02/14/2014 1:50PM

Gulfstream Park: Brumfield's life-long love affair with racing continues

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Barbara D. Livingston
Don Brumfield, 75, says he enjoys his role as steward at Gulfstream Park and has no plans to retire.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Don Brumfield has a deadpan expression. Does he wear anything else? The man who has pretty much seen and done it all in horse racing is the antithesis of excitable, although his solemn demeanor might only be a façade.

“I feel very, very lucky that I’ve gotten to do as much as I have in this game,” Brumfield said in a recent interview at his Gulfstream Park stewards’ office. “I can’t think of a better place to spend your life than the racetrack.”

Brumfield will turn 76 in May, but unlike others his age, retirement is the furthest thing from his mind. His work as an association steward keeps him sharp and involved, and except for the occasional poker game and the time he spends with his companion of 25 years, Frances Lyons, he is consumed by what happens in racing – just as he was as a young Kentucky boy growing up on the racetrack alongside his father, the late trainer Edgar Brumfield.

“The only thing I’m really interested in is horse racing,” he said. “It’s the only thing I ever did. I enjoy being here. I’m hoping to work until they pat the dirt in my face.”

This year marks the 25-year anniversary of Brumfield’s retirement from the saddle as a Hall of Fame jockey. Kentucky was his primary domain during a 35-year career, with summers spent at Monmouth Park and winters in Florida. He was the all-time leading jockey in numerous categories at Churchill Downs and Keeneland until a fellow named Pat Day came along in the 1980s.

“I rode with a lot of good ones, but Pat Day was as good a jock as I ever saw,” he said. “Eddie Arcaro, Bill Shoemaker, Bill Hartack, Laffit Pincay Jr. – I rode with all of them, and they were great. A lot of others, too. These top jocks today – they’re the same as those others were then.”

Brumfield is careful to stay current and not to come off as an old codger yearning for the good ole’ days. He can articulate the modern benefits of being a jockey, most notably “how they take care of themselves as athletes, with their diet and so forth, the way a lot of us didn’t do when we were riding.”

He began as a steward at Hialeah in 1991 and worked at a number of American tracks, including Fair Grounds, Sam Houston, and River Downs, before settling at Gulfstream in 2009. He relishes his work as an official but also is quick to say that his years as a jockey “were the best of my life.” With the 140th Kentucky Derby less than three months away, he recalled how his life was forever changed on May 7, 1966, when he won the 92nd running aboard Kauai King, his first Derby mount.

“I do remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “The horse was on the lead most all the way, and horses came to him and they never could get by him. He’d had a pretty easy lead.”

After dismounting Kauai King, he uttered words that remain famous in racing circles today: “I’m the happiest hillbilly hardboot in the world.”

He rode in the Derby 12 more times and got an eye-opener about how elusive the race can be for a jockey. Day and Pincay also won it just once apiece, and some other great riders never won it.

“I was third behind Secretariat on Our Native [in 1973], and I was fourth on a horse for Darby Dan Farm [Darby Creek Road in 1978],” he said. “But after Kauai King, I never really got close.”

For all his success in racing, his friends attest that Brumfield has never really changed much.

“We met in 1961 when we were both riding at River Downs, and he’s still my best friend,” said Dave Kassen, who stopped riding to begin training in the early 1970s and currently has a stable at Gulfstream.

“I know everything there is about Brumfield. He had a hell of a career and he’s an outstanding racing official. Most of all he’s a gentleman and a fine guy. Like a lot of us he’s in the twilight of his career, but we both love being around the game and have no plans to retire.”

Rob O’Connor, a longtime Kentucky trainer, said Brumfield has a benevolent side that most people rarely have an opportunity to see.

“A couple of times when my son was real little, Brumfield came to his school and brought some jockey boots and talked about riding horses,” said O’Connor. “Those kids had no idea this was a guy who won the Derby and was in the Hall of Fame, but there he was, happy to do it. He’s just a good guy and that’s all people really need to know about him.”

Brumfield said he plays poker at the Gulfstream casino “on days when we’re not running” and jokes that it’s the reason he has to keep working.

“I’m not all that good,” he said, but he is fibbing: His card-playing prowess was honed over many years in jockeys’ rooms, and he just finished third in a jockey/celebrity poker tournament held in conjunction with the Eclipse Awards at Gulfstream last month.

His stone-faced countenance also belies a dry sense of humor that friends long have appreciated. A lifelong bachelor, he and Frances began dating around the time of his retirement, and they now live in a high-rise condominium on A1A on Hollywood Beach.

“We’re still not married,” he said. “We don’t want to rush into anything.”