11/04/2009 1:00AM

A voice even the great ones heeded

Benoit & Associates
Charles Clay, who died Oct. 25, was the groom for Sunday Silence when he won the BC Classic in 1989.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Twenty years ago the stare was there, in the Florida twilight, as Charles Clay and Sunday Silence stood together at the top of the Thoroughbred world. They had just won the 1989 Breeders' Cup Classic, with help from Charlie Whittingham and Chris McCarron. But make no mistake, it was the man at the shank - a proud, glowering virtuoso of his craft - who had every bit as much to do with what happened that day.

The piercing eyes of Charles Clay closed softly Oct. 25, in a Pasadena hospice not far from Santa Anita Park, where he came to the end of a battle with the throat cancer and liver failure probably preordained by the cigarettes and I.W. Harper he consumed in sometimes intemperate amounts. He was 76, or so, depending on who was talking and how long they'd known Charles Clay. And in the days and weeks before the end, a lot of the people who knew precisely the worth of the man made sure they told him one last time.

"He didn't really say much when I saw him. Couldn't toward the end," said Eugene "Snake" McDaniel, Clay's oldest friend from when they were kids working at Charles Town Racetrack. "But then, he was always a loner."

"He'd say, 'I'm not doin' too well, but that's another story,'" said John "Short Man" Flakes, who looked upon Clay as an older brother. "Then he'd change the subject."

In truth, that was pretty easy to do, as long as the subject was Thoroughbreds. The black grooms and riders of Clay's generation who migrated to California laid hands upon some of the finest racehorses of their time. McDaniel, who still works for Ben Cecil, rubbed Ack Ack and Forli. Joe Merriweather, now with John Sadler but no longer in the saddle, was the morning man for Social Climber, Old Mose, and King of Cricket. Flakes, who works for John Shirreffs, groomed Sarsar for David Whiteley when she swept the table at Santa Anita and then beat colts in the 1975 Withers.

All of them worked at one time or another for Charlie Whittingham, but it was Clay who lasted the longest, to the day Whittingham died in April 1999. For Charlie, he rubbed the solid stakes winners Craelius and Swink, Kentucky Oaks winner Goodbye Halo, and a little mare from France named Estrapade, who won the Arlington Million and an Eclipse Award in 1986. In 1991, Whittingham stayed home and sent Clay, along with assistant trainer Tim Yakteen, with Golden Pheasant to Tokyo to win the Japan Cup.

"When we trained at Hollywood, I drove Clay to work every morning," said Yakteen, now a trainer on his own. "I did a lot of listening."

If you were smart, and just a little brave, you got past Clay's forbidding exterior to the generous heart of a man who held his work in the highest esteem. No one took better care of their horses, which is why Whittingham gave Clay many of his best.

"If you could mold an ideal groom - all the qualities you'd want in an individual who takes care of your horses - you would want Clay," Yakteen said. "He didn't just communicate with his horses. He talked to them. I'd hear him in the stall all the time, talking to them like they were people. And they'd listen. He loved them, but he also knew how to impart the discipline they need, because without it they can be hurt. Like a child you teach to look both ways before crossing the street. If you don't, sometimes you don't get a second chance."

Yakteen's recollections brought back Clay's voice, gruff and sharp above the quiet of Whittingham's barn, profane and gentle by turns, still bearing a trace of his West Virginia roots.

"Here now, Sunday," he'd snap, when the son of Halo would misbehave. "Get serious."

Clay's work with Sunday Silence was his masterpiece. The near-black colt had a tempestuous streak, and in Clay he found a mentor who brooked no nonsense. Together they won the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Super Derby before their memorable Breeders' Cup victory over Easy Goer.

"At Keeneland, in the dining room, there is a painting of Clay leading Sunday Silence," Yakteen said. "It's a fitting tribute. I stop and look at it every time I go back there."

Clay's stern visage also gazes down from a photo gallery of noteworthy grooms and exercise riders decorating the walls of the card room in the Santa Anita backstretch recreation center. This week, a handwritten note was taped to the the frame:

"Mr. Clay, I love you. You will be missed forever. Jetta"

That would be Jetta Vaughns, the 31-year-old daughter of Short Man Flakes, who recalls following Clay around like a puppy dog as a kid when her father worked for Whittingham.

"I was scared of him, but it wasn't too long before I figured out he was a softie," Vaughns said.

"Girl, he changed your diapers!" Snake McDaniel said. And they both laughed.

It was only in the last few days that word got around to Clay's old friends that he had passed away. They are not exactly in the text and Twitter crowd. But Breeders' Cup is a bad time to die, especially if you deserve some attention. Vaughns was intent that there be some kind of memorial service, and there probably will be, once the dust settles.

"When I got to Santa Anita, in December of 1964, the first guy I ran into was Clay," Short Man said. "I ran into him at the stable gate. He asked me what was I doing. I said nothin', so he said, come on, I'm goin' to the store. We hung out with each other ever since. Did a lot of jobs together and had some fun.

"I learned from Clay that if you treat your horse like a piece of crap, he'll be a piece of crap," Flakes said. "But if you treat him like an equal, give him some confidence, that horse will win a race for you. I learned a lot from him. He was a good man."