05/09/2013 3:17PM

Jay Hovdey: Groom 'Snake' McDaniel had his hands on some great ones


Eugene “Snake” McDaniel awakens each morning at three o’clock on the dot, freshens and dresses, fusses with his dog, then heads to the barn of Ben Cecil at Santa Anita Park, where things begin to stir around 5 a.m. During the course of the morning McDaniel will set the saddles, handle cold bandaging, hold horses who need that special touch, and otherwise patrol the shed row with a benign presence that speaks to his six decades at the track.

On Saturday, McDaniel turns 80, an event worth noting, and no mean feat for a kid born in Charles Town, W.Va., during the depths of the Great Depression. His father worked in a grocery store and died young. McDaniel played football in school, but that was going nowhere. He tried picking apples in local orchards, among the precious few options available. One of them was the racetrack, though, and that’s where he headed.

“It was 1955, ’56 I came out here with Charlie Whittingham,” McDaniel said this week at Cecil’s barn. “He had some awful nice horses then, like Porterhouse. He was a good man to work for. Never get excited, just go along every day. And let you alone to do your work ’cause you knew what you were doing.”

Whittingham’s cadre of experienced black grooms had their hands on many of the best horses of the era. McDaniel spent some time rubbing Pretense, winner of the 1967 Santa Anita Handicap, and later became identified as the man in Ack Ack’s stall through late 1970 and 1971, when the son of Battle Joined was Horse of the Year.

“Ack Ack was a good horse when we got him,” McDaniel said. “And he was good to work with, a nice big horse.”

Until Sunday Silence came along to win the Kentucky Derby and Horse of the Year in 1989, Whittingham always called Ack Ack the best horse he ever trained. McDaniel respectfully disagrees.

“Best horse I ever rubbed was Forli,” McDaniel said. “Remember him? Man, he was a runner, but he didn’t get a chance to prove himself. He used to work a mile in thirty-three, thirty-four like nothing. He was a freak, and mean. But I was a good hand by then. I knew what to do.”

Forli, a champion from Argentina, lasted only three races during the summer of 1967 before going wrong in the Citation Handicap at Arlington Park. He went on to sire Forego, among others, but that didn’t help Snake. Three years later, Ack Ack came along.

“Back in them days we only rubbed three, not five or six like today,” McDaniel said. “They don’t do nothing with them now compared to the time we spent with them.”

Snake has always been Snake, as far as anyone can recall, but you don’t get a nickname like that hanging around the library.

“I was a pretty good football player in Charles Town, slipping and sliding,” McDaniel said. “Didn’t hurt when chasing women came along, too.”

He chuckled at that, just enough to let a couple of memories float past. Jessie McDaniel, his wife of 45 years, died a few years ago.

McDaniel has no idea if anyone has anything planned to celebrate his 80th. He’s just glad he is feeling good enough to enjoy the view. During his time with Cecil, the stable has had champion Golden Apples and a number of top-class stakes winners, but lately the good horses have been harder to come by.

“Ben’s a good, good man and a good trainer,” McDaniel said. “We just been having some bad luck. But that’ll change. It’ll turn around for sure, even if I might not be here when it does.”

Don’t bet on it.

Still plenty of time for Rosie

As satisfying as the Kentucky Derby result may have been to longtime fans of Shug McGaughey and the traditions represented by the ownership of Orb, it must be noted that sweet teeth across the land got the short end of the stick when Mylute and Rosie Napravnik finished fifth.

Napravnik now carries the sponsorship logo of Snickers, and had Mylute won the company was prepared to give away a million Snickers Bites (42 calories, 2.25 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of carbohydrates and .75 grams of protein per Bite). Hopefully, the same deal will apply the next time Napravnik rides in a big race, although I’ve yet to hear if the company stamped on Joel Rosario’s riding pants plans a similarly generous promotion the next time their man makes headlines. Have they even made a million Maseratis?

Bravo to Napravnik for riding the publicity wave. She should get all she can while she can and take racing along in the bargain. Still, when the 2014 Kentucky Derby comes around and Rosie is in the mix again, she will be forgiven if the “female jockey breakthrough” angle starts to get a little threadbare.

Beware though, as Napravnik establishes herself among the elite riders in the game but falls short in Derby tries, at some point the media will turn on a dime and wonder why she is so snake-bitten in America’s most famous race. If that happens, and if she is so inclined, Rosie can remind them that Jerry Bailey and Chris McCarron won the Derby in their sixth appearances. Three-time Derby winner Kent Desormeaux rode six Derby losers before Real Quiet came along. Pat Day finally broke through in his 10th Derby, Laffit Pincay in his 11th, and Mike Smith in his 12th. If you’re in for the long haul, there’s always time.

At this point, it’s not a sure thing Napravnik will be riding in the Preakness. Mylute has a work scheduled this weekend, and the rest of the field is still in flux. If she has a mount next Saturday, it will be interesting to see if the possibility of breaking the gender barrier at the Preakness is anything close to the big deal made of her attempt to become the first woman to ride a Kentucky Derby winner. At least she won’t have to worry about that when they get to the Belmont.