Thursday, February 15, 2007

Hoist the Flag

This post is entirely off-topic but it's something I haven't been able to get off my mind since the sad news about Barbaro and I can't think of a way to bring it into the narrow scope of things we try to write about around here without posting an entirely gratuitous photo of a Dick Francis novel. So apologies in advance.

When I was in college I worked each summer as a houseboy for a man named Stephen C. Clark, Jr. He was from an old money family whose fortune was boosted early in the 20th Century by the success of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and many other wise investments. My boss's father, Stephen C. Clark, Sr. was one of this nation's great collectors of European art. He founded several museums himself, and became the father of the American sports hall of fame when he started the baseball one in Cooperstown in 1939.

The Mr. Clark I worked for wasn't so much interested in art. I remember a conversation we had in a McDonald's somewhere around Albany (a lunch stop while driving supplies to his summer home in Saratoga) when I mentioned a Van Gogh I had studied in an art class that had, at one time, belonged to his family. He chewed his Big Mac a few times and asked me, "Van Gogh? Which one?" I told him it was titled Cafe de Nuit which meant nothing to him, but he told me he was pretty sure he remembered it. "My father liked art," he explained.

What this Mr. Clark liked was horses. He raised thoroughbreds at his ranch in Virginia and the walls of his home were covered with paintings of horses. English fox hunts. Regal portraits of thoroughbreds. Most of these were of a horse called Hoist the Flag.

I am a very casual fan of horse racing, and certainly no student of the sport. These days I probably make one trip a year to Arlington Park. So at the time the name Hoist the Flag meant nothing to me and when I asked him about the paintings he would say only, "That was a horse I used to own" and I knew nothing more. Until one day when Mr. Clark asked me to clean his attic.

Now being a houseboy for a widowed millionaire is not really the most stressful work. In addition to me there was cook and a butler and a maid and a laundress and two groundskeepers. And it wasn't like Mr. Clark made a big mess. I polished doorknobs and brass. I restocked the minibars. I helped mow the lawn and rolled the clay tennis court. I straightened Dick Francis novels on bedside tables in the guest rooms. So I was almost always looking for something to do and I figured his request for an attic cleaning pretty much amounted to busywork, an opinion confirmed when I climbed up and found it immaculate. I swept some cobwebs and put some crates in neat rows and finally found a few boxes that had deteriorated from moisture or mice so I brought in new boxes and began transferring the contents.

These boxes were filled with photos and memorabilia of this horse named Hoist the Flag.

And he was hardly just some horse Mr. Clark used to own.

His grandsire was War Admiral and his great-grandsire (is that a word?) was Man O'War and he never finished a race worse than first. He won his maiden race by two-and-half lengths. His second by five. His third by almost two. In his fourth race he won by three lengths but was disqualified for bumping. Afterward, a reporter asked his jockey why he was crying--it was just one race after all--and the jockey replied, "Because this is the only race this horse will ever lose."

He was right. Hoist the Flag was the undefeated two-year-old horse of the year in 1970 and years later, that jockey, Jean Cruguet, still claimed Hoist the Flag was the greatest horse he had ever ridden. This was even after he had led Seattle Slew to the Triple Crown.

But there was more history inside those boxes.

Hoist the Flag was a prohibitive favorite to win the 1971 Kentucky Derby, even the Triple Crown. He was a once-in-twenty lifetimes kind of colt for a horseman like Mr. Clark. No expert could name a three-year-old who could beat him on a half-decent day. But a month before the Derby, Hoist the Flag broke his right hind leg in a workout at Belmont Park. The injury was "catastrophic." His career was over. Most agreed his life would surely be, too.

Like the media storm around Barbaro the shocking news about Hoist the Flag was the only sports story any newspaper seemed to cover that week.

Then there was a miracle of sorts. Using revolutionary techniques, a pair of surgeons saved Hoist the Flag's life. And the cards came pouring in from animal and racing fans all over the world. In the attic, I turned hundreds of pages of sincere well-wishes, all lovingly preserved by Mr. Clark and his wife. And reading those cards I began to understand my employer in a way that I never could have cleaning his pool or even driving with him to Saratoga. Through the heartfelt words of other horse lovers I learned what it must have been like to almost lose an animal that you loved and a chance at immortality in the same instant.

Hoist the Flag had a successful career as a stud. Mr. Clark lived for several more decades as a great and humble philanthropist (every student at my high school who went on to college, including me, did so partially, or even wholly, on his dime). He had other horses.

But the rest of the time I knew him I understood there would always be a lingering sadness over one particular horse and one especially bad step during a routine workout on an empty track.

And when I watch a horse race I no longer see just odds and perfectas. And when a horse goes down I still feel worse about it than, as a distant observer, I probably should.

Every horse, I know now, is somebody's dream.


Rob in Denver said...

What a great story. People have great love for their pets. But horses... horses, man, are something completely different.

My mom has been a horser practically all her life. She talks about the one she had as a kid with a love that makes me a little bit jealous.

S N Paretsky said...

Kevin, what a wonderful story; thanks for giving it to us. I know nothing about horses, except what I read in Dick Francis, or saw in the movie--the only time I was ever on one I was 7, visiting a farm belonging to a friend of my parents. The horse knew I couldn't make him do a darn thing: he climbed into the water trough and stood there for 2 hours until the family returned from wherever they'd gone. But

Adam Hurtubise said...

Great story, Kevin.

I still know nothing about horses, but like you, I was fortunate enough to grow up in Cooperstown and go to college on a Clark Scholarship.

Jude Hardin said...

I grew up in Louisville, about three miles from Churchill Downs. Let me tell ya, Derby Eve and Derby Day parties rival the Super Bowl in that part of the country.

I still get chills every time I see video of Secretariat. What a magnificent animal.

Great story here. Thanks for bringing back some fond memories.

spyscribbler said...

Aww, what a great story! I don't know anything about horses, except for the fact I wanted one for years and years. Still, you brought tears to my eyes, and I'll never think of a horse race in quite the same way.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Really nice story, Kevin. Sorry to use a cliche, but it seems appropriate -- thank you for sharing.

barbara gail said...


What a great story, and how beautifully told. It made my eyes mist, to tell you the truth. As a beneficiary of the Clarks' generosity, it is strange to think that I accepted the gifts knowing so little about the people behind them. Thanks for the vignette!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Hi Adam and Barbara, it's great to see old friends stopping by here.

Cooperstown is such a small town that those of us who grew up there together will always have so much in common. I'm reminded again that one of those things was Mr. Clark. Certainly because we all received Clark scholarships but also the countless contributions he made to quality of life in that little village--from little things like flowers on the lamp posts to huge things like the Hall of Fame and the hospital. Even the way he sat on so much valuable land so other people couldn't develop it. Just on and on and on.

Marcia Prasch said...

I loved this story Kevin. The farther away from Cooperstown I get physically and emotionally, the more I feel a need to hear stories about it. It is so pleasing to learn about the inside culture that I didn't understand when I lived there. I now watch my children playing in the park or participating in local events here in Boise and what way will this place be magical to them?

Lisa Taggs said...

Kevin, I wish you and I could sit down and talk. I have no doubt that you knew both of my grandparents since you would have worked with them. My grandmother was one of the housekeepers and my grandfather was the head stable man. He was the one that cared for Hoist the Flag when he was brought to Boxwood.

Myself, I spent many a day, either at the 'big house' with my grandmother or shadowing my grandfather at the stable. Life was always good at the Clark's. Mr. and Mrs. Clark were very nice people. I never knew Susan, but Jane Jane was always very dear to my grandparents. Unfortunately, both of them have now passed so there are only memories.

Thank you for bring back some nice memories.