so you could get them to cooperate with you.”
The next stop for young horses was the training center located across Route 30 where they would begin to learn the fundamentals of racing. The grooms would saddle the horses up for the exercise riders for the day’s work on the Meadow track. Afterwards, the grooms would wash the horses, brush them down and put them on the hot walker (a mechanical walking machine) for awhile. Lastly, they would lead them back to the barn and turn them out into the fields until feeding time. In between their grooming duties, the men would cut grass, fix fences, paint barns or do other chores around the farm.
Tillman, along with other grooms, sometimes traveled with the horses when they were shipped out as two-year-olds to the training stables in Hialeah, New York or Delaware. As they would see, it was a different world outside the rolling green fields of The Meadow.
“Everybody was treated equally at the farm,” Tillman said. “I didn’t see any racism. We were all like a big family.”
But on the road, in those days of segregation, “coloreds” were not allowed in many restaurants or hotels. “I had to stay back in the back with the horses from here to New York,” Tillman explained. When the van stopped for lunch, the white driver, Bill Street, would bring him his meal which he ate in the van as the racehorses munched their hay and occasionally sneezed on his food. If the grooms did take a break from the van, they had to go the back door of the restaurant to get a sandwich or eat in the kitchen with the cooks. Mostly they shrugged it off as part of their job.
At the racetrack, the Meadow grooms would stay with the horses for maybe three or four weeks. “We had our bunks right on the end of the barn, so if anything happened, like if the horses would get down in the stall or start kicking, we’d be right there with them,” Tillman said. After new grooms were hired and the horses were settled in, the Meadow grooms would return to Virginia to start working with the next crop of young hopefuls.
Alvin Mines first came to The Meadow at the age of eight or nine, tagging along with his grandfather Lewis Tillman, Sr., who was affectionately called “the Mayor of Duval Town.” (their nearby community) He remembers playing in the fields with the other grandchildren until feeding time when his grandfather would call the mares and foals up from their pasture in the Cove.
“Man, the horses used to come running up, maybe about fifteen of them with their colts and the foals,” Mines recalled. “I remember we’re grabbing round his leg because we thought the horses would run us over. He said, ‘Don’t worry, the horse is not going to bother you.’ And sure enough, they’d come up and they’d just circle around you and go on.”
Alvin began working at Barn 33, also known as “First Landing’s Motel” around 1974. (First Landing was the sire of Riva Ridge.) There with groom Clarence Fells he helped with the visiting mares who were to be serviced by the Meadow stallions. Often the mares had foals at their sides, who did not want to leave their mothers for even a few minutes.
“I had to hold the foals and then you were in a rassling match!” Mines said.
Next he worked at the broodmare barn with his uncle Lewis Tillman, Jr. Later he went across the road to work at the racetrack/training center, with his brother-in-law Raymond Goodall. Goodall was the chief groom for Riva Ridge.
He taught the short and stocky Alvin how to handle the tall, high-headed Thoroughbreds who often did not want to have a halter or bridle put on them. It seemed that farm manager Howard Gentry liked to test the young groom by giving him the tallest horse in the barn to lead. Mines recalled being jerked off the ground more than once.
The grooms who had a special way with horses were highly respected at the farm. This was particularly true of Howard Gregory, who worked at The Meadow for nearly thirty-two years. He was known as “the stud man.”
He began as a farm worker, making twenty-five dollars a week in the 1940s. Like the other grooms, he had no prior experience with horses, other than some farm mules. He simply learned by doing, mostly under the watchful eye of Howard Gentry, who supervised all the breeding.
He had been working at the training track for several years when Gentry offered him the job taking care of the stallions, along with a raise. “He told me I had a good hand on a horse and no fear,” Gregory recalled. “I had five young children to take care of, so I took the job. I did not know what I was getting into!”
He took charge of six stallions, each of which had his own paddock. Breeding time was around 2:00 p.m. each day in the breeding shed. Some days there would be four or five mares to be serviced.
“I had three horses that died in there,” Gregory noted. “One was Third Brother, a full brother to Hill Prince. He just dropped dead after breeding the mare.” Another time, a stallion fell over dead, nearly crushing Howard Gregory and Howard Gentry against the wall.
One stallion, named Tillman in honor of Lewis Tillman, did little to flatter his namesake. He was especially rank and ill-tempered. “That horse looked to kill you!” Gregory said, adding that the horse would charge at any groom who entered his paddock. Gregory was the only one who could handle him. “I had many people come watch me,” he said of those who came to learn his techniques.
His favorite stallion was First Landing. “He was very, very mannerable,” Gregory noted. “When I would take him around to breed, you’d never hear him squeal or make a whimper or nothing.”
Despite the inherent dangers of his job, Gregory said, “I would turn back the hands of time” to do it all over again.
Charlie Ross also came to the Meadow in the early years. He would earn the distinction of being the last Virginia groom to take care of Secretariat before the colt was shipped down to Lucien Laurin’s training stable in Hialeah in January 1972. Though track groom Eddie Sweat and exercise rider Charlie Davis were more closely affiliated with “Big Red” during his meteoric racing career, it was Charlie Ross, along with trainer Meredith “Mert” Bailes, who helped start Secretariat under saddle.
Ross had been working at the farm for over twenty years when Secretariat was transferred over to the training center and became one of his charges. He held the colt while Bailes first “backed” him, laying himself over the colt’s back to get him accustomed to human weight. He was the groom who led Secretariat around with his first rider, Bailes, in the saddle.
“Yeah, he sat up on the saddle in the stall and I turned him around in the stall, waiting until he got used to that. Then the next move we would take him out in the big round shed and we’d walk him around in there until he’d get used to that,” Ross recalled. He added that Secretariat did not act up or buck like some of the other horses did in those circumstances.
Typically taciturn, Ross admits he was a part of history. Then a flash of pride breaks through and he says, “They called me The Man,” for his way with horses. He agreed that the early care a young horse receives can influence him for life.
Alvin Mines put it best. He said, “I think the horses, once they got the feel of the grooms that were working with them, there was something that growed up in them, you know. They go to someone else’s hands when they leave here, but I think the horses always know who had the first hand on them.”
Meadow groom Lewis Tillman holding a colt for his Jockey Club ID photo. Photo by Bob Hart.
Note: To see what the grooms said about Secretariat and Riva Ridge as colts, read Chapters 11 and 12 in “Secretariat’s Meadow.”
by Leeanne Meadows Ladin
This excerpt may not be reprinted without permission.