11/07/2013 4:03PM

Finding Charley

Joe Nevills
Writer Joe Nevills, a native of Michigan, is reunited with his family’s horse Royal Charley in 2012 after parting ways in 2007.

On any given day at any given racetrack, a rank-and-file field emerges from the gates that will be forgotten as soon as the last horse crosses the finish line, as disposable as a program page flipped to the next race.

The outcome of the second race at Great Lakes Downs on June 21, 2004, was of little consequence to most of the world. But if any other result had come about, there would be a different arrangement of ink on this page.

If Royal Charley had failed to best nine other Michigan-bred maiden claimers in his debut effort, perhaps I’m not writing this story. Perhaps I’m covering a drab beat for a local paper and catching the races on television in snatches – a version of the life I’d want, but not the one I’d dream about.

Thankfully, a horse race can change a lot of things.

Instead, the second half of a Monday night’s early double kicked off a chain of events that, eight years later, found me in a field 700 miles from home looking into the eyes of a ghost.

Modest beginnings

My grandfather, John Murphy, was a native of Detroit during its glory days and worked as a traveling troubleshooter for General Motors, a job that sharpened his quick Irish wit and sense of adventure that made horse racing a natural fit when he retired.

Our family’s racing stable was modest, just one or two homebreds at any given time. Living on the low end of the bloodstock trade, my grandpa stayed in the game by knowing how to work a deal. Sometimes this meant a foal-sharing arrangement to get a mare bred. Sometimes it meant trading a horse for a washer and dryer set.

He taught his children how to read the racing program, and when they had children, he sat them at the kitchen table and taught them how to read it, too. Soon, I knew the value of having a good jockey like Freddie Mata on your horse – knowledge as crucial to a grade school education as learning the cursive “S.”

My education began at Mount Pleasant Meadows, a dusty half-mile oval in central Michigan, where our mare, Janies Echo, pulled off a victory in the summer of 1990 to the delight of the 30-plus friends and relations who packed the winner’s circle. I was 3 years old, and can be seen in the photo holding my grandma’s hand and looking at the horse instead of the camera.

Janies Echo remained on our farm as a broodmare, and in 1999, she was bred to nearby sire Quiet Enjoyment. One gestation period later, she produced a bay colt named Royal Charley, who my grandpa named after his father-in-law, Charles Chivas. His care was left up to my relatives who lived on the same property.

“He had a kindness to him, but he wouldn’t warm up to you,” my aunt, Donna Garrett, said about Charley, the horse. “He wouldn’t conform. He just was different.”

First impression

Since this is a story about the relationship between a person and a horse, one might expect to see a heartwarming yarn at this point where we develop an unbreakable bond as he grows up that would make fans of “The Black Stallion” series swoon.

To be completely honest, my first lucid memory of Charley was seeing him led into the paddock for his debut race.

Great Lakes Downs was a converted harness track off the coast of Lake Michigan. Reminders of its Standardbred past as Muskegon Race Course were apparent throughout the grounds, with the long-gone letters of its former name sun-bleached on the side of the rectangular plant and the initials “MRC” shingled into the rooftops of the barns.

It rained hard the day of Charley’s first race, and my family rode through it for the entire hour-and-a-half trip to Muskegon, crammed in my grandpa’s Buick.

We stood wet and shivering around the paddock waiting for Charley to show up. It was nearly July and we were in heavy layers – not terribly uncommon in Michigan, where one can spend an entire summer waiting for it to get warm.

Until he entered the walking ring, I had very little visual recollection of Charley, but I’d heard plenty about him.

“He was on his head about ten times before I got him [from the trailer] to his stall,” said our trainer, Randy Russell, recounting the first time Charley arrived at his farm.

It didn’t get much easier from there.

“He was very tough to break,” said jockey Jareth Loveberry, who rode Charley in 13 starts and galloped for Randy growing up. “[Fellow jockey] Nate Alcala had to do it. When he would tap him on the shoulder he’d prop in the opposite direction, so Nate put a whip in each hand and the reins in his mouth. When he came out of the gate next time, he hit him on both sides. He went bucking, but stayed straight.”

To the impartial observer, Charley was nothing remarkable – a 4-year-old bay gelding of average build with a white stocking on his right hind ankle and a pencil-thin stripe down his face. Racegoers with any significant time spent leaning against a paddock fence have seen thousands like him pass by, with a numbered saddle towel and a name in the program as the only way to separate one from the blur of horseflesh.

Charley entered the walking ring with Randy maintaining a firm, but struggling, grasp on his lead shank. We later learned that the only person Randy trusted to handle Charley was himself. This became clear as the horse wheeled his rump into a sideways march, struck out, and generally pitched hell with little regard for his surroundings before being led to his saddling stall.

Shane Spiess, a fellow trainer, was next to us on the fence as the scene unfolded and offered his two cents.

“He’s the rankest horse on the grounds, but he can run.”

Charley’s jockey was Natividad “Nate” Alcala, the same rider who broke him, adorned in our family’s bright orange and white silks. He only rode sparingly at Great Lakes Downs, but was a leading rider at Mount Pleasant.

It’s understandably hard for bettors to get excited about a 4-year-old first-time starter with mom-and-pop bloodlines and a somewhat obscure jockey. After the scene he caused in the paddock, Charley entered the gate at odds just under 10-1.

Meanwhile, I assumed my usual state of being prior to a family horse’s race – pacing frantically on the apron, bouncing on the balls of my feet, rolling and unrolling my program, and ignoring anything that wasn’t happening on the racetrack – admittedly, not a whole lot of fun to be around. As someone who did not often seek things to get my adrenaline going at age 17, watching our horses run was my extreme sport.

Charley was about to embark on a four-furlong race for statebred maiden claimers with a $20,000 tag. He was never challenged in the 48.35 seconds it took him to skip through the slop to a 5 1/2-length win.

Our party shuffled my grandparents into the winner’s circle, where we were soon joined by the horse, whose aggressive nature was unfazed by his recent effort. The win picture portrays a very pleased, very oblivious group of friends and family on one side, and the trainer and jockey struggling to keep the horse from steamrolling that group on the other.

Lifelong fan

Every movement needs a turning point, and for my love of the sport, this was it.

Something about that performance resonated in a way that transformed me from someone who followed the sport because my grandpa’s name was in the program into something more.

From that point on, I was rarely without an old racing program, breaking down Charley’s performances and sizing up future opponents when others my age might have been participating in other normal, healthy social activities.

Charley’s racing career also came at a time when many young people’s lives start to pick up a lot of moving parts, and mine was no different. The transition from high school to college came with an ever-shifting cast of new faces and messy fallings out that left me seeking a sense of belonging that I wasn’t finding in university life.

In Charley, I had my escape – my distraction from the monotony of long-winded lectures, the anxiety of keeping my grades up, and the unanimous chorus line of rejection from girls who had little use for an awkward, burgeoning racetrack degenerate with long hair. Win or lose, the horse was something consistent, and that felt good.

In early 2006, my grandparents’ health began to deteriorate. Our family took turns caring for them around the clock on eight-hour shifts, but it soon became clear that we couldn’t keep the pace and lead normal lives, so we hired in-home care and sold Charley to Randy to help manage the costs.

Having run through his conditions, Charley settled into Great Lakes Downs’s four-furlong, $4,000 claiming platoon, regularly knocking heads with the likes of Booming Buckaroo (who always went off at odds lower than Charley’s despite never beating him), Breakaway Quietly (a salty campaigner, also by Quiet Enjoyment), and Ltn. Larry (a mean little ugly thing who won exactly one race at Great Lakes Downs each year at a huge price).

Charley was never terribly fast – his best winning half-mile came in 47 and change – but he ran honest. He looked focused on the track – a stark contrast to the frenzied beast that stomped around the paddock. Still, he had his moments.

One afternoon in 2006, Randy told me he planned to ship Charley to the track on one of a few trips. As his truck rolled through my Mellencamp-esque hometown the next day, one could hear the distinctive “bam, bam, bam” of a horse firing a cocked rear hoof at a trailer wall.

I could never prove it, but deep down, I knew who it was.

Fading memories

With the 2007 racing season about to commence, news came that the track was closing at the end of the meet. Great Lakes Downs was made expendable to its owners by an unfavorable political climate in the state toward racing. At the forefront was the tribal gaming lobby, whose deep pockets handcuffed the tracks from adding expanded gaming.

Fittingly, Charley’s last race at Great Lakes Downs came on another evening full of yellow rain slickers.

The huddled patrons inside the grandstand left the apron so empty that my voice is clearly audible on the replay urging Charley to the wire. He dueled with Booming Buckaroo for the first three furlongs, and then pulled ahead to win by three-quarters of a length.

After the race, we discussed the outcome with Randy, and he informed us that he’d sold Charley, along with six other horses, to a trainer at Charles Town named Allen Gates. From feeling so high just moments earlier, I was just as quickly floored.

However, I found no fault in Randy’s decision then or now. Great Lakes Downs was closing, and the half-mile race is Charles Town’s bread and butter. If someone is willing to pay you good money for a 7-year-old Michigan-bred gelding with a history of temper issues, you take it.
Charley raced twice at Charles Town, but was clearly outmatched, finishing last in both efforts. Then, his name stopped showing up in the entries. Royal Charley was gone from the track after four seasons of racing with eight wins from 30 lifetime starts and earnings of $43,045.

After that, I lost track of him. While I was told Charley’s new owner was a decent guy, I could never bring myself to hunt him down and ask a man who owed me nothing what he did with a horse that had my name on none of his paperwork, with no means to take him myself.
“The biggest problem was where I had him was pretty tough, and we ran out of conditions on him,” Gates said years later. “He got to a point where I couldn’t run him anymore because he wasn’t quite good enough to go into the allowance class, but he had done his duty and won as much as he could win.”

Soon, the reminders of my time with Charley not only faded away, but the ground was salted behind them. The horse was just the beginning.

My grandma died shortly after Charley’s last race at Great Lakes Downs. My grandpa followed in 2010 after a long battle with dementia that took the most gregarious man I’ve ever known and left him nearly incoherent, outside of a mischievous smirk when he knew he was causing trouble. Bringing out the win pictures always seemed to pull him out of the fog long enough to get a glimpse of the way things used to be.

Great Lakes Downs held its final card on Nov. 6, 2007, and sat vacant for almost a year before being bought by the Little River Band of Chippewa Indians. They stripped the land of anything that could be sold and leveled the rest. The lot now sits empty as the group sifts through red tape on its quest to build Michigan’s 24th tribal casino.

All that remained from those days were some win pictures, a stack of programs, and our racing silks hanging in my office. As much as those items bring back memories of my happiest times, they’re just as much solemn reminders of the places and the people I will never see again.

Charley reappears

Things started to move quickly after my last glance of Charley on the Charles Town simulcast feed. I got a haircut and landed an internship with Thoroughbred Times in the summer of 2008.

When I returned home that fall, I started a racing blog called The Michigan-Bred Claimer. In August 2011, I was hired as a staff writer for Thoroughbred Times. Having achieved its purpose of getting me employed, the blog became dormant.

While my time following Charley was a cherished memory, I accepted that he probably met his end on the last stop of a long, sad trailer ride. I didn’t feel good about it, but I had moved on.

The blog was firmly in mothballs as I prepared to cover the 2012 Preakness Stakes, but a week before my flight to Baltimore, I received a notification that someone had posted a comment.

The message was from a user named Debby Lynn who found my blog by searching for her horse “Royal Charley,” who had raced at Great Lakes Downs.

The information was hard to process. My hopes were high, but the realist in me expected it to be a prank or a ploy to scam me out of some money.

Debby was in Damascus, Md., about 40 minutes from Baltimore. I asked her for more information to make sure her story checked out, and what I got in return was almost impossible to believe.

Debby bought Charley four years earlier to become a foxhunter, and he had since been hunted over 100 times. The picture she attached removed all doubt that we were talking about the same horse, even though the one she described sounded like anyone but him.

From that point, meeting Charley was all I could talk about with anyone unfortunate enough to cross my path.


The day after the Preakness, I drove toward the outskirts of Damascus, which, in a cosmic twist, shares its name with Charley’s paternal great-grandsire. Even as I pulled into the driveway, there was still a part of me that wondered if it was all an elaborate ruse, or if it would be the wrong horse.

I shook those thoughts as soon as I met Debby Lynn, a diminutive, energetic woman in her mid-50s who worked night shifts at the local factory and spent her days working on the farm to pay her board.

We sat on the back of her rusty pickup truck, working our way through standard pleasantries. Debby described Charley as a cautious horse with emotional baggage – more honest than brave, more strong than clever, in her words.

All the while, I squinted into the sunset, over to Charley’s pasture to catch glimpses of a horse that simply didn’t exist just a few weeks earlier. So many pillars from a crucial point in my life had been forcefully erased in the name of time or progress, but one of them had somehow returned from the ether – the horse himself.

Not much had changed to look at him, besides filling out a bit since his racing days. He remained fit, and moved smoothly when he finally ambled toward us.

I was slow to approach him. I had seen what happened to people who boldly tried to initiate contact, and just about all of my experiences with Charley had been enjoyed at a distance. A few timid strokes on his neck with my fingertips soon became pats on the shoulder when I saw he had become less threatening in the time we’d been apart.

Debby then offered to tack up Charley and take him for a spin around the arena to show me what he’d learned.

After some showing off and a few jumps, I posed for pictures with Charley. No longer concerned with his teeth, his hooves, or that swinging rump, I put my arm over his withers and smiled with disbelief. I was one of the lucky few that pet Zenyatta the morning after her emotional defeat in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, but for some reason this felt like a bigger deal. Zenyatta never came back from the dead.

On their way back to the pasture, Charley obediently followed Debby down the path without a lead rope. The rankest horse at Great Lakes Downs was being guided by the mere power of suggestion, a far cry from dragging his hapless handlers around the paddock eight years ago.

New life

Once Charley was unsaddled and let loose to graze, I learned Debby had purchased him for $1,500 through the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER). Gates was getting ready to retire from racing, and was in the process of finding homes for the remainder of his string.

“I first saw him on the CANTER website and decided I’d go have a look at him, so I trekked out to Charles Town and looked at several in the shed row,” Debby said. “I told Allen that I needed someone easy to ride because I was older, and not in very good physical shape. I’ve had a couple major wrecks, and I wasn’t in good shape to take a difficult horse.

“Allen was a great guy because he’d tell me a little bit about the horse, and then he’d say ‘… but this one’s got a bad ankle. I don’t think it’s going to be very good for hunting.’ Then he’d move on to the next one and say, ‘This one’s kind of a tough ride, I don’t think you want it.’ Then he got to Royal Charley, and he goes, ‘I think Charley would hunt good. He’s sound, he’s athletic, and he’s not going to be too tough to handle.’

“Charley was very sensible. When he was going around in the hotwalker, he had a very workmanlike attitude; he just hooked on and plodded around. The little fella I almost went home with instead was romping up and playing around and pushing at the gate, and boy, I thought he looked very clever and athletic, and really wanted that one. Then I told myself, ‘Look, get the sensible one. Don’t buy the nut ball. You’re done riding difficult horses.’ So I picked Charley because he looked so sensible.”

“Charley” and “sensible” were two words I had never heard used in conjunction with one another.

Even so, it was a long road to work Charley through his baggage – one they still navigate to this day.

Debby described Charley as “an orangutan” to mount during their first training sessions, and said she still struggles just to get a bridle over his ears. In the beginning, simply introducing a bridle in the stall distressed Charley to the point that he’d go into a corner, hold his breath, close his eyes, and press his head against the wall to avoid having it put over his head.

She was careful to pay attention to Charley’s cues – particularly a deep sigh that showed he was finally ready to cooperate – and with the vigilance of a bomb diffuser, Debby worked him through his anxieties. To this day, she takes special precautions to avoid his psychological triggers unless absolutely necessary.

Charley’s development took a leap forward when he was thrust into the role of Debby’s primary foxhunter nine months into their time together, after the sudden demise of her then-first stringer. He took naturally to his new profession, taking jumps where more experienced horses balked and taking care to protect his new owner on hunts. He has since expanded into the eventing realm.

As we departed, I thanked Debby for giving my grandpa’s horse a better home than I could have ever imagined. Driving away, I realized I had been conversing like an old friend with someone who just hours ago was a complete stranger.

When Charley and I entered the winner’s circle in 2004, we both had little more direction than what was right in front of us. Eight years later, we each found what we needed: Him, a loving home and a chance to thrive; and me, the kind of life and career that would have seemed outlandish to dream about as a teenager – one that allowed for a reunion like this in the first place.

When we found each other again, we both had our happy ending.