09/23/2016 2:06PM

Hovdey: Trotter the last link to great weight carriers


While wishing Tommy Trotter a happy 90th birthday the other day, the conversation naturally got around to the cavalcade of great horses who came under his thumb as racing secretary at outposts like Belmont, Arlington, Gulfstream, and Hollywood Park.

Trotter was the man who dumped the weight on Kelso, Dr. Fager, and Forego. At the end of each year, he would sit in judgment on the crop of 2-year-olds in the Experimental Handicap. Trotter figures he worked at 22 different racetracks, which likely made for a lot of ticked-off trainers who were convinced that the knees of their half-ton babies would buckle under another pound or two.

That was then, which has nothing to do with racing now, at least when it comes to Thoroughbreds carrying much more than the 126 pounds towed around by 3-year-olds in the Triple Crown or older males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The era of great weight carriers is long gone, which is neither a good thing or a bad thing. But it has taken with it a measuring stick used to compare and contrast the great ones across time.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Trotter said. “Kelso and Forego wouldn’t be remembered the way they are today if they hadn’t carried the weight.”

Then again, it wasn’t the racing secretary’s job to hype reputations. His job was to cobble together the best possible fields for the bounty of handicap events, and since staggered starts were not an option, weight was the only viable tool.

Trainers, many of them lacking degrees in applied physics, insist that weight is the enemy, and that the more a horse carries, the slower he will run, and the more he concedes to opponents, the greater the chance he will lose.

These are legitimate concerns, although history is replete with conflicting evidence. Did racing secretary Jimmy Kilroe get it wrong by giving Gun Bow 131 pounds for the 1965 Santa Anita Handicap when the black horse faded to fourth? No, it was because Manuel Ycaza let Bill Harmatz and Doc Jocoy pester them on the lead through three-quarters in 1:09 and change.

Lou Eilken gave Chris Evert 127 for the 1975 Santa Margarita, the only handicap of her Hall of Fame career. She finished eighth, then was retired and bred to Secretariat. And did Trotter’s 136 pounds really get Buckpasser dusted eight lengths by Handsome Boy (under 116) in the 1967 Brooklyn Handicap when he had just won the Suburban under 133? Of course not. It was Allen Jerkens, who trained Handsome Boy.

“I’d certainly feel bad when a highweight would finish up the track,” Trotter said. “Then something usually would come out in the next day or so that had nothing to do with the weight they carried.”

Trotter has gotten to the point on his own timeline where the tracks he worked are closing down with bittersweet regularity.

“Centennial in Colorado is gone, Tropical Park, Hollywood Park, Garden State,” Trotter said. “Washington Park’s been gone a long time, but Hialeah is still there, though not for Thoroughbreds.

“I guess I’m pretty lucky I made it to 90,” he added. “I could have been a goner in 1985 at Arlington.”

The Trotters were living in an apartment at the track when the fire that destroyed the grandstand broke out on the floor below. He was the first to sound the alarm.

Trotter also survived the slings and arrows of racetrack politics to put in 55 years in the game, retiring in 2001 after serving as a Gulfstream Park steward.

“They did some tests on me the other day, and the doctor told me I had the results of a 50-year-old,” he said.

When Trotter was really 50, he was at the New York Racing Association, trying to keep Forego in touch with the pack. In six New York handicaps during the 1976 season, Trotter gave the big horse 130, 132, 134, 134, 135, and 137 pounds. He won all but one.

“I was pretty proud of that one,” Trotter said of the 1976 Suburban. “Foolish Pleasure carried 125, Forego 134, and Lord Rebeau 116. The margins were a nose and a nose.”

The gold standard for racing secretaries was forever the 1944 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct, in which Bossuet (127 pounds), Wait a Bit (118), and Brownie (115) finished in a triple dead heat. The man who weighted them was John Blanks Campbell, Trotter’s mentor, as well as the racing secretary immortalized by Joe Palmer in “This Was Racing.”

In his day, Campbell packed the weight on champions like Discovery, Devil Diver, Whirlaway, and War Admiral. Palmer observed that Campbell made good use of his hearing aid, “… and when sobbing about weights breaks out, he turns it off so it will not break his heart. He is a very compassionate man, and he cannot endure sorrow.”

“I don’t remember that any trainer ever complained about weight to my face,” Trotter noted, although he didn’t say anything about his back.

Trotter and his wife, Ellie, celebrated his Big 9-0 last weekend with a party at Gulfstream Park. The friends he has made in retirement and old pals lingering from his racing family made for a lively mix, but what do you get for a man who’s done just about everything in horse racing?

“On the invitation, Ellie wrote, ‘Your presence is your present,’ ” Trotter said. “Of course, they could bring something if they wanted, as long as it wasn’t too heavy.”